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March 8, 2013 at 7:49 PM

Guest post: A Sounders FC fan fondly recalls his trip to Monterrey, Mexico

With hostilities over (until next Tuesday, at least), the ECS faithful celebrate a great night with their Tigres counterparts. Photo courtesy of Simon Moyse.

With hostilities over (until next Tuesday, at least), the ECS faithful celebrate a great night with their Tigres counterparts. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Simon Moyse, a Sounders FC fan and member of the Emerald City Supporters, offered to write a guest post for the blog on his travels to Monterrey, Mexico. Moyse and pals were among the estimated 35,000 people at Estadio Universitario (which has a cool nickname you’ll read about) for Wednesday’s first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal between Sounders FC and host Tigres UANL.

*     *     *

Following the Sounders to Mexico’s Drug War Zone

As myself and my two fellow ECS travelers, Shawn Wheeler and Andres Mills, sat on the airplane between Dallas, Texas, and Monterrey, Mexico on Wednesday morning, I took a moment to try to rationalize the trip that we were undertaking.

After 30 seconds, I gave up.

There was no rationalizing this trip.

After all, this is Monterrey we’re talking about. A couple of days after the last time the Sounders played in this city, in August 2011, Monterrey hit the news when 52 people were killed in a narcoterrorist attack on a casino. This is a city that the U.S. government won’t let its employees travel to.  A city that has tragically become synonymous with beheadings and other such awful acts of violence, as the drug war in northern Mexico shows no signs of abating.

And I was going there – spending $680 on the airfare in the process, I might add — to watch a soccer game.

What on earth was I thinking?

Then I remembered. In my slightly bizarre worldview, this trip represented an opportunity to do something extraordinary. I am a big fan of Mexico’s Liga MX, and watching a game there has long been on my soccer “bucket list”. The style of play down there is very pleasing to the eye, based on quick passing and individual skill. The stadiums have history and character, and the fans are loud and passionate.

Furthermore, as Mexican soccer locations go, Tigres is certainly one of the most appealing. Their stadium, the 42,000 capacity Estadio Universitario (affectionately known as El Volcán, “The Volcano”, by the locals), is a terrific soccer arena; indeed, it was used for a number of games in the 1986 World Cup, including Mexico’s quarterfinal loss to West Germany. Tigres have a huge fan-base, and their fans have a reputation for being some of the most loyal and passionate in all of Mexico, without the violent reputation that certain Mexican clubs have.

Beyond this, of course, there was also the small matter of this being an enormous game, a Champions League quarterfinal, against an excellent team that is flying high in Liga MX. And at this point, obviously, we don’t know when we are going to be playing in Champions League again (not in 2013-14, sadly), let alone get to the quarterfinals.

The other thing that made this trip a must-do for me is that, by sheer good fortune, my company happened to open an office in Monterrey in the middle of last year. One of my work contacts, Oscar, kindly agreed to help us with our trip, loaning us the company driver for the duration of our stay.

In short, this trip represented a great one-off opportunity for me, the chance to do something totally unique, something that not many other U.S. soccer fans have done, and a chance that may not come up again in a hurry.

We arrived in Monterrey on the red-eye at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of the game. While my first impressions of the city were how modern everything was and how good the roads were, we got a quick reminder of where we were, as six military jeeps with fixed machinegun turrets went across a junction in front of us. It was a somewhat shocking sight to see, but only to be expected, perhaps, given what this city has been through. Later in the day, we drove past the Casino Royale, the scene of that terrible attack in 2011, now left in disrepair by the side of the road, an eerie reminder of the recent tragedies in this city. Our driver, Antonio, made the comment that visible shows of force by the authorities have considerably reduced the drug-related violence in Monterrey itself over the last couple of years, although in many cases, it has merely moved the problem out into the mountainous regions surrounding the city.

Our first destination upon our arrival was the Estadio Universitario to pick up some tickets for the game. We scored some great seats, four rows behind the Sounders dugout. UANL Tigres are historically the team of one of Mexico’s top public universities, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, and the stadium itself is located right in the heart of the university campus – literally, there is a library just across the street. Even this early in the day, a full nine hours before kickoff, the stadium was a hive of activity, with many students walking over to the ticket office to get their tickets for the game, mingling with souvenir vendors and CONCACAF officials.

Having got our tickets, we headed to a restaurant named El Gran Pastor, to sample the local delicacy, cabrito – roasted kid goat! It tasted fantastic, especially when washed down with a couple of bottles of Bohemia, brewed locally at the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery in Monterrey. After that, we took a quick nap in the hotel before heading back to the stadium for the game.

Oscar and his colleague Javier drove us to the game, and the five of us took our places in the stadium about an hour and a half before kickoff. As the teams came out, we unveiled the “Never Too Far For Our Love Of Sounders” banner that we had painted in my garage the previous weekend. As the Sounders players lined up, they all looked over and saw it, and applauded us, which was a pretty cool feeling. We then hung the banner over the wall, half expecting a) the security people to ask us to take it down, or b) some Tigres fans to come over and try to steal it (there is a history of such acts between supporters groups in soccer). In reality, it attracted an altogether different type of attention – more on that later.

The game started, and I have to say that the atmosphere at this game was one of the best I have ever witnessed. In Seattle, we talk about giving our “Full 90″, but the Tigres barra (supporters group), Libres Y Lokos, took that mantra to its full limits. They had drums, they had trumpets, and literally sang and jumped for the entire match without a break. They were magnificent. The rest of the stadium gave good support to their team, too, particularly in the second half when the noise levels in the stadium started to reach goosebump proportions. To me, this is exactly the kind of atmosphere I enjoy as an away fan – intimidating, not in the “we’re going to get our heads kicked in” sense, but just in terms of the sheer noise that is enveloping you. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. The stadium itself is terrific, too, full of character and cool design touches, such as the tiger’s eyes that stare down on you from the upper level. The stadium was pretty close to full for this game, and it was full of fun, noise and color.

The game itself was pretty entertaining. For the first 10 minutes, it looked like the hiding that many had predicted for the Sounders might come to fruition. Tigres flew at us from the first whistle, missed a golden chance after just a couple of minutes, and the Sounders looked at sixes and sevens. Gradually, though, the Sounders settled into the game, managed to retain some possession in midfield, and safely negotiated their way to half time with the score goalless. Tigres continued to press in the second half, but the Sounders played with great determination and discipline, slowing the pace of the game down wherever possible, and also showing some signs of life on the break, getting in behind the Tigres defense a few times. Tigres finally got the breakthrough with about fifteen minutes left, and one feared that this might open the floodgates, but the Sounders stuck to their task, and even had a couple of good chances to equalize. In the event, a 1-0 defeat is a very creditable result, and leaves us with a solid fighting chance of advancing to the semifinals after the second leg next week. We couldn’t have been more proud of how the team played, especially debutant Djimi Traoré, who was magnificent at the heart of the defense.

At the end of the game, we stayed in our seats for a while before heading out – a security measure to make sure that we weren’t surrounded by too many Tigres fans when walking back to the car. While we were waiting, a couple of groups of young Tigres fans came over to us and asked to have their photos taken with us and our banner. It was an inspiring moment, certainly a far cry from the hostility that we had partly expected from the local fans. Given the history of soccer animosity between the U.S. and Mexico, it was a very pleasant surprise, and a great end to a terrific night at El Volcan.

After the game, Oscar and Javier drove us around the city, and we got some late night tacos at a cool place in San Pedro. Funnily enough, sitting at the next table was Antonio Sancho, a former captain for Tigres who retired in 2011. It’s good to know that even former players get the munchies after a night watching futbol! The following day was spent exploring the city. We saw plenty of evidence of the passion for soccer in this city; just about every street had someone with either a Tigres or a Rayados (CF Monterrey) jersey, and it seemed like everyone we spoke to had seen the game the previous night. One guy even recognized Shawn from having seen him at the stadium.

This really was a terrific trip. We had all been a little apprehensive going in, given all the negative media coverage this city has had, but in truth, I felt perfectly safe there. We never felt threatened, we were never hassled. The people couldn’t have been friendlier. It really struck me that the people who live here are almost bemused by the negative feelings that the world outside has about Monterrey. They are aware of the drug war, of course, but it really doesn’t impact their lives a whole lot. I must say, I felt a little embarrassed that I ever considered skipping this trip for security reasons; the locals live with it every day, but don’t let it stop them living the lives they want to lead. I found it quite inspirational. Furthermore, the city itself is really very beautiful, especially the large downtown plaza, laden with statues and sculptures. There are some parts that are very modern indeed, notably the affluent San Pedro neighborhood with its Louis Vuitton and Versace stores. And, not unlike Seattle, everything has the eye-catching backdrop of the mountains that surround the city. I loved the place and I would go back in a heartbeat; in fact, the three of us sat at Monterrey airport on the way home, looking at flights for the week of the CONCACAF Champions League Final, where we could well meet Rayados if we were to make it. Now that really would be an amazing trip…

*     *     *

UANL Tigres' Estadio Universitario, or El Volcan, with the amazing Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain) in the background. Photo courtesy of Simon Moyse.

UANL Tigres’ Estadio Universitario, or El Volcan, with the amazing Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain) in the background. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

 

Ticket for the game. See if you can spot the unfortunate spelling error! Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Ticket for the game. See if you can spot the unfortunate spelling error! Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Kickoff at El Volcan. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Kickoff at El Volcan. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Tigres' amazing 'Libres Y Lokos' supporters group. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

Tigres’ amazing ‘Libres Y Lokos’ supporters group. Photo and caption courtesy of Simon Moyse.

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