Before Tuesday night, the pre-match narrative for the United States men's national team's World Cup qualifier on Friday (7:45 p.m. ET on FS1) was simple: dos a cero. The USMNT seeks to win a WCQ by a score of 2-0 over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, for the fifth consecutive time dating back to 2001. It is the story of the USMNT-Meixco rivalry for the past two decades, and the Americans' quest to beat their arch-rivals in such a precise and embarrassing way to begin the hex stage of WCQ was going to be the prevailing story this weekend.
But the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States casts this match in a much more fraught context. Trump's campaign message marginalized Mexicans, as he called immigrants from the country "rapists," among other things.
There is the real and unfortunate chance of some kind of ugliness happening inside or out of MAPFRE Stadium. Chants of "build that wall," sometimes in an ill-advised attempt at humor and sometimes in sincerity, were already popular among USMNT's bro-tastic support. The crowd should be full of Trump supporters since the game is in Ohio, a state that went solidly red for the Republican nominee.
"I would hope our fans do what they always do, which is support our team in the best, most passionate way possible. I would hope they give every person in that stadium the respect they deserve, whether they are American, Mexican, neutral," USMNT captain Michael Bradley said, according to the Washington Post. "I hope every person that comes to the stadium comes ready to enjoy what we all want to be a beautiful game between two sporting rivals that have a lot of respect for each other, and hope that it's a special night in every way."
Hopefully, fans will be respectful and the unifying power of sports will kick in. But that's optimisic -- what we really love about rivalry games like this one is the intensity. And with intensity often comes ugliness. You "hate" your opponent as a safe catharsis of that emotion, so you don't live your life filled with it. Nationalist sentiment is prevalent not just in the U.S. but across the pro soccer world, and this match will give plenty of Trump supporters an outlet for saying America is the best and denigrating Mexico. Add booze, and the combination could be toxic.
Beyond all that, this game does have major implications. Both the U.S. and Mexico are fortunate to get one of their two matches with the other out of the way in the first Hex match. If either suffers a bad result this weekend, they'll have many months and many matches to make up for it and qualify without much of a headache. However, the U.S. is the favorite because of the mythic dos a cero streak and the aforementioned rowdy Columbus crowd.
The part of dos a cero fans always like to to talk about it usually the dos and not the cero, but those clean sheets are really what has led to the U.S.'s domination of this specific fixture. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann named Tim Howard starting keeper after months of Brad Guzan holding that spot. However, the U.S. will only have half of the central defensive pairing that has played so well for its country recently. The better of the two, John Brooks, is good to go, but Geoff Cameron misses out. Expect Omar Gonzalez to take his place, although Klinsmann could go with Steve Birnbaum, Matt Besler, or Michael Orozco.
El Tri comes to Columbus with a coterie of lethal attackers. There are headliners such as Chicharito, Giovanni Dos Santos and Andres Guardado, some guys in super form such as Marco Fabian, and names long absent from Mexico's squad such as Carlos Vela. The American defense will need to have a fantastic shift to get another clean sheet against Mexico. If the defenders aren't on top of their game, the cero could come off the board fast.
Of course, the U.S. has plenty of fire power on its own. Jozy Altidore is in the form of his life at the moment and recently led Toronto FC to a playoff victory over NYFC with a stunning goal. Bobby Wood will pair with him up front to create the best pair of natural strikers the U.S. has had in ages. Plus America has Christian Pulisic, who continues to see his role at Borussia Dortmund grow as the season wears on, patrolling the left flank and creating chances. Even if dos a cero isn't on the cards, the U.S. shouldn't have a big problem getting on the score sheet.
But even though this is one of the USMNT's biggest fixtures of every World Cup cycle, thoughts will go beyond the result. That's just the world we live in now.
* * *
Cy Brown writes about soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @cepbrown.