This is a heavy-hearted review. I watched Grant Wahl’s docuseries Good Rivals during the two weeks that the USMNT was playing in the group stage of the World Cup in Qatar. I had hoped that Grant would see my review during the WC. But tragically, Grant Wahl suffered a fatal aortic aneursym in the press box of Lusail Stadium, while covering the Argentina-Netherlands match. He died just a few days after celebrating his 49th birthday.
Grant’s passing has depressed me with a feeling of great loss. I didn’t know him personally, but like many soccer fans in the USA, he shaped what I knew about soccer and the many stories in the American game. We all had listened to him so much, he seemed like a friend, and he was so forthcoming, that we knew as much about him as if he lived next door. We knew he covered the World Cup in Qatar with all his passion as well as a sense of righteousness over the numerous injustices of the tournament.
Good Rivals is Grant Wahl’s only producer credit on IMDB. As a final gift to soccer fans, he brings us the details and the little untold stories behind the big story of Dos-a-Cero, the rivalry between the Mens National Teams of the USA and Mexico. Good Rivals points out that the Mexican National Team has always been the most popular futbol team in the USA. USSoccer is fighting for relevance as the USMNT tries to climb that mountain of long-time American fan support.
One side of the rivalry is seen through the experiences of Landon Donovan. He speaks openly about his emotional struggle to bear the weight of the country’s expectations for 13 years. He shares the heartbreak when Jurgen Klinsmann cut him from the WC 2014 roster, which would have been his 4th World Cup. (More on that at the end of this review.) We find out why, after the USMNT failed to qualify for WC 2018 in Russia, Landon appeared in a commercial that humorously supported Mexico as his other team.
On the other side of the rivalry, we learn about Rafa Marquez, one of the greatest players for Mexico’s National Team. I always saw Rafa as a villain, whether he played for Mexico or for the NY Red Bulls. Against my team, the San Jose Earthquakes, Rafa broke the collarbone of Shea Salinas in a nasty unnecessary foul. Besides the dirty play, you had to hate Rafa because, like GK Memo Ochoa, the guy was just too darn good on the field.
Although the incident is not mentioned in the series, I had a lot of schadenfreude in 2017, when Rafa Marquez was banned from entering the USA because of some association with a drug lord. It made it impossible for him to play for Mexico when games were in the USA, and it even affected how he appeared on TV while playing in WC 2018. Apparently the ban was overturned in 2021.
But this series shines a different light on Rafa. Like Landon, his pro career started very early, and he endured many obstacles. Will Rafa was brutal to play against, it turns out he is now coaching in the second division of La Liga. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up coaching the Mexican NT, as they churn through coaches like butter. And maybe he has the collarbone-breaking inner steel to deal with that kind of pressure.
The Rivalry for Dual Nationals
Dos-a-Cero refers to the on-field rivalry between the USMNT and the Mexico NT (La Selección). For decades, there was no rivalry because the USMNT was so inferior to the players south of the border, there was nothing to talk about.
But at WC 2002, things changed. In their WC debuts, a couple of 19-year-old Americans led the USMNT to victory over Mexico: Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Over the following 20 years, both teams improved and the rivalry got contentious.
At some point, the battle extended into recruitment. Mexico’s Federation realized there were significant American-born players who could be convinced to play for the country of their Mexican parents. The series covers that recruitment competition and how hard it can be for players to choose a country.
One sad element is to see highlights of the Mexican-Americans who opted to play for the USMNT, because those players did not make the WC 2022 roster. Most notable is Ricardo Pepi, who could have contributed to the USMNT’s anemic offense in Qatar. The truth is, Mexico does not really treat Mexican-Americans any better. No Mexican-Americans have made Mexico’s World Cup rosters.
The series relives the key battles and the best players in the rivalry between Mexico and the USA. The rivalry even transcends politics, as players from both teams make a singular statement against the anti-immigrant racism promulgated by Donald Trump. Good Rivals preserves an important and interesting aspect of American soccer in a way that hopefully helps us move forward as a soccer nation and as a just society. Let us always remember Grant Wahl for his good work.
An Aside: Landon Donovan and WC 2014
Until someone creates a Landon Donovan biopic or life story, I am putting this opinion piece here. Like many American soccer fans, I was astonished when Jurgen Klinsmann cut Landon from the WC 2014 roster. Through a friend, I had attended a USMNT practice session at Stanford just 6 days before the announcement. During drills and a half-field game, it was obvious that Landon was the best player on the field in terms of confidence, ability to see the game, balance, and the precise way he could pass and kick a ball.
But on May-22-2014, Klinsmann announced his final roster and that Landon was not on it. That very night, I attended a USSoccer fundraiser “Dinner with Klinsmann” at the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel. At that dinner, Klinsmann listed the reasons for Landon’s omission, among others that were reported by the media:
- Emphasis on fitness and players’ ability to make good decisions even when they are very tired
- What players had done over the previous 10 months or so (when Landon had taken the sabbatical mentioned in the series)
- Wanting a mix of younger and older players (such as Julian Green, a teenage German player who could barely kick the ball at the practice I attended)
- He looked at his own selection for Germany’s WC roster when he was 34 and felt it was a mistake made to honor his status, and he did not want to repeat that mistake with the USMNT.
Klinsmann also mentioned he had made a similar decision about Oliver Kahn at WC 2006. But it was only when I read “Das Reboot” by Raphael Honigstein that I realized there was a darker side to Klinsmann’s decisions.
When Jurgen took over the German NT for WC 2006, GK Oliver Kahn was the biggest name on the team, maybe the best known active German footballer in the world. Jurgen came in and deposed Kahn, announced there was a GK competition, and sat Kahn on the bench in favor of Jens Lehmann. The result? Klinsmann became the face of the team. When I went to WC 2006, I noticed that Klinsmann was always on the front page of all the German newspapers. At the time, I thought that was a little curious, that the coach had a higher profile than the players.
Building up to WC 2014, all the USSoccer posters showed basically 2 people: Landon and Clint Dempsey. So by booting Landon off the WC 2014 roster, once again Jurgen made himself the face of the team. Posters were remade with Dempsey and I think GK Tim Howard, and all the media coverage focused on Klinsmann.
It was infuriating to realize that Klinsmann had done the dirty deed twice, and that Sunil Gulati had not had the foresight to see this pattern and/or had not had the balls to stand up to the coach he had hired. That Gulati allowed Klinsmann to cut America’s best soccer player probably ended up being a key contributor to USMNT’s failure to qualify for WC 2018. Because bad things happen when you let a complete narcissist run the zoo (see Donald Trump). Rant over.
8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8