United States and Mexico clash captures imagination among fans

PASADENA, Calif. -- Marco Medina hadn't put head to pillow for many hours in the nights preceding the clash between the United States and Mexico on Saturday in the Rose Bowl.

The 21-year-old El Tri fan had made the journey from his native Phoenix on Friday along with a group of around 25 friends. He'd been counting down the days ahead of the game.

After witnessing El Tri's epic 3-2 extra-time victory over the U.S. in a CONCACAF Cup final that will go down in history, he'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Twice Mexico took the lead in front of almost 94,000 people and each time the United States equalized, before a spectacular Paul Aguilar volley in the 118th minute handed El Tri a significant win.

"It was one of the craziest and most fulfilling things I've ever experienced," said Medina, who is part of the El Tri fan group Pancho Villa's Army's Phoenix Battalion.

"It was like reaffirming that all the sacrifice and effort we put into it was not in vain and was definitely worth it."

Like many in attendance, Medina was born in the United States to Mexican parents and had to navigate the process of deciding which national team to support.

"When I was young at my abuela's [grandmother's] house, everyone was always Mexico, but then in the teenage years, you kind of feel a little bit more, I don't know, admiration or sentiment for the U.S.," explained Medina.

"But I never go against Mexico given that when we were younger we traveled there a lot."

Sisters Mary and Irene, from Los Angeles, thought about the dilemma of which shirt to put on for Saturday's match and came to two different conclusions. Mary chose Mexico, with Irene on the U.S. side.

"We try to represent our culture and our country, so she is going for the culture of our parents and then me for the USA," said Irene.

In front of the iconic Rose Bowl sign, ballet folklorico dancer Alejandra, from Modesto, California, had no such clothing debate. Despite soaring temperatures, she came in the full traditional regional dress of the state of Jalisco, with Mexican flags painted on her cheeks.

Mexico fan outside Rose Bowl.

A photo posted by Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) on

For Sergio Tristan, the founder of Pancho Villa's Army, the will to defeat the United States on Saturday was huge -- but you are unlikely to find a more patriotic American.

The Texan, whose parents emigrated from the Mexican state of San Luis, was an infantryman on the front line of the U.S. Army in Iraq between 2004 and 2006.

"Just because I support Mexico doesn't make me any less American," explained Tristan.

"When [my family] came here [from Mexico], we huddled around our food, our language, our culture and our community.

"I grew up watching Mexico with my grandfather. I'm not going to switch."

Such is the diverse and often complex nature of fandom when it comes to U.S. versus Mexico games.

Outside the stadium before kickoff, "Dos a cero," chants from U.S. fans rose to a crescendo, fading out to a mass singalong of "Cielito Lindo" and "Me-hi-co, Me-hi-co."

The smell of carne asada, bacon-wrapped hot dogs and burgers filled the air. There were the usual luchador masks, cerveza, flags, El Chapulin Colorado and, this time around, Donald Trump, who made multiple appearances in the guise of a piƱata.

El Tri fans were in the majority, roughly 70-30, but the U.S. had significantly increased their presence compared to four years ago ,when the teams met in the same venue and Mexico supporters vastly outnumbered those of the Stars and Stripes.

Wedged in the middle of the two sets of fans were those who simply couldn't decide which team to go for.

Angeleno David Torres -- "I root for both teams, but I grew up a Mexico fan," -- was one, as was Victor Trevino, who wore a neutral Arsenal shirt.

"I'm actually Mexican, both my parents are Mexican, but I'm also American, so I'm kind of torn today," said Trevino. "I want both teams to do well, I'm kind of neutral, so I've got to rock my Arsenal jersey."

If anyone was in any doubt as to whether the U.S. and Mexico national teams were aware they were battling for the hearts and minds of those waverers, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann hammered the point home ahead of the game.

"They [the U.S.] are going to win over thousands of Mexican fans to their side, because of the 90,000 fans that go to the Rose Bowl, even if only maybe 60,000 wear the green jersey, a lot of them have another jersey underneath and that's the American jersey," Klinsmann said ahead of the game .

"I bumped into a fan at the gas station and he said: 'I'm cheering for both teams,' and I said: 'Good for you, we are going to win you over.'"

Medina and many other Mexico fans are adamant that they are not turning, ever, and with El Tri having played 14 games in the United States in 2015 -- compared to one in Mexico -- there is an access to watching the team that fans south of the border can only dream of.

"It is your land, but it is my house," tweeted El Tri's Miguel Layun, slightly provocatively, after the match.

In the end, El Tri lifted the cup and its fans went off into the night the happier bunch. But perhaps the real winner was the occasion itself.

You will struggle to find a better, brighter and more colorful atmosphere anywhere in world soccer than the one Saturday at the Rose Bowl.