IRVINE, Calif. — The magnitude of this rivalry between the United States and Mexico struck Matt Besler as he sat on the bench at Estadio Azteca three years ago.
Besler soaked up the experience from the sidelines as part of his introduction to the national-team picture. He focused on the field as his teammates scraped out a groundbreaking 1-0 victory on that fateful August day, but he also noticed the atmosphere and rancor in the stadium. He listened as the Mexican crowd howled at the Star Spangled Banner and noted how the crowd responded as El Tri waxed and waned before ultimately tumbling in that famous defeat.
The knowledge provided a foundation for Besler’s second trip to Azteca during World Cup qualifying the following year and underscored the importance of the matches between these two bitter enemies.
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"I think it’s one of the best rivalries in sports," Besler said before the Americans went through their paces at UC-Irvine on Wednesday morning. "It’s a rivalry that we respect. We’re looking forward to adding another chapter."
The date at the Rose Bowl on Saturday (live, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO) is perhaps the most important meeting between the two teams since the Americans defeated Mexico in the round of 16 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, according to U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley. The prospect of a winner-take-all playoff to determine a berth in the Confederations Cup injects a new element and stokes the familiar fire. There is a weight to the proceedings that somehow exceeds the usual pressure to perform in this rivalry.
"It’s huge," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "It’s big because there’s a lot riding on the game. But these are the games you want to be a part of as a player. As a professional, you want to play in big games. The mental side of it is obviously there in terms of the preparation and the magnitude of the game. At the same time, you have to enjoy it and you have to cherish the moment."
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann gathered his 23-man squad here in Irvine to construct the foundation required to revel in the occasion. The next few days provide Klinsmann and his players the chance to answer some lingering selection questions (Who will start in central defense? How will the balance shake out in midfield?) and reinforce the framework necessary to cope with the occasion.
Klinsmann trusts his established figures to guide this team through the process. They grasp the demands of these games and understand how to navigate through them. The fundamental tenets — cohesion at the back, discipline in midfield and precision up front — remain firmly in place from previous meetings. It is now a matter of figuring out how to implement those ideal qualities and weather the inevitable adversities and distractions as the match unfolds.
"I think it’s going to help us a lot [to have that experience]," Besler said. "The crowd and the atmosphere is something we’re going to have to manage through the game. Hopefully, there are a lot of good spells, but, if there is a bad spell — maybe in possession — it’s something where the team is going to have to come together and weather it a little bit and get through. I think having that veteran presence on the field is going to help us."
The previous instances inform the approach here. They point the way toward success against a formidable opponent. They reinforce the need to frustrate Mexico in possession and punish El Tri on the counter and through set pieces. They underscore the need to maintain composure and ride out those fallow spells with the necessary blend of defiance and grit.
Most importantly, they provide the belief necessary to proceed through this gauntlet. They supply the conviction to maintain the recent run of good form against Mexico (six matches unbeaten since that harrowing defeat at the Rose Bowl in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final) and secure that precious Confederations Cup berth. These players understand they possess the tools necessary to succeed on the day.
"We’re confident in each other," Guzan said. "We’re confident as a team. There are no new faces in camp. Everyone’s been around the national team for some time. It’s now just down to finding a way to get a result on Saturday."
There is no way out of that ultimate obligation. Not in this rivalry. Not in these circumstances. It is the burden these players carry as they prepare for this occasion at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. They must shoulder it appropriately in order to ensure this massive occasion concludes with the desired result.