What USA v. Mexico Means to the Players With Rick Davis, Marcelo Balboa and Carlos Bocanegra

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This article originally appeared in the November 10th issue of our newsletter, The Raven. Subscribe HERE.  

USA vs. Mexico is a match that’s been impervious to one of #ModernFootball’s most pressing questions: How much do players actually care about rivalries? When these two teams take the field, it is very apparent they care. Deeply. [We see you, Oguchi Onyewu]. To get a better sense of how players experience these matches and the evolution of the rivalry, we spoke with three USMNT captains whose careers spanned a total of 35 years.

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We begin with Rick Davis, a California kid out of Santa Clara University who ran with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia on the Cosmos. When he earned his first cap in 1977, the USA hadn’t beaten Mexico since 1934. But in 1980, Davis captained a team that beat El Tri 2 - 1 in front of 2,126 fans at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium. That result didn’t totally turn the tide, but it portended change.

On USA vs. Mexico in the 70s and 80s…
The game in the United States was in a completely different place. But Mexico was still a huge rivalry because we knew that if we were going to qualify for a World Cup, and if we were going to be successful, we ultimately had to get results against them. We, the players, wanted so desperately to be successful at the international level. But they had the advantage in terms of skill and tactics. And they knew it. They always seemed to be putting the U.S. down, always saying the American player was nowhere. There was no future. It’s a baseball, football and basketball country. And when you’re in that game as a player, every fiber of you wants to be successful.

On the USA’s 2-1 win over Mexico in 1980, their first since 1934...
You hear that final whistle and think, “Man, we actually did it. We don’t have to doubt ourselves. We’ve given ourselves something to hang our hats on in the future.” I remember being with Coach [Walt] Chyzowych after the game. I had never seen someone with so much joy in his heart. Being able to look at the Mexican players and say, “Yeah, you haven’t beaten us every single time for forever and a day,” it was an awesome feeling.

On how he experiences the rivalry now…
I’ll be glued to the TV Friday. Anytime it’s USA vs. Mexico it’s, “Clear the schedule. Let me watch. Don’t bug me.” It’s almost like I’m still playing. I’m nervous before. You relive that part of it from when you were a player. I always want to see us throw it back in their face the way they threw it in ours. As much as I used to get mocked by all of my Mexican friends, you don’t think I’m throwing it back at them a hundredfold? USA, baby.

Next, we hear from a man whose haircut game was 100 emoji during his playing days. A defender whose denim-clad centre back partnership with Alexi Lalas propelled the USA out of World Cup 94’s group stage and into American hearts. Marcelo Balboa’s resume vs. Mexico includes a 1991 Gold Cup semifinal win (their first win against El Tri since 1980), a five-game unbeaten streak from 1993 and 1996, and the team's first ever point at the Azteca in 1997.

On the USA’s 1991 2-0 Gold Cup semifinal win, the first Dos A Cero in the U.S.’s favor...
I think that’s when the rivalry really kicked off for us. Until then, Mexico were the giants, the No. 1 team in CONCACAF. We were kids that just came out of college and were playing in a semi-pro league with teams like the San Diego Sockers and the Colorado Foxes. But, our manager at the time, Bora Milutinovic, had coached Mexico from 1983 - 1986. He put the Mexican myth to bed and explained they’re just like us. That gave us the confidence to go out and play our game. And we caught everyone off guard, including ourselves. If you go back and look at the tape from after the game, we were happy, but also shocked, like, “Okay, what do we do now?” That game was a wakeup call for them. 

On managing emotions before and during a Mexico game…
As soon as U.S. Soccer schedules a Mexico game, or you draw them in a tournament, you mark it on your calendar. We always knew the exact date and what was at stake. And if we didn’t know, we always got a reminder the night before the game. No matter what hotel we were staying in, the fire alarm would go off at three or four a.m. and Mexican fans would be screaming outside about how they were going to beat us three or four nothing. And while you feed off that energy, you also try and stay emotionally level the day before so you weren’t drained for the game. You also try and stay even keeled during the game, but let’s be honest, there are times when you lose it emotionally. A guy kicks you from behind, whatever. We’ve seen Ramon Ramirez and Alexi Lalas go at it. It’s a charged game. It’s the one game you don’t want to lose. You can talk to anybody back from the ‘90s to these current players. There is one team you do not want to lose to, and that’s Mexico. And if you’re Mexican, you don’t want to lose to the U.S. 

On how he experiences the rivalry now…
As an ex-player, you want to see the U.S. win every game. But USA vs. Mexico always has a special place in your heart, even if you only played Mexico one time. It’s a game that bonds us. An emotional game. You experience it like a player. And, if you could, you’d hear me scream Goal every time the USA scores against Mexico.

Finally, we turn to a gent who helped usher American soccer into its modern-era. A man who currently serves as technical director of Atlanta United (coming soon to an MLS stadium near you!). A defender who appears in one of our favorite U.S. football photos of all-time. Carlos Bocanegra made 110 appearances for the USMNT, 64 of those as captain. He knows a little something about Dos A Cero in Columbus, experiences several iterations of it live and in person.

On what the locker room is like immediately before a Mexico Game...
It's hyped up. It’s a rivalry game. Everyone has been looking forward to the game so it’s more getting people to calm down, and play within themselves, stick to the game plan.

On the first thing that comes to his mind when he hears Dos A Cero...
Automatically Mexico. But then I think that’s only our results at home. They have made it difficult for us on the road. So we need to keep dominating at home. A win is more important than the score.

On how he experiences the rivalry now…
With a lot less anxiety and energy. The amount of media attention leading up to this game is incredible. To be able to watch from afar, cheering on the USA while analyzing both teams on a television, I get to be more of a fan.