LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Much more than just bragging rights and a title will be on the line when the United States and Mexico resume their intense soccer rivalry on Saturday with a CONCACAF Cup playoff match in Pasadena, California.
Also up for grabs will be a coveted spot to represent the CONCACAF region at the 2017 Confederations Cup, an eight-nation event to be held in Russia as a prelude to the 2018 World Cup.
“It can’t get any bigger in our region,” United States coach Juergen Klinsmann, 51, told reporters while preparing his 23-man squad for the heavily anticipated showdown at the iconic Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“We know that many Mexican fans will be at the stadium as well. It will rock. It will be a special atmosphere. It will be high intensity from the first second of that game. This is what you’re hoping to experience as a coach, as a player, as a fan.
“You want to go into these very unique games and experience it, and really enjoy that moment. It decides who goes to Russia in 2017 and it gives you a CONCACAF title, so it’s difficult to beat the importance of this one.”
The rivalry between the two regional soccer powers took a long time to build as Mexico suffered only three losses in the first 32 encounters between the teams while winning on 24 occasions.
However the games became more competitive — and heated — during the mid-1990s and the U.S. have established superiority this century, winning 23 times while Mexico have triumphed just five times.
“It’s comparable for me as a German to when you play Holland,” Klinsmann, who was a World Cup winner with Germany as a player in 1990 before he moved to the U.S. eight years later, said of the rivalry between his adopted country and Mexico.
“The whole country rocks. It was interesting over time to learn how much this rivalry means to the people that really love soccer, whether it’s the coaches, the fans, the kids, or the players.”
The last time the two teams met at the Rose Bowl was in 2011 when Mexico came from 0-2 down to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup final 4-2, a result that remains fresh in the memory banks for U.S. captain Michael Bradley.
“Any time you lose a final, you don’t forget that quickly,” said midfielder Bradley. “While it was a great game that day — both teams went at it — in the end, they were able to make a few more plays than we did.
“And when you have to watch your big rival lift a trophy, that stays with you. Games against Mexico don’t come around every day, and games against Mexico that have so much on the line don’t either.”
Bradley expects Saturday’s showdown at the Rose Bowl to be a heavyweight thriller in front of an expected sellout crowd of 86,000.
“In a game like this, with the way everything has been built up, it means everything,” he said. “The atmosphere is going to be amazing.
“It’s two good teams who want to win, who want to go at each other. It’s set up to be a great night.”
Editing by Frank Pingue