HANOVER, N.J. — First, let’s get out of the way what this is not.
It’s not a Gold Cup final, a World Cup qualifier, or a World Cup match. It won’t be played in front of a full stadium.
But none of that matters.
This is United States-Mexico. It’s important whenever the two rivals line up across from each other.
They will do so Friday night at MetLife Stadium for the 70th all-time meeting between the neighboring nations.
“When we play them, you see the intensity takes a different level,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said Thursday. “Everything’s up a level, the tempo of the game is up, the tackles are harder, and these are special games. It’s always an occasion to be playing against Mexico.”
From a tactical perspective, Friday’s friendly — the first of two for the USMNT in the September FIFA window — is not necessarily a completely different event from the Gold Cup final, won by El Tri at Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer.
As the next game on the USMNT’s schedule, it is in many ways a continuation.
“That’s the beauty of playing them in the next game, you get to make adjustments, you get to look at what you want to work on, how you want to work and change things a little bit, how the team’s going to react,” Berhalter said. “For us, it’s good. What we’re trying to do is just gather information on Mexico, gather information on how to hurt them, what we can do to off-balance them.”
Some in the Mexican media are trying to play up the individual battle, the game within the game between U.S. star Christian Pulisic and Mexico’s Chucky Lozano — a pair of young, exciting attacking players on a big European stage.
In the buildup to the match, Pulisic was even asked who was better and the Chelsea midfielder didn’t take the bait.
“I’m not going to give you like an Ibra answer,” Pulisic said, referring to the opinionated LA Galaxy star. “It’s tough. I don’t know what to say. I’m not like that, but I’m very confident in myself.”
That the match is coming off a Gold Cup defeat makes this a bit spicier for Columbus Crew SC captain Wil Trapp.
“I think it’s heightened for sure after just having the Gold Cup final not but two months ago,” he said. “The emotion will be high as always, but it’s a game in which we’re excited.”
Growing up in Southern California, Aaron Long of the New York Red Bulls experienced the intensity of the rivalry first as a fan.
“I have a lot of friends and we’d go to each other’s houses and watch the Mexico-U.S. games and half the people are wearing Mexico jerseys and half the people are wearing U.S. jerseys,” Long said.
Now Long is a regular starting defender for the USMNT. There’s a saying there’s no such thing as a friendly in football anymore. That rings especially true when the United States and Mexico play.
“It’s still very important, still a rivalry game even if there’s not a trophy on the line,” Long said. “It means a lot to us, it means a lot to the fans for sure.”