History of USA-Mexico in World Cup Qualifying

Catch up on this history of the rivalry in World Cup Qualifying ahead of USA-Mexico on November 12 in Cincinnati (9 p.m. ET; ESPN2, Univision, TUDN).
By: Michael Lewis

The USA vs. Mexico.

A rivalry that goes back almost nine decades has become one of the biggest in international soccer. Any time the sides go head-to-head it’s a big occasion, but USA-Mexico World Cup qualifiers stir the most passion on both sides of the border.

After a long era of dominance by El Trí, the confrontations were boosted into another orbit beginning in 2001, when the USA ran off four consecutive 2-0 home wins against El Trí in Columbus, Ohio. That string of results was snapped in the last home encounter in 2016, with Mexico ran away with a late 2-1 victory.

Following two USMNT extra time wins against Mexico earlier this year in the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup Finals, the latest chapter of the rivalry will be written with USA-Mexico, presented by Allstate on Nov. 12 at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio (9 p.m. ET; ESPN2, Univision, TUDN).

Before that match, here’s a primer on the USA’s World Cup Qualifying history against Mexico.



The rivalry started with a bang 87 years ago - a 4-2 U.S. qualifying triumph in Rome, Italy on May 24, 1934. The neutral site qualifier was played just three days before the start of the 1934 FIFA World Cup and occurred that way because the USA had submitted its qualifying application late.

After a semifinal finish at the inaugural 1930 FIFA World Cup in Uruguay, the USA was given the opportunity to qualify via a one-game playoff against Mexico, who had booked its ticket to Italy after winning three qualifying matches against Cuba earlier that spring.

Aldo "Buff" Donelli, who forged a reputation as an American gridiron football star and coach, struck four times in a 4-2 triumph against El Trí to book a spot among the final 16 teams.

A late-minute addition to the squad on the insistence of star Billy Gonsalves, Donelli (pictured middle below) put on a one-man show before 10,000 spectators and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini at Stadio Nazionale PNF in Rome.

He started his onslaught, scoring off a long pass after defender Edward Czerkiewicz’s interception in the 15th minute. After Mexico equalized seven minutes later, Donelli broke a 1-1 tie with a goal in the 30th minute off a William McLean feed.

Mexico’s Lorenzo Camarena was given his marching orders in the 59th minute for trying to stop Donelli with his hands as the American forward raced toward the goal. Donelli took advantage of the extra player in the 73rd minute with his third goal, a breakaway after a Werner Nilsen feed. After Mexico pulled one back, Donelli was at it again in the 87th minute, latching onto a pass from Thomas Florie and drilling a shot between two defenders.

Donelli could have had five goals, but he missed a penalty kick.

“Mexico had a team that was pretty equal to ours,” Donelli was quoted in the book, US Soccer vs. the World. “But they were not very quick. They had a very, very deliberate style of attack. There was not a whole lot of imagination; it was a predictable attack. And if you did anything. If you moved a wee bit, it would put them off balance. I was just able to go around the man very easily.”

The Americans’ gift for besting Mexico was a quarterfinal-round encounter with hosts and eventual FIFA World Cup champion Italy in the tournament opener. The Italians vanquished the USA in a 7-1 romp.


With the USA and Mexico both withdrawing from qualification for the 1938 FIFA World Cup, the next qualifying meeting didn’t occur for 15 years, coming at the North American Football Championship held in Mexico City in September 1949.

The USA dropped both matches to Mexico, 6-0 and 6-2, but the USMNT played to a 1-1 draw with Cuba before rebounding with a 5-2 win in their tournament finale.

Despite finishing with a 1-2-1 record, the USMNT qualified for Brazil 1950 by virtue of a second-place finish. USA legend Walter Bahr (pictured below) said the team did not know it had qualified until it returned home as Mexico defeated the Cubans in the final match, 3-0, four days after the last USMNT game.

That U.S. squad went on to make history, shocking England, 1-0 at Brazil 1950.

The Red, White & Blue then spent 40 years in the qualifying desert, being eliminated by Mexico while going winless in 15 games (0-12-3) over eight cycles, including the 1949 tournament.

There were some small glimmers of hope with three home draws – all in Los Angeles.

Playing a home-and-away series to open 1962 qualifying, the USA overcame a 3-1 halftime deficit, using an 86th minute equalizer from Al Zerhusen to register a 3-3 draw before 10,000 fans at Wrigley Field, a baseball park in LA on Nov. 6, 1960. The USA was eliminated following a 3-0 loss in Mexico City a week later.

The USMNT also played Mexico to a 2-2 draw before 22,570 spectators at the LA Coliseum on March 7, 1965. After allowing a goal in the 34th minute, the hosts rallied behind Walt Schmotolocha (49th minute) and Helmut Bicek (59th minute). Mexico, however, knotted it up on Salvador Reyes' penalty kick in the 65th minute. A 2-0 Mexico win five days later in Mexico City eliminated the United States from the competition. 

Following a 1-1 draw at Canada to open 1978 qualification, the USA returned to the LA Coliseum and earned a gutsy 0-0 tie with Mexico. Just like in 1962 and 1966 qualification, a similar fate awaited the USMNT when it played in Mexico City, with El Trí earning a 3-0 decision. The USA rebounded with a 2-0 win of its own against Canada in the group finale, forcing a playoff with Les Rouges to see who would advance to the final round along with Mexico. The USA ultimately lost the one-match playoff, 3-0 to Canada in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  

Despite already being eliminated from qualification for the 1982 FIFA World Cup and with Mexico already through to the next round, another glimmer of hope came in 1980, when the USA registered its first win against El Trí since that 1934 triumph in Rome. Playing in front of a paltry, 2,126 fans at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, the USA utilized a brace from New York Cosmos striker Steve Moyers to earn a 2-1 win

No one realized it at the time, but it would be 15 years before these two neighbors met again in qualifying. The countries hosted FIFA World Cups (Mexico in 1986; USA in 1994) and Mexico was suspended from Italia '90 for using an overage player in an Under-20 competition.



The odds of the USMNT beating its archrival by the same score - 2-0 - at the same venue (Historic Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio) four consecutive times are astronomical.

While those contests get many headlines, the winds of change started four years prior during 1998 qualifying.

The first encounter was a wild 2-2 deadlock at old Foxboro Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on April 20, 1997. The tone of the match was set with the game 39 seconds old when defender Alexi Lalas sent a back pass to goalkeeper Kasey Keller into the six-yard box. Keller, not noticing that Mexican striker Carlos Hermosillo was lurking eight yards to his right, tried to clear the ball, which bounded off the Mexican's head into the net. After Mexico grabbed a 2-1 lead, the U.S. was given a gift of its own in the 74th minute when Eric Wynalda’s cross from the left glanced off the head of USA midfielder Thomas Dooley to Mexico’s Nicolas Ramirez, who headed it into his own net. 

A little more than half hour into the return leg at Estadio Azteca on Nov. 2, 1997, the USMNT faced a potential nightmare. Not only were they without four regulars, but the visitors were also forced to play a man down in the final 58 minutes after Jeff Agoos was red carded.

The determined visitors pulled off an historic result, a well-deserved 0-0 draw to secure the team’s first WCQ point on Mexican soil, before 114,000 fans. As time wore on in the match, the 10-man U.S. side turned the crowd against the hosts as spectators chanted "Ole!" every time the visitors put together a string of passes in the second half. With a point secured in Mexico City, the USA qualified for France ’98 a week later with a 3-0 win at Canada in Vancouver. 

Five years into the launch of Major League Soccer, the USMNT decided on a new home for its biggest qualifying match – Historic Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

Aside from predictably frigid temperatures – it was 28 degrees at kickoff -- no one could have predicted what transpired in Columbus on Feb. 28, 2001. A half hour into the match, the U.S. was living another nightmare, losing lead striker Brian McBride after an aerial collision left his eye swollen to the size of a softball, and playmaker Claudio Reyna, who came off with a strained groin.


WATCH: USA 2-0 MEXICO | February 28, 2001


Their replacements – Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis – were two attackers who grew up playing together in Georgia and the University of South Carolina. They put their familiarity to good use, linking up for the game’s first goal just after halftime. Mathis hit a long ball over the top that saw the speedy Wolff beat the offside trap and get around Mexico ‘keeper Jorge Campos before finishing into an empty net in the 47th minute. Wolff also set up the second, maneuvering from the right corner flag before centering for Earnie Stewart’s 88th minute finish.

The return leg at Estadio Azteca saw Mexico gain some revenge as Jared Borgetti’s 16th minute header stood up in the 1-0 win on July 1, 2001.

In 2006 qualification, Mexico earned a 2-1 win against the USA on Matchday 2 in Mexico City, but the loss was the USA’s only real blemish leading up to their home encounter with El Trí, with the USMNT returning to Columbus knowing that a win against Mexico would book its ticket to Germany.

Second-half goals spaced just five minutes apart from Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley, along with a dominant defensive performance by Oguchi Onyewu against Borgetti led the USA to another 2-0 win and qualification to the 2006 FIFA World Cup on Sept. 3, 2005.

WATCH: USA 2-0 MEXICO | Sept. 3, 2005


Four years later, with his father, head coach Bob Bradley on the sidelines, Michael Bradley had the first and last words with a goal in each half in the Hexagonal opener on Feb. 11, 2009. Bradley, who found the net twice (43rd minute and two minutes into second-half stoppage time) in a 2-0 win, became only the fourth U.S. player to score twice in a match against Mexico and the first since Moyers did it in 1980.

In the return leg at Azteca on Aug. 12, 2009, striker Charlie Davies gave the USA a dream start with his  goal in the ninth minute, but Mexico bounced back through Israel Castro (19th minute) and Miguel Sabah (82nd minute) to earn a 2-1 win.

Having pulled off another historic 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca in March 2013, the USA pulled off a fourth-straight 2-0 result against Mexico on Sept. 10, 2013, with the win plus other results clinching a spot at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Donovan set up Eddie Johnson's 49th-minute goal and added an insurance tally in the 78th minute as the hosts booked at spot at Brazil 2014.


WATCH: USA 2-0 MEXICO | September 10, 2013


The hosts almost had a third goal, but Clint Dempsey’s penalty kick late in second half stoppage time went wide of the goal.


That common “Dos a Cero” score line in home qualifiers came to an end as Mexico earned a 2-1 win to open the final round of 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying on Nov. 11, 2016 in Columbus. Miguel Layún put the visitors up in the 20th minute and the U.S. was dealt another blow when Tim Howard suffered a groin injury that forced him to be replaced by Brad Guzan in the 40th.

Rallying at halftime, the USMNT came out much improved in the second half, leading to Bobby Wood’s equalizer in the 49th minute. Just as it looked like the two sides would each gain a point, Rafa Marquez nodded home an 89th minute winner for Mexico, ending the 15-year “Dos a Cero” streak in Columbus.

In the visit to Azteca eight months later, Michael Bradley partnered in midfield with youngsters Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola and Christian Pulisic. The youth surrounding him helped force an early turnover and led to the veteran midfielder’s most memorable goal in a U.S. shirt when he intercepted a pass in midfield before lofting a 40-yard effort over the head of Guillermo Ochoa to open the scoring just five minutes into the match. The goal was Bradley’s third all-time against Mexico and qualifying and made him just the sixth U.S. player to score at Azteca.


WATCH: MEXICO 1-1 USA | June 11, 2017


Mexico would equalize in the 23rd minute. Just seconds after Bobby Wood nearly made it 2-0, Ochoa played a quick outlet pass to Javier Hernandez who broke through midfield before finding Carlos Vela on the right. The striker danced inside and blasted a low effort inside the right post to level things at 1-1.

Both teams traded shots off the woodwork in the second half – Hector Herrera’s free kick beat rang off the underside of the cross bar in the 71st minute, before another amibitous Bradley attempt careened off the right post in the 74th.

In the end, the teams settled for a fair 1-1 draw, with the USMNT earning a point at Azteca for the third time.