Chicharito tips scales for Mexico
For over two decades now, the United States and Mexico have slugged it out for CONCACAF supremacy. Between them, they've claimed nine of the 10 Gold Cups that have been contested since 1991; Mexico has the slightest of edges, with five wins to the Americans' four. Both teams have participated in every World Cup during that span. And while the U.S. -- at least when it's had their full squad available -- has reigned supreme against its archrival on home soil, Mexico has been equally dominant on its turf.
Yet developments in the past year have given the impression that the scales have begun to tilt in Mexico's favor. This goes beyond the Americans' defensive frailties that were revealed in their Gold Cup defeat to Panama on Saturday. It's more down to the emergence of one Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.
The former Chivas de Guadalajara favorite just finished a massive first season with Manchester United, scoring 20 goals in all competitions. In fact, by season's end, Hernandez was so trusted by manager Sir Alex Ferguson that he was preferred over Dimitar Berbatov, who, along with Manchester City's Carlos Tevez, led the English Premier League in scoring with 20 goals.
Hernandez has been no less prolific for El Tri, scoring 19 goals in 26 appearances, including two goals at the 2010 World Cup, and five tallies during the just-completed group stage at the Gold Cup. It would appear that he's just getting started.
"Chicharito is the X factor now, he's an outright goal scorer," said former U.S. international and ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman. "The main reason he scores goals is the types of runs he makes. He gets that half-yard on defenses. He pulls away from his defender better than anybody."
This isn't to say that Hernandez is the first prolific scorer for Mexico in the past 15 years. Jared Borgetti represented El Tri for over a decade before retiring from Mexico's national team in 2008, and he remains the country's all-time leading scorer with 46 goals in 89 appearances. But the 6-foot-1 Borgetti was a classic target man, renowned for his aerial ability. And while he managed to score two goals in eight appearances against the U.S., the Americans did have success against Borgetti by matching him up against big, imposing defenders in the mold of Oguchi Onyewu.
Hernandez poses an entirely different kind of problem for the opposition. Despite being only 5-9, he has extraordinary leaping ability to make him a threat in the air, while also having an uncanny sense of timing that allows him to latch on to through balls and low crosses.
"Chicharito is more explosive and quicker than I was," said Borgetti via telephone, with the help of a translator. "I feel that Mexico has utilized a lot of other strikers since I retired, but I now believe that Mexican fans can go to the stadium with a little more confidence knowing that they have someone like Chicharito who is going through a fantastic moment in his career."
Not everyone is convinced that Hernandez's arrival on the international scene changes the nature of the rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico. One argument that comes up repeatedly is that at Manchester United, Hernandez has players like Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Nani providing a supply line that only a handful of national teams in the world can hope to match.
"To take what Hernandez has done with Manchester United and just translate it to the Mexican national team, it doesn't always work like that," said former U.S. international and ESPN television analyst Alexi Lalas. "We've seen it with Cristiano Ronaldo. And that's just the reality of some of these high-priced big teams in the world -- they're better than a lot of the national teams that their individual players play for."
Not surprisingly, Borgetti has a different perspective, and Hernandez's strike rate with El Tri would appear to back him up.
"Even though he doesn't have Wayne Rooney on the national team or a Nani or those types of players, he still has good players to work with, like Giovani dos Santos and Andres Guardado who can give a different dimension to Chicharito," he said.
The other theory as to why Hernandez's arrival doesn't change the rivalry's dynamic is that he's just one player who is merely the latest in a long line of technically adept performers Mexico has produced. And while El Tri has long held an edge over its rival in terms of skill level, the U.S. has managed to give as good as it's gotten through a strong mentality and defensive organization.
"I don't think Hernandez changes anything," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "It's the two biggest teams in CONCACAF, and we both want to be on top. They've had good players along the way. At the moment they have a good generation on their team, with some good young players. But it doesn't change much. He's a good player, and we'll have to keep an eye on him, but it's still the biggest rivalry for us."
Yet the fact remains that for years the two teams have been on relatively equal footing, and now Hernandez is poised to put his stamp on the rivalry. And not just any stamp, but one of a pure finisher who can alter a game at any time.
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Granted, U.S. attacker Clint Dempsey recorded just one fewer league goal in the EPL this year than Hernandez did, all while playing for Fulham, a much more modest club. Yet Dempsey has been a mainstay on the U.S. side for several years now. When combined with the relatively shallow state of the U.S. forward pool -- Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo are the two main options at the moment -- along with the transitional period the U.S. is going through defensively, there doesn't appear to be that much upside, in spite of Dempsey's improvement overseas. If Mexico's performances at the Gold Cup are anything to go by, El Tri's potential with Hernandez -- not to mention the likes of Guardado, dos Santos and Pablo Barrera -- looks to be considerably higher.
Of course, there's a chance the two teams might not meet in this Gold Cup at all, especially given the Americans' patchy form of late. But if they do, we may be witnessing an evolution in the rivalry, one in which Mexico -- and Hernandez -- will be in the ascendancy.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.