Friday, June 17, 2011
Team USA face up to their soul brother
The Gold Cup is reaching its Eldorado, and with hosts United States and favourites Mexico two games away from a potential showdown at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena next Saturday, all the talk is of a final that could divide a nation.
If the two rivals come together in California it will be third time in a row they've met to decide the Gold Cup - a tournament they've held a virtual duopoly over since its overhaul from the CONCACAF Championship in 1991, sharing all but one of the 10 editions (Canada won in 2000).
The US triumphed at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2007, but Mexico came back strongly last time out in 2009, and gave Bob Bradley's team a footballing lesson at Giants Stadium in New Jersey - romping home 5-0 to collect a record fifth title.
Mexico are odds-on to defend their crown. Jose Manuel de La Torre's youthful collective have been irresistible thus far, and in Manchester United's Javier Hernandez boast the tournament's stand-out player.
Successive 5-0 hammerings of El Salvador and Cuba were followed by a 4-1 win against Costa Rica, and it would be something of a seismic shock if they fail to get past Guatemala, then one of Honduras or Costa Rica to reach the final.
The US campaign has been cumbersome by comparison. A 2-0 win against Canada was followed by a humbling loss to Panama, before a trudging 1-0 victory against Guadeloupe saw them limp into the quarter-finals.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard said the team in front of him have been "lifeless" during the group stages, and most agree they'll need to show considerable improvement to get past third favourites Jamaica in the quarters, and improve on their haul of four titles (1991, 2002, 2005, 2007).
But with the likes of Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey at their disposal, and more than half their squad attached to teams in Europe's major leagues, the US should still have more than enough to reach their fourth successive final.
If that happens, America will be asked to pin its colours to the wall - and with an estimated 31 million people of Mexican origin now living in the US, there could be just as much green, red and white on show as there will be red, white and blue.
Looking at the Gold Cup attendances, you could even argue Mexico have bigger support in the US than the hosts. Their three group games drew impressive crowds of 80,108, 46,012 and 62,000 - in Dallas, Charlotte and Chicago respectively.
Meanwhile the US packed out a small stadium in Kansas, but failed to even half-fill the stands for games in Detroit and Tampa.
Even more impressive from a Mexican perspective was the crowd of 50,305 who turned up in Seattle to watch them play a meaningless friendly international against Ecuador in May - a notable increase on the average gate attracted by Sounders FC of the MLS in the same stadium.
They came in sombreros, waving Mexican flags and treating the team to the kind of partisan support they might expect in Mexico City.
Such is the popularity of the Mexican national team in the US that a lucrative annual tour is now in its ninth year. Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and the Mexican Football Federation FMF) put the footballing roadshow together, with the help of no fewer than 13 official sponsors.
Corporate interest like that tells you the Mexican football team is a seriously bankable brand in the US - a country where football, for no lack of trying, remains little more than a sideshow to the major indigenous sports on rotation.
Perhaps the ingrained football culture in America's Mexican population is what gives them an advantage. Perhaps it's the need for Mexicans and Hispanics generally in the US to reconnect with home that drawing them in the thousands. Whatever it is, the moment is being seized with both hands.
"What better way to start this new cycle of the Mexican national team, under the direction of Jose Manuel de la Torre in front of great fans in Atlanta," said FMF general secretary Decio de Maria in December last year.
How the fans and stadium owners back home in Mexico greeted that sentiment is unclear, but the FMF has clearly made it a priority to maximise revenue and make the US its second home. Judging by the reaction, they're onto a winner.
With that in mind, if Mexico and the US do meet in the Gold Cup final, are we safe to assume 'El Tri' fans will be in the majority at the Rose Bowl?
According to 2010 census figures, California is home to an estimated 11 million Mexicans. Bearing in mind states with far smaller Mexican populations have poured to watch Chicharito and Co. in the last few weeks, most would expect Mexican fans to be the dominant factor in Pasadena.
One thing's for sure - a final between the bordering nations would come with considerable baggage. The US and Mexico have squared up 16 times since the turn of the century, with the US winning 10 to Mexico's four, and two draws.
In that time the Mexican fans have earned a reputation for the frenzied nature of support - and for occasionally overstepping the mark.
Back in 2004, it was reported a small numbers chanted "Osama, Osama"
and booed the American national anthem during an Olympics qualifier between the two rivals.
When the teams squared off in a World Cup qualifier at the Estadio Azteca in 2009, Mexican fans were accused of throwing cups of vomit and urine at US star Donovan.
Such actions have only served to magnify what was already a complex cultural and political relationship between two nations who share a border. Some have called it a 'big brother-little brother' dynamic, and when sibling rivalry plays out on the sports field it usually gets messy.
The upward trajectory of US fortunes has unquestionably played its part. Mexico now has a genuine threat across the border to deal with, and when the US knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup things got serious.
Nobody better represents the ferocity of the modern rivalry than Landon Donovan. It was his goal that sealed a 2-0 win for the US in the last 16 of the World Cup in Japan and Korea, and he scored again in the 2007 Gold Cup final between the sides.
The LA Galaxy star divides the two sets of fans like no other. To US supporters he's a swashbuckling hero who put their team on the map; to the Mexicans he's an arrogant personification of the America they want to beat on the football field.
Donovan will look to channel both sets of emotions if the two teams continue their rivalry in his home Los Angeles.
"It's not just another game for me. I clearly, absolutely, desperately want to beat them," he once said of the US-Mexico rivalry.
Every player and fan for both sides feels exactly the same. And with that to draw on, here's hoping they meet in the final, and the battle for North America's soccer soul gets a new chapter.