By Jim Hart –
Between the Clausura and Apertura, the spring season of Liga MX and the fall season, the sides from south of the border come north into the United States to expand their reach and play in front of the thousands, who watch on Telemundo and Univision week after week. Liga MX is the most popular football on television in the United States, far more popular than Major League Soccer and even more popular than the English Premier League.
Recently there were three matches held in Denver Colorado, where I live, in three different venues, all involving Mexican teams. Each was marketed by a different company, held at a different venue, and attended by a unique set of fans. I found the experience at all three of them to be unique and thrilling, each in its own way.
“Denver is a Hispanic city, make no mistake.” I had a conversation with former Secretary of the Interior and Senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar, a few years ago, and he told me of his family’s eight generation history in Colorado, which began long before Colorado was part of the United States. He spoke of the Hispanic, particularly Mexican, influence on the state and its very structure. Mexican-Americans are very much interwoven into the fabric of Colorado.
Liga MX at the Mile High Stadium – Club América vs Pachuca
In the chasm of Mile High stadium, where the Denver Bronco’s of the NFL ply their trade, a throng of Club América fans, with a handful of Pachuca supporters mixed in, sat through an exciting friendly match. Billed as the Nissan Cup, this match was attended by 99.9% Hispanic fans—Chad Smith and I,of the Two Daft Yanks podcast, being in the Anglo minority.
These matches, held on American soil, are extremely competitive affairs; the clubs look to expand their reach into the profitable US markets and tend to play their top stars, as opposed to English and Spanish friendlies where you often see their prospects and second string players. They do not hold back because they are fighting for dominance in this highly profitable market. The US is a heavy consumer of the Mexican game, and the Hispanic population of Colorado turns out for these matches in increasingly good numbers.
The seat cost was nearly $100, and bringing the most popular team from Mexico should have stirred local football fans of all types to go see the match. It did not. Many of the people I spoke with at the match had traveled to see their beloved Club América and were attending with their families. I heard about the match through a friend who keeps up with all things football in Colorado, otherwise I may not have heard about this match—it was not advertised on any English speaking television or radio station, nor in any English speaking media, or social media—it was strictly marketed to the Hispanic community.
When discussing the match with my seat mates, I was fortunate to have a very nice young couple seated next to me. They expressed their love for Club América, their passion for the game and, after some prodding, they admitted that they would never be caught dead at an MLS match. Unless, of course, a good Liga MX side was involved.
The football itself was top notch, much better than any MLS match I have attended, and rivaled some European matches. The direct play and ball control were fantastic. Some of the players, especially for Club América, could easily step on to the pitch of European sides.
The match played out to Club América’s advantage, as they have a much deeper bench than CF Pachuca; the overwhelming attack of Club América forced errors that in the end proved to be Pachuca’s downfall. In addition, Club América plays at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City for their home matches, and because they are used to the high elevation of Mexico City, the altitude of Denver seemed to have no effect on them. The opposition, on the other hand, was often seen gasping in the thin air of the Mile High City. This is a clear advantage for clubs like América and Denver’s hometown club, Colorado Rapids, who have traditionally held a solid home field edge.
Chivas Guadalajara vs Monarcas at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park
Less than a week after the Club América match I was able to attend another super-team friendly from Liga MX, Chivas Gudalajara, a very well supported side, and Monarcas, a team from Morelia, which is a city in the north central part of the state of Michoacán in central Mexico. Monarcas was well supported this night by a small number of very enthusiastic and vocal fans.
The match was held at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, about 15 miles from downtown Denver. It is a football specific stadium built for the Colorado Rapids of MLS. The stadium holds some 18,000 when full, and has hosted a few terrific matches over the years, notably the 2013 WC Qualifier against Costa Rica where snow marred the match to such a degree that Costa Rica lodged an official protest.
The overwhelming majority of the crowd of about 10,000 was supporting the well-known side from Jalisco, Chivas Guadalajara, or simply Chivas. They are known throughout Mexico as a club that develops many young players, sometimes to their own detriment. My friend and Jalisco native, Carlos Castillo, attended this match with me, and provided insight and commentary on the side—the crowd, the language, and most importantly, what things to avoid in order to stay neutral.
The match was marketed through KSE, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment. The very same outfit that owns the Colorado Rapids, the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, and Arsenal of the English Premier League. This match, unlike the Club América match, had a much more diverse crowd. There seemed to be an overlap of at least 10% of the crowd from the general football fans of Colorado.
The marketing of this match was done through more means than the Spanish speaking media and social media. I received several emails and Facebook invitations as a season ticket holder to the Rapids. While I sat in the same seats that I hold for the Rapids, there were no familiar faces around me.
These matches can be very emotional events, with the fans of each team pouring their passion into the game with both full throated support, and at times by raining derision upon referees who are seen as favoring the opposing players, opponents who are deemed weak or to have cheated the match, or sometimes simply out of frustration for events that are not going their way.
Chivas had chosen this particular match to roll out their new third kit—a sharp affair with blue and white horizontal stripes up to about halfway. Opinion was mixed on the new kit with many citing the age-old “blue vs red” identity of a side. For a hundred years Chivas has been easy to recognize due to their vertical red and white striped kit.
Liga MX is a very physical style of football; even in friendly matches it not uncommon to see hard tackling and frequent yellow cards. The officials for this particular match seemed taken aback by the style, as they were assigned from the US rather than from Mexico. Many instances of lateral contact that would not be called a foul in league play were whistled to a stop on this night. It made for a very choppy experience in that the flow of the match was difficult to maintain and the sides were frustrated by the frequent restarts.
In the end, Chivas proved too mighty for Monarcas to keep at bay; the Jalisco mega-team was well organized on the ball, with a strong group of substitutes whose level of play nearly matched the starters.
During the match, a single Leon supporter agitated both sides; he stood in his Luche mask dressed in all green, holding this cerveca, and derided the Chivas and Pachuca fans with equal enmity. Finally, he was ushered out of the stadium by his friends when violence seemed imminent, his demise a possibility. So deeply runs the passion for football south of the Rio Grande
Bundesliga vs Ascenco MX – FSV Mainz 05 vs Leones Negros
In the mountains west of Colorado Springs, sits the US Air Force Academy, a truly lovely setting for a football match. This was the location for the inaugural Colorado Cup. Justin Rose of Frankfurt, Germany initiated the idea for the cup. Justin is a consultant to the Bundesliga and a former US U-23 player. I spent some time with Justin while he prepared for this event and we spoke of the challenges involved in putting together a unique event such as this.
According to Justin, the biggest challenge was convincing the teams concerned of the value in coming to the US and training in the relative obscurity of Colorado Springs. This is Colorado’s second city, roughly 100 miles south of Denver and is located against the backdrop of Pikes Peak. It is also home to many thousands of US military families, as several military bases are located in the area.
Mainz was convinced to spend a week in Colorado training at the Air Force Academy and with the local USL team, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Leones Negros, which is a second division Mexican side, was added late to the lineup as Borussia Mönchengladbach declined an invitation to attend.
The marketing of this set of matches in which Mainz also played the Switchbacks, was done through traditional means—mostly on television, radio, and social media. Justin engaged a number of local coaches and clubs to attend all-star matches that featured local players as warm up acts for the main events. Most of the attendees for these matches were completely unaware of the role of Leones Negros; many in fact were not even clued in that they were a Mexican side.
The match between Mainz and Leones Negros was attended by 90% Anglo football fans, mainly those who were curious and came out to see what a professional football match was like. ESPN 3 sent a crew to broadcast the match on their Internet based side of the business, and about 3000 attendees made their way to the Air Force Academy soccer field for the event itself.
Of the three matches, this was by far the most entertaining, highest quality and best value. The $20 ticket price to see a Bundesliga side and a very good Mexican team should have brought many more football people to the event. Once again, the organizers made a mistake in their choice of location. Getting to the Air Force academy is not only difficult, but also, one must go through security, which, for many in the community, can be very off-putting.
The match played out to a 1:1 draw, which Mainz was able to win in penalty kicks. Leones Negros was a very organized and well-coached side, with a number of young, exciting players. This club has an interesting history and possibly the best kit in any league with a stylized lion figure against a yellow background. Their nickname harkens to a time when Brazilian players would come to this club for development in the 1970s. They have been something of a yo-yo club, and have bounced up and down between the first and second division, and have experienced financial troubles along the way.
Mainz has a recent following based on the resurgence that began under current Liverpool manager, and former Dortmund headman, Jürgen Klopp. Mr. Klopp took Mainz from their position of relative obscurity in Germany and brought about a resurgence that was continued under Tomas Tuchel. Now Mainz is a regular in continental tournaments.
Liga MX is certainly popular in Colorado and will continue to garner interest from teams that are looking for a location for their summer tours. The organizers of these events must find a way to bridge the culture gap—the extremes of the Club América experience where it was entirely a Hispanic event, to the Leones Negros match that brought out only the curiosity seekers and some hard core Germans—these promoters are missing the connection between football fans and the opportunity to get them to the matches.
Liga MX sides provide exceptionally entertaining football at a time when there is little else happening in the sports world in the US; it seems a perfect opportunity to marry a cultural event and widen the audience to include some of the 60,000 who came out to see Manchester United play AS Roma the summer before for the International Champions Cup in the same stadium.
The fact that Liga MX sides bring their full squads to the US, in most cases, should provide an opportunity for organizers to build an event that engages the football fans and brings together the culture of a fully developed league into the American sports scene. If the price became more accessible to the mass of fans who are interested in the game, the Mexican sides can provide extremely good value and provide quality entertainment.
Jim Hart is a senior writer for These Football Times, where he writes mostly about Calcio and the history of Serie A. Jim has been around the world in search of football wherever he can find it, attending the 2007 Asia Cup final in Jakarta being among the highlights of his football experiences to date. Seeing the Iraqi national team take the championship at the height of a raging war at home was a moving experience. Jim has studied the Icelandic game, with many trips to visit with the FA to get behind the scenes to uncover the secrets of the tiny nation that has taken Europe by storm. Jim is the creative director for These Football Times the Magazine, which begins its circulation in fall 2016. A resident of Denver Colorado, Jim is also Chairman of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of grassroots football in the US and beyond. Jim is on a mission to discover the truth and beauty behind the worlds game, looking for it wherever he can find it. Jim can be found on Twitter at @catenaciarri , a tribute to the great Milan manager and Triestina legend Nereo Rocco, the first Italian manager to win the European Cup.