- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2009

The biggest soccer rivalry in North America - and perhaps one of the nastiest in all of sports - heats up again this week.

The U.S. men’s national team kicks off its final 10-match round of World Cup qualifying Wednesday against Mexico at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. If there’s one team the Yanks want to beat, it’s Mexico - and vice versa. Mexico boasts a great soccer heritage but has not beaten the Americans in the U.S. in nearly a decade. No American team has ever won in Mexico.

It’s the countries’ 55th encounter, and it’s a vital one. Both teams want to begin the hunt for a berth in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa on a good note.

The bitterness in the rivalry has festered for years. After dominating soccer in the region for a half-century, Mexico suffered national embarrassment in recent years by losing all too often to its northern neighbor who doesn’t care much about soccer.

The cruelest cut came on soccer’s biggest stage, when a Landon Donovan goal helped down El Tricolor 2-0 in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. That began a contentious relationship between Mexican fans and Donovan, the golden boy who relishes games against Mexico and comfortably lets fly verbal irritants in Spanish.

The Los Angeles Galaxy striker, now on loan to German giant Bayern Munich, scored his first career goal in his debut against Mexico. Four of his record 37 national-team goals have come against Mexico. The Mexican media call him “verdugo” - the executioner.

Mexico still is recovering from a 2-1 defeat to the Americans in the 2007 Gold Cup final. The Americans came from a goal down to win after a Donovan penalty kick and a stunning volley from Benny Feilhaber, a play that began with a Donovan corner kick. That win booked the U.S. team at this year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa - at the expense of Mexico.

The United States is 9-2-1 against Mexico since 2000, including 8-0-2 on home soil.

Columbus has become the preferred site for World Cup qualifiers. The venue is one of the few in the United States where the Americans feel like the home team and the Mexicans must put up with cold weather. It’s only fair: The U.S. team must deal with altitude, heat and smog when it visits Mexico City - and the cauldron of Azteca Stadium with its 105,000 yelling fans.

The Americans are unbeaten in seven games at Crew Stadium, which will host to its third installment in the rivalry. Tickets to the game sold out in 90 minutes.

The game has stirred the usual passions in Mexico. Last month, a Mexico City newspaper, the Record, backed a campaign in partnership with Radio Shack to distribute 10,000 voodoo dolls for fans to put a curse on U.S. players. Radio Shack pulled out of the sponsorship at the last minute.

These are not easy times for Mexico. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson upset the faithful by including four foreign-born players on his roster. And a depleted Mexican team lost 1-0 to Sweden last month at Oakland Coliseum before the crowd booed them off the field.