COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the U.S. and Mexico meet in a World Cup qualifier Friday night, the rivals will play against a backdrop of amped-up political vitriol provoked by Donald Trump during his successful presidential campaign.
Winning this swing state with 52 percent of the vote was one of the keys to Trump’s victory Tuesday. During a contentious campaign, the billionaire promised to build a wall on the Mexican border to help stem illegal immigration.
Even before Trump’s triumph, a raucous, pro-U.S. crowd was expected in Columbus, where the U.S. has beaten El Tri 2-0 in four consecutive home qualifiers.
“I certainly think there’s an added layer to this game, given everything that’s gone on the last few months,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We have total respect for everybody and a real appreciation not just for the Mexican-Americans but for the people from around the world who come and make a new life for themselves in our country.”
Players said Thursday they don’t think the political climate will affect the usually dialed-up intensity between the two sides. There is already so much at stake at the beginning of the final round of qualifying, known as the hexagonal.
“I would hope not, you know?” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “I know there are people out there who would like to politicize this game, but I don’t see the need for it. It’s a rivalry — U.S. vs. Mexico. It’s nothing more than that. We’re going to try to kick each other’s butt on the field.”
Bedoya said he hopes the fans respect the Mexican team, as well.
“I’m not really that concerned,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “I think the message is that we be positive with each other and really come together, like we always do. I’m not worried.”
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, a native of Colombia, sidestepped questions about the political overtones. Mexico didn’t make its players available to comment Thursday.
“I was first an exchange student, then I was an immigrant in the United States trying to get a great opportunity and work, and work as hard as any American. So I can sympathize with how the Mexicans feel about the whole situation,” Osorio said. “Nevertheless my efforts are all directed toward winning the game and nothing else. I’m really not here to discuss any political issues.”
The match is the opener of the 10-game final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region. The top three nations qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and the No. 4 team advances to a playoff against the fifth-place Asian team for another berth. The U.S. plays Costa Rica on Tuesday.
Defender Geoff Cameron, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and forward Chris Wondolowski will miss the match because of injuries.
Tim Howard is expected to be back in goal for the U.S., and he comes to Columbus on a high note. He saved two penalty kicks during the Colorado Rapids’ shootout victory against the L.A. Galaxy on Sunday, sending the club to its first Western Conference Final since 2010.
Mexico has gone 12-1-2 since Osorio, a former Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls coach, took over in October 2015 — the loss was 7-0 to Chile in the Copa America quarterfinals in June.
“We have big respect for them,” Bradley said. “And we’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that playing against them has always brought out the best in us. And we have guys who live to play in these types of games. History shows that the team that wins is the team that has more guys who are able to embrace the magnitude of the game and make big plays when it counts.”