Why is tonight's USA vs. Mexico men's soccer game so big?

When the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) plays against Mexico tonight, it will be one of the biggest non-World Cup games in memory. I’ll be watching, starting at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, and I encourage you to do the same. Of course, just saying it’s an important game shouldn’t be enough to get you interested, so I’m going to try to explain why it’s so big in this post.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is the biggest men’s soccer tournament in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In it, teams from all over those regions compete every two years to determine which country is the best. It’s an important tournament for world rankings but even more so for continental bragging rights. In the 26 years (13 tournaments) since the Gold Cup began, Mexico or the United States has won the cup all but once. Mexico has won it seven times, the United States five times, and Canada surprised the world and won it in 2000. Must have been some kind of Y2K bug. In the two most recent tournaments, the United States won once (in 2013) and Mexico won once (this year). This is pertinent, because that split over the past two tournaments is why Mexico and the United States are playing tonight.

The Confederations Cup is another international soccer tournament. This one happens every four years. It’s a small tournament, only eight teams, and highly exclusive. The only way to get an invitation is to win one of FIFA’s regional championships, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There are six of these tournaments throughout the world. The other two teams invited are the current World Cup champions and the next country to host the World Cup. The tournament is offset from the World Cup by a year (the next World Cup is in 2018, the next Confederations Cup is in 2017) and is hosted by the host of that World Cup. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Playing in the Confederations Cup is important to countries like the United States and Mexico because it offers a rare chance to play in a World Cup-like atmosphere against the best teams in the world without quite the same unbearable pressure that the actual World Cup brings.

There have been two Gold Cups since the last Confederations Cup. The United States won one and Mexico won one. So, in order to determine which country should be invited to the Confederations Cup in Russia, the teams will play a single playoff game tonight. Win and book your tickets to Russia for the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lose and go home.

If those stakes weren’t enough on their own to make this a big game, there’s also a long-held and simmering once again rivalry between Mexico and the United States in men’s soccer. The general arc of the rivalry is this: Mexico was the undisputed power in CONCACAF forever, until around the mid 1990s when the United States started to challenge them a bit. Then, in the 2000s, the United States seemed to surpass Mexico, which was the cause of much gloating on the U.S. side and much angst on the Mexican side. Now things have settled in to a murky stalemate. Neither team is as good as they once were and both sides have a strange mixture of existential pessimism and swagger. Leading up to this game, the Mexican TV station Azteca ran a frankly hysterical advertisement with clips of Donald Trump, whose idiotic comments about Mexico are well known, interspersed with pictures of Mexican soccer players doing awesome stuff. This was pretty great — it stirred the rivalry up while also bringing soccer fans on both sides together, since even the most partisan U.S. fan should be able to see the humor and irony in the ad. Then, just a few days ago, Fox Sports 1, which is televising the match, ran their own ad featuring Trump. This pro-U.S. ad comes across as jingoistic and arrogant and has been widely criticized. It’s unlikely that Fox’s misfire will mean much to the players but it’s equally unlikely that they needed any more motivation to bring the simmering rivalry to a roiling boil tonight.

If you want to learn more about the USA vs. Mexico men’s soccer rivalry, I recommend these two oral histories from ESPN and MLS Soccer.


How do suspensions in soccer work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain to me how Clint Dempsey was supposedly suspended from games but is starting tonight? I’m confused. How do suspensions in soccer work?

Brian Cadavid

Dear Brian,

As we now know, Clint Dempsey did play in last night’s Gold Cup match between the United States men’s national team and Honduras. It’s a good thing for the team that he did, too, because he scored the team’s two goals on their way to a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a surprise though. Last night’s game was played less than a month after Dempsey was thrown out of a game he was playing for his club team, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, after grabbing a referee’s notebook out of his hands and tearing it up.

This violation, as silly as it seems, by the letter of the rules, qualifies as assaulting the ref. A violation of this type is supposed to come with a minimum of a six game suspension. If Clint Dempsey had received a six or more game suspension for assaulting the referee, he would have been banned from taking part in any official soccer while serving the six game suspension. Since the Sounders only had three games between Dempsey’s infraction and last night’s USMNT game against Honduras, a six game ban would have excluded Dempsey from participating. SB Nation’s Sean Steffen wrote a post about this logic before the ruling had been handed down. When the ruling came, it was a major surprise: only three games. As Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN, “It’s good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.” Crisis averted – Dempsey would be able to play in the Gold Cup.

The way that this suspension worked is the exception, not the rule in global soccer. In the vast majority of leagues, and even in the MLS for non-assault based infractions, yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions that a player receives do not bleed over into other forms of competition. This is important because soccer players, way more than players in any other sport, play in different competitions simultaneously. In the course of a month, a player may play for a national team and for his or her club team in a league game and in one or more cup or tournament games. For example, Clint Dempsey was playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when he earned that red card. His team’s next game was a normal MLS league game. And then, as we know, he went and played for the national team. The same trichotomy exists, perhaps even more, for players who play in European club soccer. Each league and cup and tournament has its own rules about suspensions. Although they are all quite similar, thanks to the octopus-like international soccer organization, FIFA, when it comes to suspensions, they each have mostly separate jurisdictions. A yellow card picked up in the Champions League does not carry over into the British Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. A suspension a player gets during an international game for their country usually only pertains to international games.

The fact that if Clint Dempsey had been suspended for six games for his “assault” on a referee, his suspension would have applied not just to games played for the Seattle Sounders but also to games played by the U.S. men’s national team is the exception that proves the rule. Most suspensions in soccer only apply to the form of soccer being played when the player commits the act that gets him or her suspended.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

"I believe that we will win" is inappropriate for the USWNT

Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, the United States women’s national soccer team will play against Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup. The game will be televised on Fox but I will not be watching. I’ll be at the game, wearing a U.S. jersey and screaming a lot. I am about as excited and nervous and full of dread as I can remember being the night before a sporting event. To prepare for the event, I’ve written a lot about the game. In this post, I comment on a common chant used by supporters of the U.S. team. I also wrote about dreading our opponent and previewed the game’s plot and important characters.

Impostor syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Although anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome, in our culture, it’s particularly something that women feel. It’s something that thoughtful organizations should be on the watch for so that they don’t inadvertently reinforce it by giving more opportunities to people (predominantly male) untroubled by self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is a pernicious little brain-worm that stops people from achieving everything they can achieve by convincing them they’re not worthy of attempting anything great.

One of the wonderful things about watching international women’s soccer is the sense you get that these women have escaped impostor syndrome. Here are women whose strength and self-confidence is obvious just from looking at them. The fact that they’re able to step onto the field in such a pressure packed environment and perform at a world class level must be evidence that they, unlike so many other women, have taken ownership of their abilities and accomplishments. Women’s soccer is wonderful to watch as sport but it’s also wonderful to watch for its aspirational message to women (and people) everywhere. “You don’t have to cut yourself down. You don’t have to apologize. Look at what is possible when you stop doing those things.”

That’s why it particularly irks me when I hear fans of the U.S. women’s national team chanting, “I believe that we will win.” This cheer comes from fans of the men’s team who popularized it during the 2014 men’s World Cup. The 2014 men’s World Cup captivated the United States like soccer has rarely done before. Bars and town squares were packed with cheering, patriotic fans. People wearing jerseys and scarves nodded to each other on busy city streets and in subways and busses. At the heart of that positive energy was the U.S. men’s national soccer team. The U.S. men’s team is known for its never-say-die attitude, its heroic goaltending, and its tilting at windmills. The U.S. men’s team is a real underdog in world soccer. It’s never won a World Cup and it doesn’t seem likely to anytime in the near future. Although its coach got some flack during the lead up for the 2014 tournament for saying his team had no chance to win, he wasn’t wrong. That’s why the team’s clarion cry, “I believe that we will win,” fit the team so well. Rooting for the United States in men’s soccer is an act of faith despite inevitable disappointment. Men’s soccer super powers would never shout something like this. German fans, Brazilian fans, Italian fans, would be more confident and more straightforward, like: “We’re going to win!” “You have no chance!” “Our team is the best!” “Why even bother!”

The United States women’s soccer team is to women’s soccer what Brazil, Germany, or Italy is to men’s soccer. We’re tied with Germany for the most World Cup championships, with two each. In six World Cups, we’ve never placed outside the top four, and by qualifying for the semifinals in 2015, that record is guaranteed to stretch to seven. The United States team is ranked second in the world by FIFA. It has athleticism and skill that few countries can match. It is, in short, a giant overdog in international women’s soccer. The women’s team deserves a more confident cheer — and a more demanding one as well. How about, “I expect that we will win?”

There is something charming about the “I believe that we will win” chant when applied to the men’s team. In the men’s game, the United States doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments to internalize. We aren’t obviously competent. The fact that fans still “believe” that the team “will win” despite all evidence to the contrary is one of the things that makes them such great fans. However apt it is for the men, the cheer doesn’t fit at all with the women’s team who do have accomplishments and skill that goes far beyond competence. If the genders were reversed, it wouldn’t matter as much, but applying the tentative, self-doubting men’s cheer to the women’s team inadvertently reinforces the idea that women should be apologizing for their strengths. Chanting “I believe that we will win” about the U.S. women’s national team reduces the impact the team can have on women who suffer from impostor syndrome. That’s not something to cheer about.