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Dos A Tres - My Experience at the CONCACAF Cup

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Author's Note: I am part of a Major League Soccer podcast called Flakoglost Futbol Pod. When the USA/Mexico match was announced, my colleagues Todd and Jose immediately expressed interest in going to Los Angeles for the game. I decided this would be a fantastic experience and we all attended the CONCACAF Cup. Dos A Tres refers to the episode we recorded right after returning from California.

Paul Aguilar attempts to dribble past USA midfielder Jermaine Jones
Paul Aguilar attempts to dribble past USA midfielder Jermaine Jones
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USA/Mexico games do not happen often. Since 2007, the nations have faced each other a mere 14 times. Six of those 14 matches have been in friendlies, or exhibition games, essentially meaning they don’t count. I was fortunate enough to be able to experience the latest fixture between the two North American countries, a competitive match dubbed the CONCACAF Cup. This was a one-game playoff where the winner advanced to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. The game was also being played at the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California.

Let’s back up a little bit. I’ve been a USA fan for the majority of the 30 times I’ve traveled around the sun. I’ve also been a Colorado Rapids fan since Major League Soccer started in 1996 as I grew up in northern Colorado. Despite how much I like the Rapids, I’ll do my best to keep this article about my passion and support for the United States National Team. I’ll also try and not insert my frequent "Club over Country" jokes or comments.

In 1994, the United States hosted the FIFA World Cup. I was very young – 4th Grade – so I wasn’t too aware of what was going on. However, there were some people who were upset that Denver wasn’t considered as a host city despite having Mile High Stadium as a fantastic potential host venue. At that young age, I was aware that the USA defeated Colombia and I also learned that Colombian defender Andres Escobar was murdered after the tournament for his part in the downfall of their national team. This was particularly related to the own goal that he committed against the United States. This article is not about Andres Escobar or Colombia, but if you want to learn more about the events surrounding his death, check out the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary titled "The Two Escobars."  It is excellent.

I didn’t mean to go off on a little tangent there…but I believe it is important to understand the unique passion that soccer supporters have for the beautiful game. I am in no way glorifying hooligans or people hell-bent on rioting, lighting fires, or attempting to harm rival fans or even players like Andres Escobar. Part of understanding soccer is the fact that around the world, people have so much pride and passion on the line that a loss can sometimes be devastating to not only a particular set of fans, but also an entire nation. Ok enough about that…let’s continue with my personal development as a USA fan.

Four years later, I really started to follow the United States National Team. I was glued to the television set that summer and I was excited to see how our team would do in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. The first match, I knew we were playing a tough team in Germany. In all honesty, I didn’t mind the fact that we lost to them. My first true heartbreak occurred while watching the USA vs. Iran in a pivotal matchup. We lost that match 2-1 and I remember being angry and distraught after the final whistle. I couldn’t believe we had lost to what I had perceived to be an "inferior" opponent. The loss to (then) Yugoslavia in the third group stage match didn’t really mean anything with the exception of pride as the USA finished dead last in France.

I won’t bore you with any more details of previous World Cups. Let’s just say that I became more of a fan of the USA national team while I attended college from 2003-2007. I followed the qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and also started to follow soccer more as a whole, including the English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, and Major League Soccer. Let’s just say that the pivotal events for me becoming a soccer fanatic (club and country) had its roots during my college years. Several people tend to develop into who they are as adults from interests while in college. I was no exception as I started to follow soccer closely during my college years. Meanwhile, let’s jump ahead to my first two matches for the United States National Team.

I am proud to say that I’ve attended two FIFA World Cup Qualifiers at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. The first one was an early qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup against Guatemala in the final game before the CONCACAF Hexagonal, which is the final round of qualifying in the region. Therefore, players like Freddy Adu and Brad Guzan (fringe players) were given starting places in the team on that cold evening in November. If my memory is correct, the USA won that match 2-0, with Freddy Adu scoring a memorable goal from a free kick. Conor Casey even came on as a substitute to the delight of the Colorado Rapids home crowd. (OOPS I MENTIONED THE COLORADO RAPIDS…sue me!)

The other qualifier I attended at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park was one of the most epic sporting events that I have ever been to in my life. It was the USA vs. Costa Rica match in the Final Hexagonal before the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This was dubbed by some media personnel as the "Snow-Clasico" as there was a freak blizzard before the game that didn’t let up at all. Regardless, the stadium was packed despite the wintry conditions and the massive pro-USA crowd saw the USA win 1-0 on a first-half goal scored by Clint Dempsey. Brad Guzan once again kept a clean sheet in Commerce City while Costa Rica protested the result to FIFA, stating the conditions were "unplayable." FIFA essentially told Costa Rica to ‘pound sand’ despite the United States Soccer Federation scheduling a World Cup qualifier in March, normally one of the state’s snowiest months. That makes a whole lot of sense! (Sarcasm)…regardless, hearing Costa Rica whine and complain to no avail made me very happy.

Anyway, a lot of time has passed since I decided to make the foray back to Los Angeles. I went to college in the Los Angeles area and after graduating in 2007, I surprisingly had not made it back to the City of Angels since. I managed to travel to Europe twice along with a trip to the Middle East before returning to LA but we all have priorities, right?

The 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup had not gone according to plan for USA boss Jurgen Klinsmann as the United States were shockingly eliminated by Jamaica. The fifth-largest island country in the Caribbean managed to defeat the mighty USA in the semifinals of the tournament. Therefore, Mexico – who in my opinion shouldn’t have made the final following some extremely questionable refereeing decisions in two of their matches – easily defeated Jamaica in the Gold Cup final to set up a big money-maker for CONCACAF to decide which nation would represent the region in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. The CONCACAF Cup was announced for October 10 at the Rose Bowl Stadium. The reason for this was the USA won the 2013 Gold Cup so CONCACAF decided a "playoff" between the two winners would be a fair way to decide the regional representative for the Confederations Cup.

I thought to myself that it was extremely rare for a USA vs. Mexico competitive fixture besides World Cup qualifying. Also, Columbus, Ohio always gets the home matches against Mexico. Therefore, I’m going to do this. I’m going to attend a competitive fixture between the two rival nations!

The Rose Bowl Stadium is located in Pasadena, California. It is not far from Los Angeles and is actually considered a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Not terribly surprising since the stadium was originally built in 1922. However, the location of the massive venue (it has a capacity of roughly 93,000) is a little odd given the fact that so many people can descend upon it on Pasadena. My point is that there is essentially one road leading to the stadium, and that same road leads out. We had to walk roughly two miles from old-town Pasadena to get to the Rose Bowl. Traffic is so bad getting to the venue that I was told the NFL has never seriously considered the stadium to host a professional football team coming back to Los Angeles.

What was the only problem with walking roughly two miles to the stadium? THE INTENSE HEAT of LA in OCTOBER!!! My goodness…let’s just say that I perspired buckets. Temperatures were just south of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. My body had obviously forgotten how hot the Los Angeles area could get – even into the autumn months.

The American Outlaws tailgate was fantastic. There is a lot of space outside of the Rose Bowl for tailgating, so I was incredibly happy when I was able to buy some beer and food once we had entered the valley that encompasses the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately I was unable to meet up with several friends that had traveled to the match from Colorado. However, I had my own mini entourage so let’s just say we had a great time at the tailgate regardless. Sorry Todd, Justin, Dave, Tess, Keith, and Calypso! Hmm, did I miss anyone else?

For how "modernized" the Rose Bowl actually is – meaning it’s an all-seated venue as opposed to having terraces or bleachers – it took forever to get inside. The lines to get in were extremely long as fans had to chug beer and have their purses or backpacks checked to get in. I guess for a venue that holds 93,000 people, one had to be relatively patient to enter the historic ground. However, once inside the stadium, wow…WOW!! What’s neat about the Rose Bowl is that there isn’t club-level or upper-tier seating. It’s all one massive bowl that goes from rows 1-35 and then rows 36-99. I had a seat at roughly the 18-yard-line that was closer to the American Outlaws who were standing behind the south goal. The hardcore Mexico supporters were behind the north goal and my guess is that roughly 70 percent of the stadium contained fans of Mexico.

The atmosphere was unlike anything I have experienced in North America. I have been to a UEFA Champion’s League match in Debrecen, Hungary. There were a ton of flares in addition to an incredible atmosphere, but the stadium was small, with a capacity of roughly 10,000. Regardless, this was huge…one of the biggest rivalries in the Western Hemisphere in regards to soccer nations. The Mexico supporters were very loud. The American Outlaws were also loud, with both sets of fans chanting and singing.

When Mexico scored first, the crowd went absolutely wild. However, Michael Bradley assisted on a set piece to Geoff Cameron who was able to level the score at 1-1 early in the match. We all went crazy after the goal and I began to think that there was hope we could win this match.

After the referee blew the whistle for the end of regulation, my heart began to race. I figured this game would go to dreaded penalty kicks in order to determine a winner. So many finals of tournaments and competitive matches are determined by penalties and the thought of that made me sweat even more in the evening heat in Pasadena. Mexico scored early in the first period of extra time and my heart sank. I’d rather the game go to penalties then to lose in extra time to Mexico. Regardless, there is always hope that we can come back…always hope.

Thankfully in soccer, there are two periods of extra time and there is no "golden goal," meaning that the first goal in the overtime sessions does not win the game. Early in the second period of extra time, two substitutes for the United States made a massive impact. DeAndre Yedlin made a great pass to forward Bobby Wood and the German-American slotted through to score the equalizer! We went absolutely mental! We could potentially go to penalties and win this game!!

Mexico wasn’t fazed, and they had no plan to sit back and wait for the end of extra time. They still attacked like they had all game. Paul Aguilar ended all hopes and dreams for the American team to represent the region in Russia in 2017. He connected on a fantastic volley past Brad Guzan (who I thought could have positioned himself a little better) and into the far corner. The stadium nearly exploded. Popcorn, beer, water, whatever was in the hands of the Mexico fans went airborne as Mexico celebrated the latest-ever win in the history between the two nations.

The walk from the Rose Bowl Stadium to old-town Pasadena was long…and it felt even longer because Mexico fans were coming up to us and bashing Jurgen Klinsmann, the aging USA superstars, and the state of US Soccer going into the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle. I didn’t witness any fights but I still walked with my fists clenched…just in case I needed to defend myself.

Regardless, the streets of Pasadena were without incident. Thousands upon thousands of fans made their way to the many bars and restaurants in the area. My time in Los Angeles wasn’t over as I had made a mini-vacation out of the trip, but my mind still constantly thought of what could have been. This was my first USA/Mexico match and I wanted so much for our lads to beat them in this competitive match.

Sadly, I won’t be able to watch the United States in the FIFA Confederations Cup, but the team will commence with World Cup qualifying in November. I’m looking forward to making more USA matches in the future – especially given the fact that this was my first game outside of Colorado to support the national team.

Despite the loss to archrival Mexico, I’m very positive about the future of US Soccer despite the speculation in regards to its head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. We’ll have our chance to get revenge on El Tri in qualifying – and who knows…maybe I’ll see myself in a plane to Mexico City during the final Hexagonal when USA plays Mexico at Estadio Azteca. BRING IT ON!!!