NYT > Sports
CINCINNATI – Michael Jackson’s 1988 song “Man in the Mirror” – a classic but no one has the idea of a rousing jam in the sports arena – boomed over the stadium speakers late Friday night as the US men’s soccer team cheered up that area.
A little less than half an hour earlier, Christian Pulisic stormed to the sidelines to celebrate the Americans’ first goal in the 2-0 win over Mexico. Man in the mirror, ”he scribbled with permanent marker on his white undershirt.
At this point, even reasonably well-informed American football fans might scratch their heads at the testimonials and have trouble understanding what exactly was going on.
Welcome to the highly competitive, wonderfully petty, and endlessly amusing rabbit hole of a rivalry between the soccer teams of the United States and Mexico.
The hostile neighbors’ World Cup qualifier on Friday night – an important game with three points and first place in the group standings – had all the hallmarks of a classic: two scintillating goals, two physical fights, a red card and several cases of borderline inscrutable mockery, the is wrapped in layers of allusion.
“We absolutely don’t like Mexico’s soccer team,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter afterwards, “and we are tough competitors and want to win every time we are on the field.”
To understand the Michael Jackson song and the homemade jersey and the generally self-satisfied charisma of the Americans after the game, one has to go back to Tuesday when Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s goalkeeper, suggested in an interview that the USA look in the mirror and hoped to see Mexico, which apparently indicated that the Americans wanted to shape themselves as a team on the image of their rivals.
The comments were barely registered on the Richter scale of the Sports Trash Talk. But the young American team, which had mixed identities building successes in the first half of the 14-game qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup, still seemed happy to run with them for extra fuel.
First came an unsolicited response from Berhalter at his press conference the day before the game. He quipped that America’s two wins against Mexico earlier this year didn’t do enough to win Mexico’s respect. His team had to do more on Friday, he said. (The American fans also had their say, booing Ochoa every time he touched the ball on Friday night.)
Then came the reaction of the players on the field. The teams battled their way through a nervous first half, with goalkeeper Zack Steffen making two athletic saves to keep the Americans balanced. Then everything – the attacks of the teams, the emotions of the players – bubbled over in the second.
In the last of two on-field excitement, Mexico defender Luis Rodriguez threateningly grabbed the face of winger Brendan Aaronson from behind, creating a long, ugly row between players on both teams. As the teams pushed and shoved and three yellow cards were shown, Pulisic prepared to step onto the field as a substitute. When he did, the rough gave way to the sublime.
In the 74th minute, striker Timothy Weah received the ball on the right wing and calculated a dribbling sequence on the edge of the box, which created a gap. After he did it, he struck an inch-perfect cross towards the goal opening, where Pulisic flew in to head past Ochoa to give the USA a 1-0 lead.
It was Pulisic’s first competitive ball contact for the US since September when he sustained a high ankle sprain during a qualifier in Honduras. As the sold-out crowd of 26,000 roared, Pulisic paused to show off his “Man in the Mirror” shirt before being bullied by his teammates.
Then he put aside questions about his shirt, embarrassed, and framed the episode as a joke.
“I think you know the message,” he said. “I don’t need to talk much about it. It’s not a big deal.”
Weah was much happier to explain. The night before the game, he said he and defender DeAndre Yedlin asked a member of the team to draw the jersey Pulisic would wear during the game.
He painted the prank out of pride.
“Mexico gave a lot of applause before the game and beating them silences them,” said Weah. “We have to keep winning games and keep beating them and that’s the only way we can earn their respect.”
After Pulisic’s goal, the Americans pushed for a second. When Weston McKennie delivered it in the 85th minute, he shouted “Dos a Cero!” – An indication of a known recurring score line between the teams – from the stands.
And after the final whistle, the team members conspired to play the post-game celebrations as the final, cheeky farewell greeting over the loudspeakers.
It was an all-out win for the Americans, who left Mexico 18-8 behind and the United States, with their arch-rivals at the top of the table, scored on points with seven games to go. The top three in the group will automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.
But more than the points, the young and inexperienced American players can get more intangible benefits from the experience: a trifle, a few mischievous inside jokes, a night of joy and perceived vengeance – sports teams have partnered far less.
“We talked about how we thought they weren’t going to show us enough respect and we had to earn it,” said Berhalter. “And I think we went out and deserved it today.”