ARLINGTON, Tex. — 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 Freeway 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 more friendlies in the United States than 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 a 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 is likely to sell out the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
On June 2, it will finally 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.
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, 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. 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 round-of-16 participant in 2010 and 2014. “It’s not something I wish on anyone. In football, it’s death.”
A ‘massive machine’ of a tour
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, we can’], 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.
In the early years of 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 last-minute 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 (mobile phones) 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 vs. 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 NBCSN 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.”
Going bilingual for the World Cup
Neal is the executive producer for Fox’s coverage of the World Cup this summer. 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.
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.”
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