How is it that the quick flick of a left foot can ignite a celebration that’s equal parts Cinco de Mayo, 21st birthday and, yes, even Christmas?
It happened at Qwest Field on a postcard of a Saturday afternoon, as Jorge Torres Nilo scored off an assist from Hector Moreno in the seventh minute to give the Mexican National team the early lead in its exhibition match against Ecuador. The match ended in a 1-1 tie as Michael Arroyo ripped a shot into the net in the 37th minute.
But it was difficult to tell that Mexico didn’t prevail – and in lopsided fashion – if the response from a crowd of 50,305 mostly Mexico fans that turned Qwest into a sea of green, white and red was any indication. They came to cheer “El Tri,” and did just that.
“It’s a really lovely feeling to see the stadium fill up here,” forward Pablo Barrera said through an interpreter. “The people are here supporting us and it’s great to see the excitement we feel from the fans.”
By 9:30 a.m., those fans already had jammed all areas and avenues around Qwest. The closer it got to the 1 p.m. first kick, the thicker the crowd got. They were wearing and waving Mexican flags. Faces were painted in the same tri-color combination to match the flag – and players’ uniforms, which included green jerseys, white shorts and red socks.
“It doesn’t surprise us,” Barrera said. “But it makes a very big impression on us when we come in and we see such a large stadium with so many fans. So we we’re expecting it, but it still makes a very big impression on us.”
The fans came not only en masse, but as families. And it became very clear, very early, that this was not just another soccer match. It was a celebration of Mexican heritage, passion and pride.
David Alcantara made the trip from Yakima with his extended family that numbered 14, including his son and daughter. The chance to see the Mexican National team was a right birth for him, as well as a rite of passage for his kids.
“I have seen Mexico play three times before,” said Alcantara, who was born in Mexico. “But this is the first time for my children. And it is important that no matter where we live that they get a chance to see their team play.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Alcantara and his kids didn’t have to wait long to get the first extended cheer, as Torres Nil put his short shot past Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera.
“The play just kind of presented itself and all I did was just push it in,” Torres Nil said through an interpreter. “My teammates passed it to me and I just got a hold of it and put it a little bit high and it went right in.”
Mexico continued to play its up-tempo style, which features precision passing and shot-creating spacing as they held a 14-2 bulge in shots on goal. But Arroyo’s blast past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa forced the aggressors to settle for a tie.
“He kicked it very hard and just put it in the corner,” Ochoa said. “They made a great shot and a great goal. It’s just part of the game.”
Still, Mexico remains unbeaten (2-2) in its exhibition series that started in February with a 2-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina and will conclude Wednesday with a match against New Zealand in Denver. In between, there was a 3-1 win over Paraguay in Oakland and a 1-1 tie with Venezuela in San Diego.
It’s all a buildup to Mexico defending its championship in the Gold Cup, which begins next week.
“It was a little bit different,” Torres Nilo said of settling for a draw in a match they controlled. “I think our opponents are worthy opponents and they knew how we play and we know how they play. They kind of bunkered a little bit and we just kept trying our hardest.
“No, we didn’t get another goal, but really what we are looking for is the Gold Cup and that’s what we are looking forward to.”
By on this day, the real winners were the fans who flocked to see “their team.”
Like 13-year-old Maria Ramos, who came to the match with her mother and younger brother and sister.
“I’m very excited to get to see my team play and to support my team,” Ramos said. “This is like Christmas to us.”
Ramos paused before adding, “No, this is bigger than Christmas. Christmas comes every year. The Mexican team doesn’t. We had the countdown going the past month just getting ready to see them. It’s very exciting.”
Not only Christmas in May, but better than Christmas.
“It’s just a great feeling of satisfaction to come here and have people from your country following you and your career outside of the country,” Torres Nilo said. “I feel so much pride when they do that and I also am really thankful.
“I want to say thank you to the fans for the support they gave us.”