The United States will renew their rivalry with Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on Friday, three days after the U.S. presidential election brought the relationship between the two nations to the forefront in a bitterly divisive campaign.
While U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard sought to downplay the significance of the election of Donald Trump, the match will be played in a swing state, Ohio, that helped vault the Republican candidate to the White House.
During the campaign, Trump said many Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were “bringing drugs, bringing crime, they’re rapists” before adding that some, he assumed, were good people. He also promised to build a wall along the border between the two countries.
“That’s politics, and this is football,” Howard told reporters when asked whether the election result would ratchet up the rivalry. “Mexico is going to try to kick our (backsides) and we’re going to try and kick theirs. It’s got nothing to do with politics.”
But U.S. captain Michael Bradley offered a slightly different take: “Given the way everything has gone the last few months, I think there is an added layer to this game,” he said.
The match will be held in the Ohio capital of Columbus, which has become the traditional home of the CONCACAF rivals. It has hosted four consecutive U.S. v Mexico World Cup qualifiers, with the U.S. winning each 2-0.
“I would hope that our fans do what they always do, which is support our team in the best, most passionate way possible,” Bradley continued.
“I would hope that they give every person in that stadium the respect that they deserve, whether they’re American, Mexican, neutral, men, women, children.”
Friday marks the kick-off of the final CONCACAF World Cup qualifying stage, widely known as the “Hexagonal” because it brings together six teams vying for three automatic spots at the Russia finals in 2018.
The six teams play each other home and away, and while the U.S. and Mexico should both qualify with ease, nothing can be taken for granted.
Howard has been restored as the starting U.S. keeper, more than two years after taking a sabbatical following the 2014 World Cup.
The former Everton man, now playing for Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer, has displaced Brad Guzan, who has also lost his starting role for his English club Middlesbrough.
Also making his Hexagonal debut for the U.S. will be Christian Pulisic, the Pennsylvania-born 18-year-old who is already starring in the German Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund.
Pulisic will be part of a healthy contingent of Bundesliga players in action, with striker Javier Hernandez (Bayer Leverkusen) and midfielder Marco Fabian of Eintracht Frankfurt on the Mexican side.
In Friday’s other matches, Costa Rica play Trinidad and Tobago, while Honduras host Panama.