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WORLD CUP: U.S. VS. MEXICO

A Test of Long-Distance Loyalty

Soccer: Tonight, many fans in L.A. will root for the team from their native land.

June 16, 2002|JOE MATHEWS and HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tonight at 11:30, when she would usually be in bed, Evangelina Gonzalez will take a seat in the living room of her Lincoln Heights apartment, turn on the television and watch a soccer game along with many others in Southern California.

Screaming the occasional obscenity, the 59-year-old will awkwardly cheer against America, the nation she loves, the place she has called home for 35 years, the country to which her husband owes his citizenship. And she will root for the Mexican team with greater fervor than she ever managed when she actually lived there.

"Now that I'm here, I feel more passion," says Gonzalez, a Guadalajara native. "Maybe because I'm so far away, because I miss my country. If anything, I feel more Mexican than ever before."

That passion, fueled by nostalgia and nurtured through years of long-distance loyalty, will keep millions of others up nearly all night.

Tonight in South Korea, the national soccer teams of the U.S. and Mexico will meet in the second round of the World Cup, with the winner continuing into the quarterfinals and the loser returning home.

Despite the distance, it is a distinctly local contest, the soccer version of USC tackling UCLA, Serena Williams trading ground strokes with sister Venus or even the Clippers playing the Lakers.

For fans in Los Angeles, the Mexican team is practically a local squad. It plays in Southern California more than the U.S. team--often selling out the Coliseum. Men kicking up dust in Southland parks wear the jerseys of clubs from Guadalajara and the Federal District of Mexico. A top Mexican club has trained in Ventura County, and the leading Mexican league has considered putting a club here.

The game will touch off Sunday night parties, fill up bars and arenas, and kick the initiative out of many a Monday morning. And for some, it's a case of torn loyalties.

"I'm caught in the middle," said 23-year-old Peter Alcantar, the son of Mexican parents, as he watched the victory parade Friday for the Lakers. "I love Mexico, but the U.S.A. is my home country."

"I am Mexican American," added Guillermo Gonzalez, the 60-year-old owner of A and Z Nut Wagon in East Los Angeles. "So my personal opinion is that it is like watching brother against brother."

Soccer experts make Mexico a slight favorite over the U.S., whose advance into the second round was considered a major upset.

But even in the glow of that unexpected success, the American side remains the second favorite team in the nation's second-largest city. The match gives Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants the chance to obsess over the biggest sport of their home nation in their new nation.

Although legions of youth play soccer every weekend in highly organized leagues throughout the U.S., helping to institutionalize the phrase "soccer mom," love of the game has not reached the heights of other sports.

"We're still working on growing soccer in this country," said Patrick Donnelly, a spokesman for the L.A. Galaxy, the professional soccer team that plays at the Rose Bowl. "We're behind some of the more established sports, like baseball, basketball and football."

Those from overseas, and particularly Mexico, "have a little bit more of a soccer tradition," he said. "They grew up learning about the game from their parents, and their parents really cared. A tradition like that is something we're working on building."

Brian Biach is typical of those who prefer other sports.

Although he was having a drink Saturday night at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney in Anaheim, he won't be back there to watch the game live tonight.

"I'll check on it later," said Biach, 39, of Bradenton, Fla. "Soccer is too long and boring."

But other fans have shown enough interest to persuade ESPN Zone to stay open late tonight for those who want to watch the entire game, said operations manager Ron Braxton. When Mexico plays, nearly 500,000 Los Angeles-area households are tuned to the World Cup, even though it's the middle of the night. By comparison, the U.S. games are watched by only a third that number. Even the Dodgers, whose games are usually in prime time, typically attract half as many households.

Aware of the pro-Mexican zeal in Los Angeles, the U.S. team prefers to play the Mexican team in places such as Columbus, Ohio, and Foxboro, Mass.

"I'll never cheer the United States soccer team, ever," says Hector Agredano, 30, an assistant manager at Vallarta Supermarket in Van Nuys. "Would a USC fan cheer for UCLA?"

Mexico fans say that nostalgia and memory--not any distaste for the U.S.--have cemented their allegiance. In much the way that expatriate New Yorkers seem to outnumber local fans when the Yankees play the California Angels here, many Mexican Americans side with the country of their birth.

"I came here when I was a 13-year-old, and I've been living here for 40 years," says Francisco Sanchez, 53, cooking carne asada in Lincoln Heights. "My heart is with the Mexican team."

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