It’s not every day that you get a chance to attend two international semifinals on the same night, in the same stadium. Wednesday evening was a rare soccer spectacular at Cowboys Stadium, aka Jerry World, in Arlington, Texas, just a short drive from where I live in suburban Dallas. Big time international soccer doesn’t make it to the Dallas area very often, so fans have to jump at the chance when it does. Last night, an eclectic mix of over 81,000 U.S., Honduras, Mexico and Panama fans did just that.
Cowboys Stadium may have been built for American football, but it makes a fantastic soccer venue. I was there for the first-ever sporting event at Cowboys Stadium in 2009 — a pre-season friendly between Chelsea and Club America. The crowd and atmosphere were impressive then, but that match pales in comparison to last night’s carnival atmosphere. I’m not sure the stadium staff were prepared for the deafening chants, drums, whistles, and impromptu dances that filled the vast concourses, creating a constant, echoing din throughout the evening. After two full consecutive matches, I’m pretty sure I lost some hearing.
American fans were out in decent force for the evening’s first match between the U.S. and Honduras, though Honduran fans also made a respectable showing. Landon Donovan deservedly received the loudest roars from the crowd every time he appeared on the legendary Texas-sized high-definition screens above the field. While I’ve seen Donovan play several times for the Galaxy at FC Dallas Stadium over the years, I’ve never seen him play as captivatingly as he did last night. He is a player fully reinvigorated after his much-publicized (and criticized) soccer sabbatical earlier this year. If there was any doubt before yesterday about his place on the U.S. team, it is surely gone after his assist (his seventh assist of the Gold Cup tournament) and two goals in the 3-1 U.S. victory.
Donovan had plenty of help, of course. The U.S. dominated possession with a high-pressing and aggressive attacking style. And their passing has rarely looked sharper. For a supposed “B” version of the national team, the Americans have dominated their Gold Cup opposition (with the exception of their 1-0 win over Costa Rica in group play). Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann now has the best kind of squad selection headache on his hands going into the last round of World Cup qualifiers.
I’m not sure if every fan in attendance bought the same kind of match ticket I did (which was good for both semifinals), but for whatever reason, the majority of Mexican fans did not bother watching the U.S./Honduras match. That meant the stands weren’t quite full for the U.S. game. But by kickoff time for Mexico/Panama, there was barely a seat left, and Jerry World had turned decidedly green.
In the hour between matches, I walked around the interior of the stadium with my brother, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Mexican fans announcing their arrival. Several friendly mosh pits of bouncing, dancing fans broke out around the main concourses. In a couple of them, American and Panamanian fans jumped in with the Mexicans, creating a potentially volatile, but ultimately jovial mix. My favorite sight of the evening, aside from the on-field action, was a very tall gentleman dressed from head to toe as Uncle Sam who spotted one of the largest of these mosh pits, made a beeline for it, and somehow danced his way right through the eye of the chaotic huddle of bodies. His Uncle Sam hat bobbed above the dancing crowd as he impressively held aloft his beer, not spilling a drop. The crowd roared approvingly as he made it through the dancers and continued on his merry, patriotic way.
The throngs of Mexican fans made it clear why U.S. Soccer never chooses Dallas as a World Cup qualifying venue. Thank goodness the U.S. wasn’t playing Mexico last night because their fans provided an impressive, overwhelming atmosphere of support for El Tri. It was like Estadio Azteca, with plasma TV screens. I love my team and fellow American fans, but we still have a long way to go to catch up with our Mexican brethren when it comes to national team support. While U.S. fans were scattered about in pairs, trios, and small groups of mostly over-18 males – the Mexican fans came as entire families, both sexes, from babies to grandparents. My favorite Mexican fan sighting was a toddler riding on his dad’s shoulders, with the little guy wearing a green Mexico jersey and a tiny sombrero. My hat’s off to the Mexican fans – they definitely know how to support their team.
From the beginning of the match, every time Panama’s goalkeeper Jaime Penedo took a goal kick, Mexican fans yelled out something in unison that I couldn’t make out. After the fourth or fifth time this happened, I leaned over to the guy wearing a Mexico jersey sitting next to me and asked him what everyone was yelling during the goal kicks. He grinned, looking a little embarrassed. “It’s something that’s not very nice,” he replied. We laughed. “But if you really want to know…” and he proceeded to translate.
He was right about it not being very nice. Welcome to international soccer.
Unfortunately for the Mexican fans, Panama was stubbornly impervious to the derisive roar aimed at them from the stands. FC Dallas striker Blas Perez scored first for Panama. The moment immediately following his goal was the quietest of the night. Minutes later when Luis Montes equalized for Mexico, the explosive volume of the Mexican supporters’ celebration was the kind of aural magic soccer fans live for.
Panama’s underdog determination persisted however, and paid off in the 61st minute with Roman Torres’ shocking headed goal off a corner kick that put Panama ahead and ultimately sealed victory.
Some testy moments between Panamanian and Mexican fans flared over the last half hour. The worst I saw didn’t progress beyond shoving and throwing food and drink, but the incidents were enough to make my brother and I decide to slip out with three minutes left in the match to avoid any potential wrath. As we made our way out of our seats wearing our U.S. jerseys, a group of Mexican fans sarcastically heckled us, “Hope you enjoy your win…” and “Enjoy your night…”
We did, thoroughly. And whether their team won or lost, everyone else seemed to have a pretty good time too.