Before the big game, former U.S. player and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas spoke with SI Kids about why this rivalry means so much and why fans should be excited about soccer in the U.S.
What does this rivalry mean to you?
For me, it means history and it means passion. We’ve made progress in the sense that the U.S team has a home field advantage that has been established over the last 15 years. Way back when I was playing, we didn’t have a lot of places like that for the U.S. team, and it’s wonderful for the players and for the fans to know that a place like Columbus exists where we can go and we can celebrate this team, and this game, and this country.
You mention how different things were when you played. What do you think about the growth of soccer in the United States?
Soccer is no longer niche or underground. It is above ground, and there is a huge soccer community that is passionate, that is discerning, that understands soccer on and off the field. The American soccer community is unique when you compare it to others around the world because it’s relative to our country. Our country, as we know, was not based around soccer the way that many other countries are. We’ve had to create our own environment and our own culture, but it’s as strong, and I believe it’s as knowledgeable and passionate, as anyone in the world, just with the American flare. It makes me so happy to have been a part of it for so long and to see the way that it has grown and evolved over the last 30 years.
How did it feel to play in this rivalry game?
I’ve played against Mexico many times over the years. You recognize the opportunity but also the responsibility of representing your country whenever you’re playing for the United States. When you play against Mexico, given our connections, and our proximity, and how we’re intertwined in so many different ways — whether it’s the culture, the business, or the politics, all of these things connect us to Mexico. To me, I think it is the best international soccer rivalry out there. It’s competitive, it has a history, and it transcends the game. Whether you’re in the stadium, or watching it on television, it takes on added meaning because of all those things.
First and foremost I think the connection to Mexico and the Mexican culture in our country is undeniable. It’s very unique when you compare it to other big rivalries around the world. In 2016 in the United States, the influence of Mexico and Mexican culture is everywhere. Mexico and the United States are the big dogs in our region. When you have two big dogs going at it, it’s a spectacle, and you want to see it.
Are you, as an announcer, thinking about cultivating new fans?
As I mentioned before, we know that we are in a country that does not have the history that other countries have when it comes to soccer. It’s one of our major sports, as opposed to being the major sport. As such, we want more people to see how beautiful this game is. We are as accommodating as we possibly can be. We slow it down at times, however we’re not completely parking the bus as announcers.
Where do you see the youth game going?
I think that a young American soccer player today has so many more advantages than we had 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s important that we can continue to find ways to identify those players and then give them the platform to develop. I’m excited about the future. While I think there is tremendous talent that we have seen over the years, as time goes by we’re going to see more and more talent that comes to the forefront that is recognized not just domestically, but internationally.
What would you tell kids who maybe have never seen this rivalry game to look out for?
You’re going have an interesting mix of players for the United States. You’re going to have players that you know, like goalkeeper Tim Howard, central midfielder Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore, a striker that you’ve seen in previous World Cups. You want your stars to play like stars, but I think you’re also going to see young players, like Christian Pulisic, get opportunities that make us very excited. I think coach Jurgen Klinsmann has a good mix of experience and youth.
This qualifying process lasts a number of years, and in these types of games, you can’t mess up because the stakes are high to get to a World Cup. When you’re watching on Friday, hopefully as an American fan you’ll see a team that you can be proud of, a team that’s going to continue to get better, and a team that in a few years, when it gets to the World Cup in Russia, you can believe that it have a chance to possibly win a World Cup.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photographs by (from top) Victor Decolongon/Getty Images; Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images