Longtime Mexico-U.S. Rivalry Heats Up With Race To World Cup

Host Rachel Martin speaks to NPR's Mike Pesca about soccer rivals, Mexico and the U.S., in the race up to the World Cup. It seems Mexico has a powerful home court advantage: Their playing field is at 7,000 feet.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for sports, and it's been a crazy week for Mexico's soccer team. Struggling to make the World Cup, it looked like they were out of it for sure. And then boom! They are back in the hunt, all thanks to their longtime rivals, the good old U.S. of A. NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now from New York to talk more of this. Good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: So what happened?

PESCA: Yeah. So, Mexico's having a terrible season. They do happen to be the most popular national team in the United States, by the way - 8 million people tune in to watch the Mexico games on U.S. television; 1 and a half million people to watch the U.S. games. But that's cool. That's OK. The United States was trailing Panama. The United States is having a great qualifying season. They're already going to make the World Cup. They don't really have to win, but they're a prideful bunch. They want to win. They're not playing their starters. And in extra time, which is like the name implies - when the game's almost over - they score not one but two goals. They eliminate Panama and therefore, Mexico has life. The guy who scored the last goal, Graham Zusi, is being hailed as a saint in Mexico. The Mexican newspapers have headlines like: Gracias Tio Sam - which is a great headline 'cause I understand all the words. They couldn't be more thrilled with what the United States did for them.

MARTIN: Big favor from the U.S. for Mexico. But beatification of this guy ...

PESCA: Graham Zusi, yes.

MARTIN: ...who made this goal aside, the U.S. and Mexico are still really big rivals, right?

PESCA: Right. And that's why the debate fueling this - even going into the match, people were saying, you know, maybe the United States should just lose. Ha-ha-ha, wouldn't that really stick it to Mexico? And I say, no - though that would stick it to Mexico. I was looking at this. Mexico has an incredible home-field advantage, one of the greatest home-field advantages in sports. They play in...

MARTIN: Really?

PESCA: Yes. They play in a stadium in Mexico City named Azteca, and Azteca - because it's in Mexico City - is like 7,200 feet above sea level. The air is so thin that no one could beat the Mexicans. Before the United States went in this year - and they got a draw, which was a good result - they were 0-19-1. So the deal with this home-field advantage is, what it means is that Mexico's great at qualifying for the World Cup, especially 'cause at home they almost never lose. But when they get to the World Cup, they tend to underperform. They tend to be like, a top 10 team.

For the last five World Cups, they've won in the first round. But they've never won a game in the knockout rounds. They've really been not good. And I think a reason is, they've relied on this home-field advantage. And therefore, I think strategically, if you're a fan of the United States, you want the weakest field. Mexico would be among the weaker teams - if Mexico beats New Zealand.

MARTIN: There you go. You need to play where the air is thin, apparently. NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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