by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer
I love the arrival of International dates on the FIFA calendar, because I know there is a good chance that I’ll get to watch the U.S. National Team in action. And even though most of their matches are inconsequential friendlies, I watch with the same critical eye and intensity usually reserved for the contests that count. I agonize over the failed opportunities to beat a worthy opponent, and I applaud the effort of the players when they meet my expectations. Above all, I am proud to cheer on the U.S. no matter the opponent or the result.
However, there in another national team that I follow quite closely — and it is surprisingly not that of the country my parents emigrated from. While I do wish the English national team all the best in the 2012 European Championships, and kudos to them for their two convincing victories last week, the team I watched with keen interest compete twice last week may surprise you. Though blasphemous for many, I also support our nation’s biggest soccer rival, Mexico.
Before you load up the comments section with vitriol labeling me a traitor or the like, let me be very clear with one thing — I will always support the U.S. over Mexico in any meaningful contest they are matched up in. I struggled with the rest of the USMNT fans during the dark ages in the 80’s and 90’s as Mexico clearly was the dominate team in the rivalry. I yelled at Rafa Marquez and the rest of El Tri during the quarterfinal match in the 2002 World Cup that featured the near beheading of Cobi Jones and a final score that U.S. supporters will never forget — dos a cero. I still come away cringing after every loss to Mexico at Azteca Stadium, and anxiously look forward to the day that the USMNT is finally triumphant in Mexico City.
So why should I care about the Mexico team, and why do I react viscerally in almost the same way while watching them play that I do when I watch the U.S.? I have rarely been to Mexico other than the occasional border crossing to Tijuana and a series of failed Spring Break trips to Mazatlan. I don’t have a single relative from Latin America, let alone Mexico, to bind me to their country either. Still, I have grown to appreciate them over the years because of what they bring to the world’s soccer stage, and especially to what they mean for the growth and health of our shared FIFA confederation.
And while the USMNT deferred from playing this past week, I tuned into Univision to watch in glorious HD as Mexico faced two South American opponents in Ecuador and Colombia. I wanted to evaluate how interim head coach Efrain Flores was doing in charge; I eagerly awaited each offensive foray by Chicharito and Gio Dos Santos as they surged toward goal; I even hoped for that villain Rafa Marquez to show well in defense. (Aside: I am very pleased to see Rafa in MLS — whether you view him as a hero or villain, he is a high-quality signing by the league.) I lamented the close loss to Ecuador, while walked away pleased by the effort in the 1-0 victory over Colombia.
I also learned something from watching those two games — something that should help me evaluate the USMNT as they prepare for their next meaningful games at next summer’s Gold Cup. Despite the excitement surrounding the newest crop of young Mexican strikers, the team is still vulnerable to speed and counterattacks. Memo Ochoa in goal is very good, but his defense left him out to dry on too many occasions — especially in situations that a healthy Charlie Davies would be sure to capitalize upon. Mexico may be capable of a big win — see the 5-0 drubbing of the USMN back in the 2009 Gold Cup — but they are not invincible against a well disciplined opponent (thank you, Bob Bradley).
Following the win against Colombia, I received a phone call from my good friend Alvaro. He is a Mexican immigrant and fervent supporter of their national team. We first met in the late 90’s through work, and struck up a relationship over soccer soon after. While I was conditioned at that point to look down at our southern neighbors in soccer, Alvaro introduced me to the FMF Primera League and his favorite team Club America. I in turn taught him about the new MLS and my adopted club the San Jose Earthquakes. The lessons soon turned to the national teams, especially in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup and their championship in the following Confederations Cup. I did my best to convince Alvaro that the U.S. could become a soccer country, even as he laughed away the notion.
So within minutes of the final whistle of the Colombia match, there I was talking to Alvaro about how Mexico was lucky to win, and the offense looked horrible, and Flores should fired, and Chicharito needs to try harder, and… While I merely support the Mexico team, Alvaro is fanatical about El Tri and could not be stopped. I eventually talked him off the ledge — and this was after they won! — and we got to talking about the future of both Mexico and the U.S. He is still upset at Javier Aguirre being let go after the World Cup, though not in the least bit surprised, and was complimentary of the U.S. for keeping Bob Bradley in charge despite the team also losing in the World Cup quarterfinals. We both lamented the proposed changes to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying as it has the potential to remove the two greatest games in that process in settling for the separation of the U.S. and Mexico into different groups. Eventually we took sides when discussing next year’s Gold Cup tournament, and promised to watch those games together when the time comes.
And come the summer of 2011, I will very likely cover any Gold Cup games played in the Bay Area. Last year I watched in person as Mexico dismantled Panama at the Oakland Coliseum. Earlier this year, I took in a Mexico World Cup warm-up friendly against Bolivia over at Candlestick Park. With El Tri consistently venturing into the Bay Area for international matches, I am sure I’ll see them play again very soon. In fact, I very much look forward to their next visit. It’s just a shame the USMNT so rarely makes an appearance our way…
Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.