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Most popular soccer team in US? Mexico — but who benefits?

El Tri’s popularity in the United States is a moneymaker, but some say it’s hurting Mexico’s chances

FOXBORO, Mass. — Last week, several hundred people thronged the platform of Boston’s Back Bay Station. A special soccer train, chartered from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, was taking the young and the carless to Gillette Stadium for a final pre–World Cup friendly between Mexico and Portugal.

Aside from the enthusiastic but overmatched Portugal fans, the crowd was predominantly supporting the most popular soccer team in the United States: the Mexican national team, or El Tri.

Mexico’s fans, with their raucous chants and occasional contemptuous beer showers, are among the most colorful and energetic in the United States, a country where stadium enthusiasm is often orchestrated with Jumbotron exhortations and musical cues.

“America has baseball and basketball and football,” said train rider Rachel Cohen, who was visiting from Mexico City with her husband, Abraham. “But soccer is all we Mexicans have.”

El Tri’s annual slate of games north of the border generates millions, not just for the Mexican soccer federation, Femexfut, but also for American interests — particularly Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the commercial arm of Major League Soccer. Since 2003, SUM has owned the promotional and marketing rights to El Tri, staging five well-attended games every year.

“The Mexican soccer team is unique in having two markets: the ‘natural’ one in Mexico, and in the U.S. with Mexican migrants,” said José Samuel Martínez López, a professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. “The consumer market for soccer among Mexican migrants is strong and growing, and MLS has seen this as a good place to do business.”

Such is its binational draw that El Tri has two slates of corporate sponsors, with SUM selling the U.S. sponsorships to such companies as Allstate, Castrol, Frito-Lay, Makita and Home Depot. In stadiums, there are so many logos to display that the television cameras for U.S. and Mexican audiences are situated on opposite sides of the field, with corresponding brands in view. This practice is known as “reverse broadcasting,” according to Marisabel Muñoz, MLS vice president for communications, who added that Femexfut retains control of all television and radio rights.

Whether this lucrative relationship is improving Mexican soccer is another question. The Mexican players have skill and charisma, but lately they have been losing — and losing ground — to the Americans. 

On the downslide

After a humiliating World Cup qualifying campaign in 2013 in which El Tri won just two of 10 games and saw three coaching changes in a single month, Mexico squeaked into this summer’s competition by defeating New Zealand in a playoff late last year.

This year, Mexico’s results have improved somewhat over the course of seven friendlies played in five months. Attendance at the U.S. dates was robust, topped by the 84,876 who turned out to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for a 3–1 victory over Ecuador on May 31.

But to Mexico City journalist Esteban Illades, the U.S.-based Mexico fans aren’t discriminating enough, citing the frequently lackluster opponents.

“If the stadiums are already packed even if it’s Mexico-Zimbabwe, Femexfut sees no reason to mess with the golden goose,” Illades said in an email. “As long as people keep going to the matches, we’ll keep seeing bad games.”

Illades, who writes for the political and cultural magazine Nexos, recently published a 10,000-word essay on the ills of the game in Mexico.

“There’s no efficient allocation of resources (player scouting is non-existent, youth teams are badly trained and top-flight sides are hugely mismanaged in terms of money),” Illades said.

Still, there once were high expectations for the current generation. In the 2011 Gold Cup, Mexico defeated the U.S. 4–2 in front of 93,420 in the Rose Bowl, a victory sealed by an audacious, thrilling goal by Giovani dos Santos. The following summer in London’s Wembley Stadium, Mexico defeated Brazil for the Olympic gold.

But the disasters of 2013 followed, and Mexico is given little chance of escaping a group that includes Brazil and Croatia in the World Cup, where it debuts against Cameroon on Friday. Now trends seem to favor the United States, a perpetual underdog that has reason for optimism despite a daunting draw: Of its last 24 games, it has won 19 and lost only three.

While Mexican observers say that shambolic governance hampers El Tri’s progress, America’s strong governing structure and equally robust players are able to overcome a frequent lack of creative spark on the field and widespread public indifference to soccer as a spectator sport. 

U.S. gaining ground

Although the sport is undergoing a quadrennial wave of fresh publicity, to some foreign visitors soccer’s popularity in the U.S. is hard to detect. One rider on the soccer train, Gino Giannone, a well-traveled Italian-Venezuelan medical student, hadn’t noticed any American affinity for the sport, apart from last week’s event.

“Interest is very low,” he said. “The passion is not there.” 

MLS has proved adept at creating a stable, steadily growing league, but television ratings continue to be poor. The New York Times published data showing that of all 32 countries participating in the World Cup, the U.S. is the most indifferent to the sport, with only 11 percent of Americans “very interested,” while 60 percent have no interest at all.  The Washington Post also recently produced statistics that suggested soccer’s growth in the U.S. has stalled.

However, Muñoz countered with studies showing that MLS’s popularity with adolescents and young adults compares favorably with the NBA and Major League Baseball. A Nielsen study earlier this year showed that one-third of MLS TV viewers are Latino.

“All properties within the SUM portfolio, including the Mexican National Team, offer opportunities to attract new fans for our MLS clubs and expose them to our venues and training facilities, and to continue to create buzz for the sport in the different markets across the United States and Canada,” Muñoz said.

While MLS, SUM and the U.S. Soccer Federation work with a common purpose of building interest in the United States’ domestic league, Illades noted that in Mexico there is no strategic coordination between the big clubs and the federation. None officially, anyway.

“The people who make the decisions regarding El Tri (where they play, who they play against, even who the manager will be) are the owners of the teams,” he said. “There’s something called the junta de dueños (owners’ meeting) which takes place every so often. It’s behind closed doors and we never really know what they actually decide.”

Fraught future?

In Foxboro, the soccer train finally arrived just before kickoff, having taken nearly two hours to cover 22 miles. More than 1,000 fans made a dash for the stadium. In front of what was a home-away-from-home crowd, El Tri often looked inspired against the Portuguese, who were playing without their injured superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Near the game’s end, the official attendance of 56,292 was announced.

“Major League Soccer thanks you for your support,” the announcer said.

Despite numerous chances for El Tri, Portugal snatched the victory in stoppage time. It was an unlucky result for a Mexican team that had played well. But for fans such as Sergio Guerrero, the future of El Tri is fraught.

“In the U.S., the level of play is growing, obviously. But Mexico is stagnant,” said Guerrero, a native of Mexico City who is in the U.S. while his wife pursues a graduate degree in Durham, North Carolina. “It is very obvious that the U.S. is better than Mexico. Based on the first half of the last friendly [on April 2], there is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. will be strong in the upcoming World Cup. Mexico will be nowhere.”

This story has been updated to include remarks from SUM about the Mexican soccer team's role in widening the MLS's audience in the United States.

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