The first time I heard it, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing. I attended the first USMNT-Mexico game after the 2002 World Cup meeting, a friendly in Houston, and kept hearing fans yelling “dos a cero.” I knew enough Spanish to translate the phrase, but I had no idea of the Dos a Cero meaning and history, let alone what it would turn into.
Little did I know back in 2003, but Dos a Cero would come to define the American perspective of the USA-Mexico men’s soccer rivalry for nearly two decades.
Dos A Cero Meaning Explained
The phrase “dos a cero” in context of international soccer refers to the score 2-0, the final tally of many USMNT victories over its biggest rival. The phrase — literally translated from Spanish as “two to zero” — first came into use after the U.S. beat Mexico 2-0 in the Round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup, to date the only time these teams have met on the planet’s biggest stage.
The phrase gained mystique over the next decade as the USMNT beat Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio, during every cycle of World Cup qualifying from 2002 to 2014. That streak was ended during the 2018 World Cup cycle (Mexico won 2-1), which was the first time the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup since the 1980s. But the U.S. revived the tradition with a 2-0 win over Mexico in Cincinnati, Ohio, in World Cup qualifying in November.
Out of 73 meetings, 14 USA-Mexico games have ended 2-0 during the lengthy rivalry, including the remarkable four straight in Columbus. The last time Mexico beat the U.S. 2-0 was 1997.
The USMNT and Mexico face off in 2022 World Cup qualifying yet again at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on March 24.
For years, Dos a Cero stood for the USMNT’s dominance over Mexico in the 2000s, which waned slightly in the 2010s. It became a rallying cry for Americans, who could finally claim the U.S. was better at soccer than Mexico, with repeated 2-0 wins as proof. U.S. fans can still point to the 2002 World Cup meeting for bragging rights nearly two decades later.
Revived in November 2021, Dos a Cero remains a big part of the rivalry’s lore.
Dos A Cero History
Any history of Dos a Cero has to start with the 2002 World Cup. After Mexico impressively won its group over Italy, Croatia (which finished third in 1998) and Ecuador, El Tri was rewarded with one of the tournament’s biggest surprises: the USMNT. After finishing dead last at the 1998 World Cup, the Americans stunned Portugal 3-2 on the way to squeezing into the knockout rounds by finishing second in their group.
Played in Jeonju, South Korea, the match was as fierce as you’d expect between two regional rivals. Both teams were shown five yellow cards and Rafael Márquez was sent off in the 88th minute for sending a flying boot into the back of Cobi Jones, a challenge that also included a headbutt to Jones as Márquez let frustrations get the best of him.
The U.S. took a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute when the original Captain America Claudio Reyna made a surging run to the end line before finding Josh Wolff in the box. (Reyna is now the sporting director at Austin FC, where Wolff is the head coach.) Wolff played a brilliant one-touch pass to a wide-open Brian McBride, and the future Fulham icon buried his shot to give the Americans an early lead.
Mexico pushed hard for an equalizer and dominated possession. El Tri’s best chance came in the second half after a foul by Gregg Berhalter (the current USMNT coach) gave them a free kick from a dangerous area, and Brad Friedel had to scramble to turn an effort from Braulio Luna onto the crossbar and out for a corner. Mexico fans are convinced to this day John O’Brien (now a therapist in Colorado) punched the ball in the box on a corner kick, but without VAR back then, no penalty was given.
It was O’Brien who fed Eddie Lewis down the left flank to set up Landon Donovan’s headed goal to seal the Dos a Cero victory in the 65th minute.
The defeat was part of seven straight World Cups in which Mexico went home in the Round of 16. The U.S., meanwhile, went on to lose to eventual finalist Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals, when karma caught up to them as a Torsten Frings handball on the goal line was ignored.
The Magic Of Columbus
The legend of Dos a Cero began in South Korea, but it grew in Columbus, Ohio.
On Feb. 28, 2001, the USMNT hosted Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium, the nation’s first soccer-specific stadium for an MLS team. It was the first match of the Hex and a crowd of 24,329 piled into the 22,555-seat stadium on a cold night in the American Midwest.
Brian McBride had to be taken off within 15 minutes after taking a nasty (incidental) blow from the back of Rafa Márquez’s head to McBride’s eye, which immediately swelled up like a golf ball. Claudio Reyna also left in the first half with an injury. McBride was replaced by Josh Wolff, who used his speed to beat Jorge Campos to a long ball from Clint Mathis (who was on for Reyna) to score the opener in the 47th minute. Late in the match, Wolff set up Earnie Stewart, who put the match away in the 87th for a 2-0 win.
It was the first time the U.S. had beaten Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1980, and the U.S. qualified for the 2002 World Cup by the three points earned that night. The Americans would go on to win four straight over Mexico by 2-0 score lines in Columbus during World Cup qualifying.
In 2005, Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley scored four minutes apart early in the second half to send the Bruce Arena-led Americans on their way. It was a match that will long be remembered for Oguchi Onyewu’s legendary stare down with Jared Borgetti.
In 2009, Michael Bradley scored near the end of each half, and the Americans took advantage of another Márquez red card to win 2-0 on the way to Bob Bradley’s team topping the qualifying group.
In 2013, Jürgen Klinsmann’s USMNT clinched its spot in the Brazil World Cup with another 2-0 win thanks to second-half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan.
At times it felt absurd to have the same score line at the same stadium cycle after cycle.
Sadly for the Americans, that streak came to an end in 2016, when the USMNT opened the Hex with a 2-1 defeat to Mexico in Columbus, a bad omen to be sure. Márquez, the villain in past Dos a Cero matches with two red cards, scored the winner in the 89th minute, and the U.S. missed the World Cup by one point.
The U.S. returned to form in 2021. After beating Mexico twice earlier in the year (by 3-2 and 1-0 score lines), the Americans claimed a huge 2-0 win over El Tri in November 2021. Both teams looked dangerous offensively, but it was Christian Pulisic who came off the bench to score the breakthrough goal in the 74th minute after a superb cross from Tim Weah. Weston McKennie ensured the three points and the Dos a Cero score in the 85th minute.
Recent USA-Mexico history has been fairly even. Mexico held the slight edge in the 2010s with five wins, four defeats and four draws. The Americans have won the last three meetings, including two finals in the summer of 2021.
With so much to play for — a World Cup berth and, as always, continental bragging rights — Mexico and the U.S. play once again in Mexico City on March 24 during World Cup qualifying.
What About The Women?
While the USA-Mexico rivalry is pretty even on the men’s side, it’s as one-sided as it gets on the women’s side. The USWNT holds a 39-1-1 record over its southern neighbor. Mexico’s lone win came in World Cup qualifying in 2010, which forced the Americans to beat Italy in a playoff to reach the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
The U.S. women have beaten Mexico 2-0 just twice. Because the Americans have outscored La Tri an average of 4.2-0.4 per match, the U.S. usually wins by scores far greater than 2-0, including three consecutive 4-0 wins.