On Wednesday 11 February 2009, USA will host Mexico for the 56th time in their history, ushering in the final six-team qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in North, Central America and the Caribbean.
Mexico have the edge in the overall series between CONCACAF's top two teams, having won 30 games to the USA's 15, with 10 draws. The United States managed to win the first game 74 years ago in Rome in a qualifier for the 1934 FIFA World Cup. That early moment of glory proved a false dawn, though, as Mexico took a stranglehold on proceedings. In their 21 meetings between 1937 and 1980, Mexico never lost to the USA, winning 18, drawing three and scoring a whopping 90 goals to the USA's paltry 20.
After five bruising decades, when football was hardly a concern on the American sporting scene, the US managed a 2-1 win in Florida during qualifying for Spain 1982. Neither Mexico nor the USA ended up travelling to those finals (El Salvador and Honduras were the CONCACAF representatives), but the result signaled an impending sea change. Over the course of the 1980s, Mexico and the US met only three times, with two wins for Mexico and one for the US.
A new era
Mexican dominance was undeniably challenged in the 1990s, when one of the most talented crops of US players in history began to swing the balance, taking advantage of an upturn in interest generated by the hosting of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. In the 15 games played in the final decade of the 20th century, USA picked up four wins to Mexico's six, with five draws. Mexico held sway in the Gold Cup (CONCACAF's biennial championship), winning three titles in the 90s to the USA's one, in 1991.
By the time the new millennium rolled around, the good work of the likes of Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Thomas Dooley and Tab Ramos had the USA claiming bragging rights in the region. In the 13 games played in the current decade, the United States have been nothing short of dominant over their neighbours to the south, winning nine times, losing twice (both times at Mexico's Estadio Azteca, where El Tri have only ever lost once), with two draws. The US, who are current champions of CONCACAF, also won three Gold Cups to Mexico's one in the new millennium.
The tipping point of the shifting balance of power in the region came on 17 June 2002 in faraway Jeonju in the Korea Republic, when Landon Donovan and Brian McBride scored in a 2-0 win that sent the Mexicans out of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in the Round of 16. The loss was so badly received that the Mexican team were forced to spend an extra week in the Far East to give the angry crowds back home a chance to cool down.
Location, location, location
Where the game is played makes all the difference in the USA-Mexico rivalry down through the years. The Mexicans have the advantage of one of the most intimidating and complicated home fortresses in all of planet football. The Estadio Azteca, over 7000ft up in the mountains that surround Mexico City, has hosted two FIFA World Cup finals and can pack in more than 100,000 fans. Mexico have only ever lost once there since its construction in 1961, to Costa Rica in qualifying for the 2002 finals in Korea/Japan.
The United States have never won in Mexico, while El Tri have won six games on US soil - most in Los Angeles, Chicago or Texas, where Mexican-American populations are huge. However, Mexico have not won on US soil in their last ten outings (the last coming in 1999) and have not won, or even scored, at Wednesday night's venue of Columbus Crew Stadium. Humble by comparison to the mythical Azteca, the 23,000-seat, nine-year-old Ohio ground has proven a happy home for the USA, who have historical problems finding a venue that can guarantee a pro-American crowd.
Sven Goran Eriksson's Mexico only barely snuck into the final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010 after picking up one point in their last three games. With injuries, suspensions to key players, and what are bound to be sub-zero temperatures in Ohio on Wednesday night, the Mexicans will be considered outsiders in this, the latest instalment of the CONCACAF clasico.
As good a guide as statistics and mathematics can be, football is played on a pitch. Passion, desire and luck will all play their part when Mexico and USA meet for the 56th time.
You can follow all the action from the USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus, Ohio LIVE via FIFA.com's EMIRATES MatchCast on 11 February. Be sure to sign on and have your say using our exclusive fan cat application.