HOUSTON -- When the team bus pulls up at Reliant Stadium this evening and Coach Hugo Sanchez and the players on the Mexican national soccer team disembark, another milestone will have been reached.
For the fifth consecutive year, the Tricolor will be on tour in a country where it is every bit as welcome and as well-supported as it is in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey or anywhere else "El Tri" travels.
More than 60,000 fans are expected for tonight's friendly against the United States national team, and the crowd could very easily approach the 70,092 that packed this same stadium last year to see Mexico play Costa Rica in the Gold Cup.
The most popular soccer team in the U.S.? It's Mexico by a landslide.
Large crowds have been the norm across the country for the last four years.
In 2007, Mexico played 12 games in nine U.S. cities and averaged 53,207 people per game.
Putting that into perspective, the U.S. national team played 12 games at home and drew an average of 32,754 people.
Take away the two games against Mexico, and the U.S. averaged 27,958.
But far from being a dampener on the growth of American soccer in general and Major League Soccer in particular, Mexico's national and club teams could well be the catalyst that makes soccer thrive in the U.S.
"There's a quote from French philosopher Auguste Comte that 'demography is destiny,' and it's pretty apropos to what's happening in this country," said Will Wilson, executive vice president of Soccer United Marketing, or SUM.
"It's very hard to deny the demographic shift that's happened in the U.S. over the last 10 or 15 years. The high percentage of Mexicans that are part of that shift means the demand for soccer has grown exponentially, along with the growth of soccer in the mainstream in the U.S.
"So for us, the relationship with Mexico is an important one."
Which is why SUM -- founded by MLS investors in 2002 -- has promoted five-game tours of the U.S. by "El Tri" annually since 2004 under a contract that runs through 2010.
In a sense, that has made the U.S. the home-away-from-home for Sanchez's team. In the last two years, Mexico's national team has played 35 games, 17 of them in the U.S., 11 in Europe and South America, and only seven in its own country.
But although fans in Mexico might appreciate seeing their team in person rather than on television, Mexican officials are quite satisfied with the arrangement, according to the Mexican soccer federation. There is little doubt that since SUM began organizing these annual "tours" of the U.S. by Mexico's team, the numbers have soared, as have the commercial opportunities surrounding the games.
In 2004, the average attendance for the five games was 30,991 -- last year, the average was 50,146.
"The more high-quality big soccer events that take place in this country, the better," Wilson said.
"It's going to raise the level of MLS, it's going to raise the level of soccer as a whole." Mexico also benefits financially because it not only has its sponsors and commercial tie-ins south of the border, but now has additional revenue coming from north of the border generated by sponsors SUM brings to the table for games played in the U.S.
Tonight's game, for instance, could mean a gate of $3 million or more on ticket sales alone.
Similarly, MLS profits from the visits by Mexico's national team and by the participation of Mexican club teams in SUM-sponsored tournaments as the InterLiga, now 4 years old, and the SuperLiga that launched last year.
Every owner-investor in MLS is also an owner-investor in SUM. So even though most MLS teams still operate in the red, SUM's financial success helps make investment in the league more appealing.
"The real focus for SUM is just to raise the value of all forms of the game and MLS is one of the beneficiaries of that, but the Mexico national team also has been," said Ivan Gazidis, deputy commissioner of MLS.
"There are 27 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States," he said. "Hispanics are 35% of the MLS fan base, and that's higher than any other major sport in the U.S., so we're very closely entwined with the Hispanic audience."
The fact that "El Tri" is wildly popular here contributes to the equation.
"Mexico's a good team," said Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, "but it's not going to be as attractive a draw in Europe as it is here."
Added Gazidis: "U.S-Mexico games these days are almost automatically sellouts and major, major sporting events. That didn't use to be the case. That's driven by the fact that that U.S. is now more competitive with Mexico, these are real games.
"It's an unusual situation. There aren't many countries that have an enormous fan base outside of their home nation, in a neighboring nation."
International soccer friendly,
United States vs. Mexico
Site -- Reliant Stadium, Houston, 6 p.m. (Pacific time).
TV -- ESPN2 and Univision.
Update -- This is the first of six games Mexico will play in the U.S. in 2008. Mexico holds a 29-14-10 advantage in the series that dates to 1934, but the U.S. has a 12-7-7 advantage since 1990 and has not lost to Mexico on American soil in since 1999.
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Mexico's Games in the United States in 2007:
*--* Date City Opponent Att. Feb. 7 Phoenix U.S. 62,424 Feb. 28 San Diego Venezuela 63,328 March 28 Oakland Ecuador 47,416 June 8 East Rutherford, N.J. Cuba 20,230 June 10 East Rutherford, N.J. Honduras 68,123 June 13 Houston Panama 68,417 June 17 Houston Costa Rica 70,092 June 21 Chicago Guadeloupe 50,790 June 24 Chicago U.S. 60,000 Aug. 23 Denver Colombia 17,737 Sept. 12 Foxborough, Mass. Brazil 67,584 Oct. 17 Los Angeles Guatemala 42,349 *--*
Total attendance: 638,490
Average attendance: 53,207