CINCINNATI – Michael Jackson’s 1988 song “Man in the Mirror” – a classic tune, but no one has a clue of a rousing sports arena jam – blared over stadium speakers late Friday night as the United States men’s soccer team took to the field.
Just under half an hour earlier, Christian Pulisic had stormed to the sidelines to celebrate the Americans’ first goal in their 2-0 win against Mexico, lifting the front of his number 10 jersey to reveal the same phrase: “Man in the Mirror,” scribbled permanent marker on his white undershirt.
At the time, even reasonably knowledgeable American football fans could have scratched their heads at the references, struggling to understand exactly what was going on.
Welcome to the relentlessly competitive, delightfully small and endlessly funny rabbit hole of a rivalry between the United States and Mexico soccer teams.
Friday night’s World Cup qualifier – an important one, with three points and first place in the pool up for grabs – had all the hallmarks of a classic: two sparkling goals, two physical altercations, a red card and multiple cases of borderline unfathomable taunt wrapped in layers of allusion.
“We really hate the Mexican soccer team,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said afterwards, “and we’re fierce competitors and we want to win every time we’re on the field.”
To understand the Michael Jackson song and the homemade shirt and the generally smug air of the Americans after the game, one has to go back to Tuesday, when Mexico’s goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa suggested in an interview that the United States in looked in the mirror and hoped to see Mexico, seemingly implying that the Americans wanted to mold themselves as a team in the image of their rivals.
On the Richter scale of sports talk, the comments barely stood out. But the young American team, which had mixed success in building an identity during the first half of the 14-game qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup, nevertheless seemed happy to join them, using them as extra fuel.
First came an unsolicited response from Berhalter at his press conference the day before the game. He joked that the Americans’ two wins over Mexico earlier this year hadn’t done enough to win Mexico’s respect. His team should do more on Friday, he said. (The American fans also had their say, handcuffing Ochoa every time he touched the ball on Friday night.)
Then came the reaction of the players on the field. The teams battled through a nerve-wracking first half, with goalkeeper Zack Steffen making two athletic saves to keep the Americans level. Then everything – the attacks of the teams, the emotions of the players – came over in the second.
In the last of two kerfuffles on the field, Mexican defender Luis Rodriguez menacingly grabbed the face of Brendan Aaronson from behind, sparking a long, ugly series of arguments between players from both teams. As the teams pushed and shoved and three yellow cards were shown, Pulisic prepared to take the field as a substitute. When he did, the rugged gave way to the sublime.
In the 74th minute, striker Timothy Weah received the ball on the right wing and calculated a series of dribbles around the edge of the penalty area, measuring a pocket of space. On creating it, he drove an inch-perfect cross toward the mouth of the goal, where Pulisic flew in to head it past Ochoa to give the United States a 1-0 lead.
It was Pulisic’s first touch of the ball in a competitive game for the United States 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 his “Man in the Mirror” shirt before being mobbed by his teammates.
Afterward, he sheepishly waved questions over his shirt and took the episode as a joke.
“I think you know the message,” he said. “I don’t need to talk too much about it. It does not matter.”
Weah was much happier to clear up. The night before the game, he said, he and defender DeAndre Yedlin asked one of the team’s staffers to sign the shirt Pulisic was supposed to wear during the game.
He painted the joke as a matter of pride.
“Before the game, Mexico talked a lot and were silent,” Weah said. “We have to keep winning games and keep beating them, and that’s the only way to earn their respect.”
After Pulisic’s goal, the Americans insisted. When Weston McKennie delivered it in the 85th minute, he summoned chants of “Does a Cero!” – a reference to a famous recurring score between the teams – from the stands.
And after the final whistle, the team staff conspired to play “Man in the Mirror” over the speakers to accompany the team’s post-game celebrations as a final, cheeky farewell.
It was an all-out win for the Americans, beating Mexico 18-8, and it leveled the United States with their arch-rival top of the leaderboard with seven games to go. The top three of the group 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 little bit, a few naughty inside jokes, a night of joy and perceived revenge – sports teams have worked together much less.
“We talked about thinking that they thought they didn’t give us enough respect, and that we should go out and earn it,” Berhalter said. “And I think we deserved it today.”