United States vs. Mexico to play out with a post-election backdrop
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Matches between the U.S. and Mexico are always pressure-packed. The two neighbors have been battling for regional soccer supremacy for more than 35 years and love nothing better than beating each other.
Viewed from a purely soccer perspective, Friday's World Cup qualifier at MAPFRE Stadium is no different. The match marks the start of the final round of qualifying, and both teams are eager to begin the 10-game slog with a victory. But recent events could potentially add more tension to the encounter. Tuesday's election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and his campaign statements about Mexican immigrants, adds to the backdrop of the match.
To be clear, Friday's match is by no means a proxy for relations between the two countries. But there is no escaping the juxtaposition of Trump's victory and the game itself. For players on both sides, the mood has been one of mindfulness.
"There's a lot of soul-searching to be done in this country," said U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who is the son of Colombian immigrants. "It's a very complex, interesting country. When you get taken out of the urban cities and you go to the rest of America, there's desperation and economic anxiety. It's more than all the 'isms' with the negative rhetoric out there. I hope that it can unite us all."
U.S captain Michael Bradley added, "I certainly think that with everything that has gone on the last few months, there's an added layer to this game. But my general feeling is that we as Americans, we trust our system, we respect our democracy, and we have, regardless of your beliefs, regardless of how you voted, we have an obligation to come together, to get behind our new president, and to have faith and trust that he will do what's best for the entire country."
Mexico forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who is one goal away from tying the all-time scoring record for Mexico's national team, hopes he and his teammates can provide a distraction for their countrymen, no matter where they live.
"There are moments that are not so nice for some people, and [the election result] wasn't the best for Latinos and all of us, but life goes on," Hernandez told Univision. "Sadly, that was the decision that the country took. If our game can give [Hispanics] some joy and take away the sadness they are going through, well good then. We know that all the few fans who are coming from Mexico and all the Mexicans here from the States who are supporting us want to see Mexico win."
Bedoya has found comfort in the makeup of the U.S. roster, which is as diverse as it gets with white, African-American and Hispanic players. Some, like midfielder Jermaine Jones and defender John Brooks, are the sons of U.S. servicemen. Others like Bedoya and forward Jozy Altidore are first-generation Americans. It's not monolithic in its politics either, with Bedoya noting that his views don't often align with those of U.S. teammate and good friend Geoff Cameron, who will sit out the match due to injury. But Bedoya views differences and diversity as a strength of the team.
"This is a true representation of what America is all about," said Bedoya about the U.S. side.
The coaches can tell their own immigrant story. Jurgen Klinsmann, the German-born U.S. manager, has lived in the U.S. since 1998, and at Thursday's press conference stressed the sport's ability to connect people.
"It's purely a game of respect," he said. "We have a lot of respect for Mexico, the people and the team, their coach. So I think this is the wonderful side of sport, which brings people together."
Mexico counterpart Juan Carlos Osorio, a Colombian by birth, spent considerable time in the U.S. during the 1980s and '90s as a student, and later as a head coach in MLS with the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls.
"I was an immigrant in the U.S. trying to get a great opportunity to go to school and work, and work as hard as any other American," he said. "So I can sympathize with what the Mexicans feel about the whole situation. However, and nevertheless, my efforts are all directed towards winning that game, and nothing else. I'm not really here to discuss any political issues."
The matchup has been tainted by spasms of violence in the past, like at the 2011 Gold Cup final that was contested in the Rose Bowl, when some outnumbered U.S. fans were assaulted by fans of Mexico. But games involving the U.S. and Mexico in Columbus -- which is hosting this fixture for the fifth consecutive World Cup cycle -- have been free of major incidents. Lt. Marc Dopp of the Columbus Police Department's special events division said there will be ample security and that the security team at MAPFRE Stadium is ready. U.S. Soccer Director of Communications Neil Buethe said there would be "nothing extra" in terms of security.
"I understand that there is additional attention around the game," he added. "We feel the approach by our fans and by the Mexican fans will be very similar to how it's been in the past, which is respectful."
That is not to say matches held in Columbus have been completely immune from the ugliness that can sometimes invade sporting events. One report highlighted how at the U.S./Mexico game held in Columbus back in 2013, a member of the U.S. supporters group the American Outlaws racially abused a pair of Mexico fans and their children for sitting in their section. In the same article, Pancho Villa's Army founder Sergio Tristan recalled similar treatment from U.S. fans.
As for Friday's atmosphere, U.S. players have been universal in their hope that the crowd will rise above such rhetoric.
"I would hope that [the U.S. fans] give every person in that stadium the respect that they deserve, whether they're American, Mexican, neutral, [men], women, children," said Bradley. "I would hope that every person that comes to the stadium comes ready to enjoy what we all want to be a beautiful game between two sporting rivals that have a lot of respect for each other, and hope that it's a special night in every way."
Bedoya was more blunt.
"I don't want to see negative songs or anything from either side," he said. "You don't want to hear the [cheer] the Mexicans use. I don't need to repeat it. And you don't want to hear chants about walls or anything like that. It's not required here. There's a lot of passion, and it's very competitive, but at the end of the day, it's a game that we love."
To this end, the Mexico supporters group Pancho Villa's Army is determined not to bring any mention of politics into the stadium.
"The game in Columbus has nothing to do with the political situation in the United States or Mexico," said Tristan in a prepared statement. "It's a game, it's sport, it's something wonderfully imperfect that we should never taint with politics.
"There is absolutely no obligation for El Tri to win because President-elect Donald Trump won the presidential race. There is an obligation to win because we fans do everything we can to support this team. We buy tickets at exaggerated prices, we buy every jersey, and we follow them around the world. There is an obligation to win because the US is our rival and if we give them 100% in the stands we expect the same on the field."
As for the American Outlaws, they have taken steps to curtail abusive behavior in their ranks. The organization has a code of conduct that spells out what behavior is acceptable and what isn't. A program called AO Watch will see 50 members spread throughout its section to monitor and help stadium security address any potential flashpoints. The group also plans to sing Woody Guthrie's song "This Land Is Your Land" as a sign of inclusiveness.
"Our hope is that fans focus on the game, because that is what we're going to be focused on," said AO Communications Director Dan Wiersma. "That doesn't mean we're not aware of a very tense political climate that, depending on the result of the election either way, would have had an impact on this game. No matter what the results of the election would have been on Tuesday, we would have said the same thing, which is, 'We're here to focus on the team. We're here to be passionate. We're here to be positive. Here is our code of conduct. Here is what we expect of our members.'
"Ultimately, if our members inside of that stadium or around the country can't follow the rules of basic human decency, which is embedded in our code of conduct, then they're not part of this organization. We don't want people who are using this soccer game, or any soccer game, as a vehicle for hate."
That is Bedoya's intention as well.
"We're both competitive teams, competitive guys. We're both going to try and kick each other's butt on the field," said Bedoya.
And remain respectful off it.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.
Additional reporting by Tom Marshall