By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jan 11, 2016) US Soccer Players - Until the early 1990s, the United States and Mexico were rivals in name only. Meetings were not regular. Mexico dominated the times they played.
That began to change when the USMNT beat Mexico in the inaugural Gold Cup, in 1991. In 1997, the U.S. famously stole a point from Estadio Azteca with a scoreless draw in World Cup qualifying. That moment solidified the rivalry.
After two decades of back-and-forth, of big wins by both teams on grand stages, this has become one of the world’s greatest international rivalries. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Within a decade, much of the luster will come off of USMNT vs Mexico in games that count. FIFA voted this week to expand the 2026 World Cup to 48 teams, meaning more teams from all regions will qualify. While FIFA has not released a breakdown of teams that will reach the World Cup from CONCACAF, it stands to reason that at least six would make it.
Under the current format, that would mean reaching the Hexagonal would be reaching the World Cup. This last and final round of qualifying is a grueling test of all national teams’ strength, endurance, depth and stamina. Surviving it is worthy of a World Cup berth.
Part of that survival – and the highlight of the entire Hexagonal – are the games between the USMNT and Mexico. As evidenced by their Hexagonal matchup in November, a bad result for either team is potentially disastrous. For Mexico, the loss to the US back in 1997 eventually led to coach Bora Milutinovic’s firing. In 2013, Mexico took only one point from two games against the United States. That led to Mexico’s fourth-place finish and eventual series against New Zealand. Mexico qualified for the World Cup, but just barely.
All that drama is on its way out. Mexico has played with fire during the Hexagonal round more often than not. They barely survived qualifying for the 2002 and 2014 World Cups. They needed a massive turnaround ahead of the 2010 tournament. With more teams and a diluted qualifying round, that's now going to be history.
Will the USMNT even play Mexico in World Cup qualifying after the 2022 cycle? It wouldn't seem likely. There are going to be enough places for CONCACAF to dispense with the big games. CONCACAF already considered that when they were pushing for four qualifying spots instead of 3.5. The Hex was already living on borrowed time, we just didn't know it would be because of World Cup expansion.
Can CONCACAF salavage their biggest games? Maybe, but it would still require change. A 10-team final round akin to CONMEBOL’s current setup would keep USMNT vs Mexico. Would it be the same when six of those ten teams make the Cup?
What we're missing here is CONCACAF's biggest stage. That's not the Gold Cup. It's always been World Cup qualifying. After the 2022 World Cup cycle, that probably goes away. In its place, we've got friendlies and Gold Cups. World Cup qualifying itself could begin to feel a lot like friendlies in the region. Those six spots pencil in the CONCACAF giants and the emerging teams. It would be impossible to make a case for that many places in the current format.
Right now, what this means is enjoy the Hexagonal and USMNT vs Mexico while you can. All of a sudden, these games carry extra value. We know we probably won't see many more of them. After that, the rivalry’s steam will lessen as both nations adjust to FIFA’s new world.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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