For players with divided allegiances, USMNT-Mexico is about family, food, fun


It’s been a decade, but David Ochoa still can picture the details of the scene in his mind.

“I remember it perfectly,” said Ochoa, a 20-year-old goalkeeper for Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake. “It’s a carne asada and all my cousins are there, all my uncles and aunts are there. My aunts are setting up the beans and rice in the kitchen while my uncles are at the grill.”

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His family members have gathered for a United States vs. Mexico game before: the 2011 Gold Cup final. The game starts with Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan giving the Americans a two-goal lead, but El Tri is level at the half and ahead in the 50th minute. “When he scores that goal, everyone just jumps up and starts screaming and celebrating,” Ochoa continues. “It’s just complete joy.”

Of course, “that goal” is the chip from Giovani dos Santos, one of the best goals in the history of CONCACAF’s best rivalry, putting a beautiful cherry on top of the 4-2 win.

The scene Ochoa paints is familiar to thousands of Mexican-Americans, with players like him that have roots in both countries remembering family getting together, putting meat on the grill and the Spanish-language commentary of Enrique “Perro” Bermudez or Pablo Ramirez providing the soundtrack to most weekends. Games between the U.S. and Mexico, like Friday’s World Cup qualification match in Cincinnati — stream LIVE, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — were always special occasions.

“When I was growing up, it wasn’t like it is now, where you can watch every single game you want on TV or streaming. Back in the day, we would only get a certain amount of games,” said Rodrigo Lopez, a midfielder for USL Championship side Rio Grande Valley FC, who was born in Guadalajara and grew up in California. “Those Mexico games, we would watch for sure, all getting together at my house or with my dad’s friends to watch the game and barbecue.”

Preparation for a match of such importance “starts early,” says FC Dallas midfielder Edwin Cerrillo, who grew up in a household of Club America fans in Waco, Texas. “If the game’s at 7, people are at our house by noon, and my mom’s already cooking up some things to go with the [meat].

“We’d bring an extension cord and bring our TV outside because our living room was very small, so we’d all watch it in the yard. Everybody’s cheering, eating, the kids are around watching the game. We always made it a big deal.”

The food on offer is similar regardless of region: Players remember their families’ carne asada together, typically with rice and beans to go with the beef. One of the most important elements is the salsa — sometimes store-bought, but better when homemade. The question “is this one spicy?” determines how much gets tossed onto the meat, garnished with onion and cilantro.

Botanas — snacks to pick at during the game — include peanuts and chicharron. Aunts and uncles drank beer. After, they recall, there’s no rush to head home, especially on the weekend with conversations about the game continuing long into the night.

Typically, there is little dissent when choosing a rooting interest, with families choosing Mexico, though that has become complicated as players progress in their careers.

“Before Ricardo made his debut for the United States, we were in a Mexican environment — how we lived and enjoyed the game was as a Mexican family. Mexico vs. USA games were important growing up, but we always were supporting El Tri,” said Daniel Pepi, the father of 18-year-old U.S. forward Ricardo Pepi, an El Paso native who opted to accept a U.S. call-up earlier this year and already has three goals in World Cup qualifying.

“Now it’s totally different. We still support Mexico and see it as a country with great soccer, but now we support the United States 100% and have put away the Mexico shirt. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel (Friday) because this is new for me.”

While Pepi is wearing the Stars and Stripes, Ochoa announced his decision to represent Mexico earlier this year, meaning his family will be able to keep donning the green shirt of El Tri as they sit in front of the TV, though it’s not always so simple.

The fandom that often surrounds the rivalry can spill over from friendly to filthy, with accusations about dirty play frequent and trash talk, both online and in person, that too often crosses the line. While they still hold their team close to their heart, the Mexican-American players and their families have a rare appreciation for not only the team they’re playing on or supporting, but also the other side.

“Especially in California, there are a bunch of people like me, and it’s hard to stay out of the culture,” Ochoa said. “I’m obviously with Mexico and definitely want Mexico to win this upcoming game, but at the same time I’m grateful for what the U.S. has given me, the opportunities they gave me with the youth teams on the soccer side.

“It’s definitely going to be a weird one for me this time with the fact that I know players from both sides.”

Those friendships, and an evolving career, can start to send passions in a different direction.

“I would cheer for Mexico, and then I got called into the U.S. U-18s and U-20, so I started cheering for the U.S. and going against my family a little bit, but it’s always a game,” said Lopez. “I don’t really go for anyone now. I just try to enjoy the game. I have friends on both teams, and it’s hard to pick a side.”

In some ways, players told me, it mirrors the Mexican-American experience. Family members and the community are eager to see the joy and pride in the connection to the Mexican roots, while neighbors or teammates may be puzzled when a player who has developed in the U.S. supports, or even represents, the country’s biggest rival.

“You have to be grateful, and I will always love this country — when both anthems come on, I sing both of them. I have love for both countries,” Ochoa said.

No matter which anthem(s) they sing, which jersey players are wearing or how Friday’s match unfolds, the constants remain: For Mexican-American players, Mexico-U.S. games are all about food, football and, most of all, family.

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