clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

América’s Team

The USMNT missed the World Cup, but the most popular soccer team in America might still be going to Russia

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I hate the Mexican national soccer team.

I hate the Azteca, with its whisper-thin polluted air and stands that reach up into the sky. I hate the diving Chicharito, the enervating Giovani dos Santos, and the downright detestable Rafa Márquez. Even Mexican players I’d otherwise enjoy watching, like Miguel Layún, are equal parts irritating and terrifying—I’d enjoy watching him a lot more if he’d go do his thing to someone else.

Hating Mexico comes naturally. I didn’t have a local MLS team growing up, and I didn’t get into European soccer until college, so my primary attachment to soccer for most of my life has been through the U.S. national team, and that team’s biggest rival—for the men, at least—has always been its neighbor to the south. U.S. fans hate Mexico the way Auburn fans hate Alabama and Red Sox fans hate the Yankees.

Mexico and the USMNT are the two dominant men’s powers in CONCACAF. They’ve won 13 of the 14 Gold Cup titles that have been contested since the tournament was founded in 1991, and from 1994 to 2014, both nations qualified for every World Cup. The rudderless Americans broke that streak on the final day of qualifying for the 2018 edition, leaving the U.S. without a representative at the World Cup—men’s or women’s—for the first time since 1986.

In the absence of Sunil Gulati’s Flying Circus, it’s been suggested that Americans might want to throw their support behind El Tri. I won’t be among them—instead I’ll be torn between rooting for three group-stage losses in a row and rooting for a seventh consecutive round of 16 exit, which might be even more painful. But for millions of others, rooting for Mexico this summer will represent exactly what it means to be an American.

Anti-Mexican racism is a centuries-old American tradition. The United States is home to one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world—at some 40 million, there are almost as many Spanish speakers in the U.S. as there are in Spain—but that’s done little to protect Latinx Americans from being othered.

As of 2016, it also makes for winning electoral politics. Among the most memorable quotes of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was one of the earliest. In June 2015 he painted a memorable picture of Mexican immigrants pouring over the border: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Three years later, one of the signature tangible policy objectives of Trump’s presidency has been the intensification of ICE’s deportation tactics: People are being swept off the street and returned to countries they hadn’t seen in decades, separated from their families without even an opportunity to say goodbye.

We could once delude ourselves into thinking that the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry was like Red Sox–Yankees. But it’s now clear that when relations between the two most populous North American nations leave the soccer field, the U.S. is the bad guy.

The USMNT has long had a complicated relationship with our country’s Latino minority. Many of the best American players during the past 30 years have been of Latin American descent, ranging from Latino USMNT captains Claudio Reyna and Carlos Bocanegra to players like Mexico international Jonathan Gonzalez, who had the option to play for either the U.S. or Mexico. Gonzalez represented the U.S. from the U-14 to U-20 level but chose to play for Mexico as a senior international. Gonzalez made a binding and permanent decision between two discrete options, but that belies the complexity of the issue. Rather than picking one country, many American fans have divided loyalties.

“Soccer teams are sort of a beacon of cultural identity—certainly Mexico in the U.S. is a big part of that, as well as when El Salvador would play games in Washington, D.C., and they’d have massive crowds,” said Fox Sports play-by-play man John Strong.

Latino fans who root for the USMNT have had to navigate an American fan culture that doesn’t always make them feel welcome. In 2015, Noah Davis detailed the “frat boy” culture of the American Outlaws, the largest USMNT supporters group. In addition to stories of sexism and excessive drinking, Davis quoted fans who were turned off by AO members whose anti-Mexico chants crossed the line from sports hatred to racial epithets.

The climactic U.S.-Mexico fixtures of most World Cup cycles come in the last round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, the Hexagonal, in which the last six teams standing play each other home-and-home. Mexico’s home leg almost always takes place in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, placing the country’s biggest, grandest international fixture in the grandest stadium in the largest city in the country. The U.S. tried to play its biggest fixtures in its biggest venues, but despite drawing huge crowds, struggled to build a reliable home-field advantage among large numbers of Mexican and Mexican American fans in Southern California. The U.S. hasn’t beaten Mexico in the Rose Bowl since 1994; their most recent meeting there, the 2015 CONCACAF Cup, was a heartbreaking 3-2 extra time Mexico win that kept the USMNT out of the 2017 Confederations Cup. The Rose Bowl meeting before that, the 2011 Gold Cup final, ended 4-2 in Mexico’s favor and cost then–USMNT head coach Bob Bradley his job.

Meanwhile, Mexico has made the United States its second home. On June 2, Mexico beat Scotland 1-0 at the Azteca in a World Cup tune-up match. It was the first friendly the Mexico senior men’s national team had played in Mexico since October 2015. In between, El Tri had played 14 friendly matches in the United States, frequently in front of college-football-sized crowds. Just before beating Scotland, Mexico played Wales to a scoreless draw at the Rose Bowl in front of 82,345 fans on May 28. Two March friendlies, a 1-0 loss to Croatia in Arlington, Texas, and a 3-0 defeat of Iceland in Santa Clara, California, drew more than 79,000 and 68,000 fans respectively to NFL stadiums.

In response, U.S. Soccer decided to go small. Since 2001, the home leg of the U.S.-Mexico Hexagonal qualifier has been held in Crew Stadium (now called MAPFRE Stadium) in Columbus, Ohio. With about 880,000 inhabitants, Columbus is the 14th-largest city in the U.S., almost twice the size of Atlanta, but it isn’t really a city as New Yorkers or Angelenos would understand it. It’s really a gigantic college town, built around the Ohio State campus, with relatively few skyscrapers or densely populated areas for a city its size, particularly in the North or Midwest. MAPFRE Stadium, an aging facility surrounded by fairgrounds with around 20,000 seats and few amenities, is small and spartan for a fixture as important as U.S.-Mexico.

Columbus is freezing cold and its population is less than 6 percent Latin American, but for more than a decade, it was the USMNT’s inviolable fortress. The USMNT dispatched Mexico in Columbus in four consecutive World Cup qualifiers from 2001 to 2013, all by the score of 2-0. These wins, along with a 2-0 victory against Mexico in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, gave rise to the famous “Dos a cero!” chant. I used to live a little more than a mile from MAPFRE Stadium, and being the fortress to which the USMNT could retreat in order to dispatch its greatest rival was a big mark of pride for the city’s soccer culture.

“It’s different because a lot of us who come from immigrant backgrounds have that dual culture, and we understand it a little better,” said Sergio Tristan, founder of the Mexican national team supporters group Pancho Villa’s Army. “I think Americans who don’t have that cultural tie to [the country their family emigrated from] just kind of lose that. You blend into the fabric and lose that duality.”

By moving the fixture to Columbus, U.S. Soccer courted precisely the kind of non-dual-culture fans Tristan was talking about. Even if it wasn’t malicious, it furthered the exclusionary concept of what it meant to be American: white, middle class, and several generations removed from any non-American ancestors. People like me, in other words. I’m vaguely aware of ancestors from Germany or Ireland from hundreds of years ago, but the thought of pulling on another country’s colors makes me sick. And for too long, I never gave a second thought to other forms of American soccer fandom.

Tristan was born in the United States, served in the Army, and attended the University of Texas. English is his preferred language. But like so many sports fan origin stories, he inherited El Tri from his parents, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s and found himself in a complicated middle ground: a patriotic American who sometimes cheers for his country’s biggest rival. He founded Pancho Villa’s Army to cater specifically to Mexican American soccer fans, people like him with a distinct identity that wasn’t being properly served by the soccer establishments of either Mexico or the U.S.

“When Michael Phelps won an Olympic gold medal, I cheered on just as much as you did, because Michael Phelps represents me,” Tristan said. “I’m an American, born in the U.S., and I eat hot dogs and burgers and listen to the same music he does, and to some degree he represents a part of me. I wasn’t hoping for some Mexican swimmer to beat Michael Phelps.”

But on the soccer field, it’s a different story. Of all the namesakes Tristan could’ve chosen for his group, he picked Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary who led U.S. General John Pershing on a wild goose chase through the Southwest in 1916. Tristan says there’s a part of him that’s happy the USMNT missed the World Cup after hearing “Dos a cero!” for more than a decade. But despite the aligned rooting interests, traditional Mexican soccer culture doesn’t necessarily line up with Mexican American soccer culture.

“We celebrate sports in a very American way, very much unlike Mexicans in Mexico,” Tristan said. “Many of us went to college in the U.S. and were influenced greatly by the American sports culture’s entertainment side. We view Mexican soccer the way you’d view a college football game, because many of us grew up on college campuses going to football games.”

That means tailgating, Tristan says, except with tacos instead of burgers. Fully American, but also fully Mexican, leaving him and other Mexican Americans between two identities on the opposite sides of a heated rivalry. One side or the other doesn’t always fit, leaving Tristan, Pancho Villa’s Army, and anyone else who wants to support Mexico in an American way facing unexpected obstacles. For starters, tailgating and sports bar culture are particularly American inventions, Tristan says, as many Mexican fans prefer to watch games at home with friends and family. And even as Mexican Americans turn out by the tens of thousands to support El Tri, coverage of the team is almost exclusively in Spanish and geared toward Mexicans.

“There are a couple media personalities who do their reporting in English, and the Mexican national team just launched an English-language Twitter feed and Facebook account, but beyond that, there’s very little coverage of the Mexican soccer team and Mexican soccer league in English,” Tristan said. “As a Mexican American whose education was in English, it’s easier for me to consume news in English, and there are tons of us who are dying for more information regarding Mexican soccer in English. And you can’t just Google Translate it, because you miss that cultural identity of being an American in that news.”

A lack of English-language coverage makes it difficult for English-speaking Americans to follow not just Mexican soccer, but various leagues across the world. And despite owing much of its soccer heritage to Latin America or even Germany, most Americans who follow the game internationally focus on England.

“I think the language barrier is a significant piece of it, and there’s a reason why the Premier League has a primacy: It’s very accessible. It’s in our language,” Strong said. “I’ve found that with the Bundesliga, there has been a barrier, even for me as I come in to prep. Google Translate will only take you so far.”

Americans without strong immigrant roots might never think about the language barrier as an obstacle to sports fandom. It isn’t an issue in baseball, football, basketball, or hockey, sports whose biggest leagues are based in the U.S. And even in soccer, boning up on your high school Spanish (or French or German) to be able to follow commentary in another language seems like a lot of effort when the Premier League is on TV every weekend anyway.

Men’s soccer is already an outlier in the American sporting culture because it’s popular despite the U.S. not being very good at it. In addition to housing world-class leagues in the so-called Big Four, the U.S. dominates international sporting competition. In addition to finishing at or near the top of the medal table every Olympics, the U.S. is the reigning Olympic champion in men’s and women’s basketball and women’s hockey, the reigning World Cup champion in women’s soccer, and the reigning World Baseball Classic champion. That dominance, born out of being a rich country with a gigantic population, fits the American exceptionalist ideal of world superiority in warfare, culture, business, and sports.

“I think what American sports fans don’t understand about the world sporting culture is that the waving of a national team’s flag or emblem is more of a cultural identity thing for us—it’s not nationalistic,” Tristan said. “Only in the U.S. do I see this nationalistic attitude toward the sporting world. For Mexicans living in Mexico, when they wave the flag, it’s not in support of the government. It’s a cultural identity issue. It’s ‘Hey, there’s 11 dudes on that field who look just like me, who came up with the same upbringing I had, who can relate to me culturally. God bless them. I hope they do well.’”

That’s not a complicated perspective, or a hard one to appreciate, but it requires a little empathy and imagination from people without a dual cultural identity.

White Americans have had more than 200 years to view themselves—ourselves—as the cultural default in this country, and white Americans who are alive in the 2018 World Cup cycle have likely known nothing but American global hegemony. We don’t have to look at the soccer field to see people like us on top; we can look at the halls of international political and economic power, and bask in that reflected glow. The “might makes right” foundation of American exceptionalism is a desiccant for empathy.

Considering another worldview is like learning a second language to follow a foreign soccer league: It feels like a lot of work, and the easiest route offers access to the wealthiest and most powerful institution in the game, the Premier League. America is the greatest nation in the world, goes the bipartisan refrain, so why would you complicate that identity by merging it with something else?

When calling a game, Strong generally steers clear of politics. Why court controversy at a recreational event?

“One thing we’ve done in the past couple years especially is embrace the idea that sports can serve a very important role as an escape,” Strong said. “In those 90 minutes or four quarters, that can be a release for us from the very legitimate trials and tribulations around us. It’s not that we’re whitewashing anything or being naive and sticking our head in the sand, but it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that sports can play that pivotal role in being an escape.”

But sometimes the real world forces its way into the conversation anyway.

“The only time we’ve ever really thought about it was during the U.S.-Mexico qualifier in Columbus, three or four days after the presidential election.”

On November 11, 2016, Layún’s first-half goal spared Mexico from a fifth consecutive “Dos a cero” in the Hex. And even after Bobby Wood equalized in the 49th minute, Márquez scored a late winner for Mexico’s first win in Columbus, simultaneously starting the USMNT on its slide out of the World Cup.

That night, for the first time I could remember, it wasn’t fun to hate the Mexican soccer team, and the normally acrimonious rivalry began to show signs of camaraderie. In advance of that game, USMNT captain Michael Bradley and the American Outlaws both implored American fans to be respectful. Be careful how you express your hatred for Mexico on the pitch, in other words, so soon after the country got a lesson in how dangerous that hatred is off of it.

Strong says U.S.-Mexico isn’t much different to call than any number of other international rivalries marred by real-world strife. The key, he says, is to “Be mindful.”

“Let’s say England plays Germany,” Strong said. “Am I throwing out World War II references, or am I just referencing the idea that there’s a historical rivalry and they’ve played these great games? You don’t want to be flippant about conflating actual wars with soccer games, as much as that’s a very common thing.”

I watched the USMNT’s last World Cup game in a movie theater in Columbus, among hundreds of other screaming U.S. fans—most of them drunk, almost all of them white. A year later, I moved to Houston, a city with almost as many Spanish-speaking residents as Columbus has residents of any kind. The last time the USMNT played Mexico, a 1-1 draw at the Azteca in June 2017, I pulled on my Michael Bradley jersey and walked to a bar down the block, and inside the dining room there were at least as many green shirts as white ones. I found an open seat next to a guy in an Andrés Guardado jersey, and while this story would have a fuzzier ending if we’d bonded over our shared love of soccer and become friends, I don’t think either of us said a word to the other for the next two hours. We just sat there quietly, hoping the other would go home disappointed.

Tristan doesn’t expect USMNT fans to start wearing green now that the U.S. is staying home, but he says anyone is welcome at the tailgate.

“Even if you’re not a Mexico fan, just come to a Mexico game anywhere in any city and just hang out and be a good neighbor,” Tristan said. “At the end of the day, whether Mexico makes it to the World Cup final or not, whether the U.S. is in it or not, the World Cup is a world event, just like the Olympics if not more so, and it should be uniting.”