Every time the USMNT and Mexico play in World Cup qualification, there is hype, anticipation and expectation. The rivalry plays a large role, and with Sunday’s trip to Estadio Azteca, revenge is on the mind of the U.S. after what happened in Columbus in November. These are the two titans of CONCACAF, and when they play in competitive fixtures, every touch feels titanic. But in the table, and for qualification to the World Cup, the stakes don’t even come close to matching the rivalry and the hype.
Often times leading into games against Mexico, in Columbus or the Azteca, there is talk of these being the most important and critical games of the Hex, when in actuality, these games are actually the least important, that is in terms of simply getting to the World Cup. Naturally, these games mean far more than qualification and even if the two teams were somehow fifth and sixth in the Hex the game would move mountains, but when it comes to getting the 15 or so points to qualify for the World Cup, neither team particularly “needs” them.
In 49 World Cup home qualifying matches, Mexico is 40-2-7, with two of those draws against the U.S. in 1997 and 2013. In 12 games at the Azteca, friendly or competitive, the USMNT is 1-9-2, though the last two games were a win and draw respectively. It is rare that any team heads into that stadium expecting anything other than a loss, the last qualifying cycle being the exception. Any points gained there are a bonus no matter the situation, and despite outward appearances to the contrary, everyone inside the U.S. locker room and Bruce Arena himself knows this, especially since he’s been there twice before.
The 2018 Hex is the sixth such final round format in CONCACAF for World Cup qualification. In Bruce Arena’s two trips to Estadio Azteca for previous Hex games, his teams have lost 1-0 and 2-1. Both of those teams qualified with room to spare in spite of these and other slip-ups, because the Hex’s format and math is so forgiving.
There are 30 points available in 10 Hex games. In order to qualify for the World Cup, if one team won all of their home games and drew each of their road games, that would make 20 points, which is easily enough to qualify with room and time to spare. However, there are three games even for the USMNT where expectations are lowered: home and away to Mexico, and away to Costa Rica. The U.S. has already lost two of those games, meaning they at most lost two points that they should have picked up if expectations for those two games at the bare minimum were draws. But Bruce Arena has already gone through a Hex campaign in which his team unexpectedly lost a home game, and at Mexico and at Costa Rica, and the U.S. still qualified fairly easily: 2001.
In that year, the USMNT lost at home to Honduras, drew at Jamaica and T&T, and lost away to both Mexico and Costa Rica. That year they finished with 17 points, which has never not been enough for third in the Hex and enough to automatically qualify for the World Cup. Their overall record was 5-2-3, which is a reasonable target for this team to achieve, if a loss to Mexico is predicted. All the USMNT has to do is win their final two home games and win one of the final two road games, both of which while difficult, are against teams rooted to the basement of the Hex table. After the win over T&T, there is no pressure to get any points at Mexico because they aren’t needed to ensure qualification, nor have they ever been.
It sounds weird to say that a rivalry game in essence doesn’t matter, but games at Estadio Azteca have always been like this. In the three previous cycles where the U.S. has lost at the Azteca, they’ve qualified. In the two in which they drew, their qualification was just that little bit easier. While any points on Sunday will make the U.S.’ position even more secure, in order to achieve their goal of getting to Russia, they don’t need any points after what they have done in their last three games.
No amount of Bruce Arena confidence, altitude adjustments or Christian Pulisic guarantees changes the math of the Hex, even if the USMNT’s path has been bumpier than usual. The best way to enjoy rivalry games is with few expectations and to enjoy the ride, and that is what U.S. fans can do on Sunday knowing math and history are their friends.