For Amer­i­can, an ex­haust­ing but ex­hil­a­rat­ing vic­tory in Bos­ton

For this and ev­ery World Cup, mil­lions here will root for Mex­ico

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVEN GOFF IN AR­LING­TON, TEX.

De­siree Lin­den, above, be­came the first U.S. woman to win the Bos­ton Marathon in 33 years Mon­day. She was the pace­set­ter for a mem­o­rable day for Amer­i­can run­ners, who claimed seven of the top 10 spots in the women’s race and six of the top 10 in the men’s. Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi was the sur­prise men’s win­ner.

It’s a Tues­day night in March, 2½ months be­fore the World Cup, and al­most 80,000 ticket-buy­ers are dash­ing through a day-long thun­der­storm to at­tend an in­con­se­quen­tial soc­cer match under AT&T Sta­dium’s closed roof. ¶ As part of prepa­ra­tions for this sum­mer’s spec­ta­cle in Rus­sia, the Mex­i­can na­tional team has swept into town for a friendly against Croa­tia. Crowds be­gin ar­riv­ing hours be­fore kick­off, jam­ming Tom Landry High­way and Cow­boys Way. ¶ Ven­dors fly flags. Scalpers pitch prime seats. ¶ The mas­sive venue is home to “Amer­ica’s Team,” the Dal­las Cow­boys, but in the orig­i­nal form of foot­ball — or, in this case, fut­bol — Mex­ico has, in some ways, be­come Amer­ica’s team. ¶ The U.S. na­tional team picks up mil­lions of ca­sual fol­low­ers dur­ing the World Cup, but among hard­core fans of the sport in an in­creas­ingly di­ver­si­fied na­tion, Mex­ico turns out big­ger crowds at U.S. venues. ¶ On this night, while the Mex­i­cans fill an NFL fa­cil­ity, a U.S. team that will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 con­tin­ues its re­con­struc­tion with a friendly against Paraguay be­fore a sell­out crowd of 10,000 in sub­ur­ban Raleigh, N.C.

El Tri — as the Mex­i­can squad is known be­cause of the three-col­ored flag — en­joys a U.S. fan base cross­ing a con­ti­nent and uni­fy­ing gen­er­a­tions: An es­ti­mated 36 mil­lion peo­ple of Mex­i­can de­scent live in the United States (11 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion), and many are pas­sion­ate ad­mir­ers of the team.

“It’s the only na­tional team that can draw 70-, 75-, 80,000 peo­ple in Mex­ico but can do it as well in the United States,” Coach Juan Car­los Os­o­rio said. “I don’t think that hap­pens to too many na­tional teams.”

Nope. Only to Mex­ico and only in the United States.

‘We’re be­com­ing main­stream’

For 15 years, through a busi­ness deal be­tween Mex­ico’s soc­cer fed­er­a­tion and a mar­ket­ing com­pany owned by U.S.-based pro league Ma­jor League Soc­cer, El Tri has played be­tween four and seven friendlies an­nu­ally at U.S. lo­ca­tions.

In fact, since 2008, Mex­ico has played more than four times as many friendlies in the United States as at home (61 to 15), an un­prece­dented ar­range­ment in in­ter­na­tional soc­cer. And that to­tal does not in­clude El Tri’s qua­dren­nial ap­pear­ances here for World Cup qual­i­fiers against the United States and the bi­en­nial re­gional cham­pi­onship, known as the Concacaf Gold Cup.

“We’ve been in this mar­ket for a long time, and re­cently we see we’re be­com­ing main­stream,” said Guillermo Cantu, the Mex­i­can fed­er­a­tion’s gen­eral sec­re­tary. “Be­fore, it was a lot of Mex­i­cans work­ing very hard to have the Amer­i­can dream, Mex­i­can-born. Now it’s sec­ond, third and fourth gen­er­a­tion. This is a uni­fy­ing thing — the Mex­i­can na­tional team.”

An­nual av­er­age at­ten­dance the past four years has ranged be­tween 40,000 and 60,000. Last month, in a four-day span, El Tri played friendlies at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, Calif., and at AT&T Sta­dium in front of a com­bined 148,000 fans. Nei­ther game fell on Satur­day or Sun­day.

On May 28, 20 days be­fore fac­ing de­fend­ing cham­pion Ger­many in its World Cup opener in Moscow, Mex­ico will play a friendly against Wales that prob­a­bly will sell out the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

On June 2, it fi­nally will play its first game of the year on home soil.

To counter the Mex­ico fac­tor in World Cup qual­i­fiers, the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion sched­uled the past five home matches at a 21,000-seat sta­dium in Colum­bus, Ohio, where, through ad­vance sales to U.S. fans, it en­sured a par­ti­san crowd.

But El Tri’s pop­u­lar­ity is not lim­ited to cities in Cal­i­for­nia and Texas with large Mex­i­can com­mu­ni­ties. Over the years, the tour has hit At­lanta, Chicago, Den­ver, Char­lotte, Mi­ami, New York, Or­lando and even Nashville.

This year’s cir­cuit — which also in­cluded San An­to­nio on Jan. 31 against Bos­nia and will make at least one stop this fall at a venue to be de­ter­mined — co­in­cides with the de­cline of the U.S. team. Af­ter gain­ing an edge over their bit­ter ri­vals in re­cent years and mak­ing the World Cup seven con­sec­u­tive times, the Amer­i­cans failed to qual­ify last fall be­cause they couldn’t man­age a draw at last- place Trinidad and Tobago on the fi­nal day of the re­gional race.

Mex­ico is among the coun­tries with strong U.S. ties vy­ing for the sup­port of Amer­i­cans left with­out a team to back at the World Cup this sum­mer.

“Just fol­low the guy in green,” Cantu said with a smile. “And you will have fun. You will en­joy hav­ing that en­counter with peo­ple who re­ally care about the game and many other things. You will find very nice peo­ple cheer­ing for one com­mon team.”

De­spite the ri­valry, he said he takes no joy from the U.S. team’s fail­ure. Af­ter all, four years ago, Mex­ico failed to earn an au­to­matic berth in the Concacaf re­gion and needed to go through an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal play­off to claim the last ticket to Brazil.

“It was a fluke they did not make it,” Cantu said of the U.S. pro­gram, a 2002 World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal­ist and a round-of-16 par­tic­i­pant in 2010 and 2014. “It’s not some­thing I wish on any­one. In foot­ball, it’s death.”

‘ This mas­sive ma­chine’

Fer­vent U.S. sup­port­ers would never root for Mex­ico, not af­ter the fiery en­coun­ters be­tween the teams since the 1990s. But ca­sual fans might swing to Mex­ico’s side — for a few weeks, any­way.

The Mex­i­can fed­er­a­tion is mak­ing a play to broaden its base, launch­ing English ver­sions of Twit­ter and Face­book ac­counts this year.

“We are speak­ing English now — not be­cause of us but the peo­ple fol­low­ing us,” Cantu said.

Lan­guage of­ten sep­a­rates gen­er­a­tions. “Go­ing to some of these games, the par­ents are pro-Mex­ico and wear­ing the Mex­ico shirts,” said Al­fonso Mon­delo, MLS’s di­rec­tor of player pro­grams. “And then the chil­dren are wear­ing the USA shirts. So when the Mex­i­can fans say, ‘Si, se puede’ [‘Yes, it can be done’], the kids will an­swer, ‘No se pueda’ [‘No, it can’t’].”

Many cur­rent Mex­i­can play­ers have forged greater name recog­ni­tion in the United States than their pre­de­ces­sors be­cause they’ve left the com­forts of their do­mes­tic league (Liga MX) for clubs in MLS and Europe. Three high-pro­file fig­ures are em­ployed in MLS: Car­los Vela (Los An­ge­les FC) and brothers Gio­vani and Jonathan dos San­tos (Los An­ge­les Galaxy). Vis­its to the United States are per­fectly com­fort­able for El Tri’s coach: Os­o­rio is Colom­bian but played, coached and started his fam­ily here.

The Mex­i­can tour is “this mas­sive ma­chine,” said Gabe Ga­bor, a se­nior in­ter­na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for Soc­cer United Mar­ket­ing, the MLS en­tity that owns the rights to Mex­i­can friendlies played in the United States, ex­cept those against the U.S. squad.

Early in the Mex­ico-SUM deal, fans typ­i­cally bought tickets at the sta­dium box of­fice on the day of the match. Now on­line pre-sales leave few seats avail­able for last­minute pur­chase. Dur­ing the team’s Dal­las stop, fans had learned where the del­e­ga­tion was stay­ing and lined the en­try to the Westin ho­tel, two or three thick in some places.

Tour spon­sors in­clude Delta, Adi­das and Coca-Cola. The Mex­i­can team has its own spon­sor­ships, such as Mo­vis­tar (cell­phones) and Citibanamex (bank­ing). Live TV broad­casts are shot from op­po­site sides of the field: One dis­plays ad­ver­tis­ing sign­boards for Mex­i­can broad­cast­ers, the other for U.S. out­lets.

The full-time press corps fol­low­ing the team num­bers more than 50, and me­dia re­quests to­tal sev­eral hun­dred in big U.S. mar­kets. The day be­fore the game against Croa­tia, five Span­ish-lan­guage TV out­lets car­ried Os­o­rio’s news con­fer­ence live. More than a dozen other cam­eras taped his com­ments.

The friendly against Ice­land on March 23 in Santa Clara at­tracted 2.4 mil­lion TV view­ers in the United States, al­most all on Span­ish out­lets Univi­sion and Univi­sion De­portes (as well as 57,000 on Fox Sports 1). Four days later, 2 mil­lion watched Mex­ico take on Croa­tia on UniMas and Univi­sion De­portes, with an­other 195,000 on FS1. The U.S.-Paraguay match logged 588,000 on UniMas and Univi­sion De­portes, plus 337,000 on FS1 for a to­tal of 925,000.

El Tri’s pop­u­lar­ity is an ex­ten­sion of Liga MX’s weekly sta­tus. TV cov­er­age of league matches on Span­ish out­lets dom­i­nates the list of tele­vised soc­cer in the United States. On March 10-11, for in­stance, 1.25 mil­lion watched Club Amer­ica vs. Leon on Univi­sion. Ti­gres vs. Ti­juana on Univi­sion was next at 931,000. The Premier League show­down be­tween Manch­ester United and Liver­pool on NBC Sports Net­work and Tele­mu­ndo drew 594,000, while D.C. United at At­lanta on ESPN gar­nered 576,000.

“The old adage at Univi­sion was the five most pop­u­lar sports for the His­panic au­di­ence are soc­cer, soc­cer, soc­cer, soc­cer and box­ing,” said David Neal, Fox Sports vice pres­i­dent for pro­duc­tion, who worked for the Span­ish out­let in 2011-12. “It’s a pas­sion. It’s a fam­ily tra­di­tion.”

Neal is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for Fox’s cov­er­age of the World Cup. With­out a U.S. team to cen­ter on, the net­work will fo­cus heav­ier cov­er­age on Mex­ico, even though Tele­mu­ndo, which owns U.S. Span­ish rights for the tour­na­ment and fea­tures famed an­nouncer An­dres Can­tor, is the nat­u­ral choice for Mex­i­can fans.

But Fox Sports won’t con­cede the au­di­ence. It will carry Mex­ico’s matches (in English) with three Latino an­nounc­ers well-versed in all things El Tri.

“What we’ve learned in au­di­ence re­search, an in­creas­ing per­cent­age of His­panic house­holds are lan­guage ag­nos­tic,” Neal said. “They’ll go where they are get­ting the most in­for­ma­tion, the most en­joy­ment. For us, it comes down to de­liv­er­ing the best news and in­for­ma­tion about El Tri.”

To MLS — which has 23 teams in 21 U.S. and Cana­dian mar­kets and has strug­gled to gain ground on Liga MX in qual­ity and pop­u­lar­ity — the pub­lic’s ad­mi­ra­tion for El Tri has helped grow the sport here.

“We are at a point where any­thing that is good for soc­cer in this coun­try is good for MLS,” said Mon­delo, the MLS of­fi­cial. “There is a huge base of Mex­i­can fans here, and hope­fully that will trans­late to some of them fol­low­ing MLS as well.”

For the Mex­i­can soc­cer fed­er­a­tion, the fan base here has pro­vided a sec­ond home for the na­tional team. “Wher­ever we go,” Cantu said, “they will fol­low.”

“Just fol­low the guy in green. And you will have fun. . . . You will find very nice peo­ple cheer­ing for one com­mon team.”

Guillermo Cantu, the Mex­i­can soc­cer fed­er­a­tion’s gen­eral sec­re­tary, shar­ing his ad­vice to Amer­i­can soc­cer fans who don’t have a team to root for in this sum­mer’s World Cup

BRIAN SNY­DER/REUTERS

ROGER STEIN­MAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mex­ico’s friendly against Croa­tia last month in Ar­ling­ton, Tex., drew 79,128 to the Dal­las Cow­boys’ AT&T Sta­dium, in­clud­ing this su­per fan. A match next month is ex­pected to sell out the 90,000seat Rose Bowl.

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