At USA vs. Mexico, there will be a big, awkward elephant in the room

The “fortress,” as it’s been dubbed by U.S. Soccer, really isn’t a fortress at all. If you were to lay siege to it, all you’d need to breach its meek gates is a decent hacksaw. Most generously, the Columbus Crew’s stadium can be described as Spartan and outdated. More honestly, it’s a superstructure of glorified bleachers, named for an unpronounceable Spanish insurance company – Mapfre – that for some reason decided an MLS stadium in the dead-center of Ohio made for a sound branding opportunity.

[ USA-Mexico: Live updates | Political statement? | Controversies | Dos a cero ]

Mapfre was the first soccer-specific stadium in the country built in 1998, and as such is something of a national soccer landmark, but the Crew, a modest club even by MLS standards, is dissatisfied with it and already looking into a new home.

Yet this place, set amid some industrial grounds on the outskirts of town, long abandoned by whatever was there before, is the unlikely stronghold of the United States men’s national team. It is undefeated in nine World Cup qualifiers in Columbus, going 7-0-2, and on Friday, the Americans will seek a fifth straight 2-0 win over their loathsome regional arch-rivals Mexico in a qualifier in Columbus.

The history of this game all but assures that there will be tension on the field and a cascade of support and U-S-A chants from the stands. As is customary in big-time international soccer, there will also be throbbing, unchecked jingoism. And, if we’re being frank about the typical atmosphere in Columbus around these games, runaway bro-ism.

There will be two loaded teams, both perhaps as deep as ever, having good years and playing well of late – both undefeated in their last four games, both winning three of those. There will be numerous references to “Dos a cero,” the rallying cry referring to the score in favor of the USA in the last four iterations of this game. In Spanish, just in case the point wouldn’t arrive otherwise.

There will be hype and sizzle reels and hyperbole. There are also real stakes. And there will be real consequences to this game, opening, as it does, the final round of World Cup qualifying for both the U.S. and Mexico, putting a potential loser on the back foot right away. Both coaches, the USA’s Jurgen Klinsmann and Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio, have some job security now, but that could slip away quickly if qualifying begins badly.

But there’s an elephant in the room, casting a shadow over all that soccer buzz. One representing the elephantine political party in a red power tie. The one who rhetorically drapes himself in the American flag, with a propensity for making dramatic statements, angering and alienating Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and promising to build tall walls.

The one who just became President-Elect.

This game, this direct bout between neighboring countries, it won’t have escaped you. It falls just three days after a national election that put the United States’ very relationship with Mexico on the presidential ballot.

And at such a sensitive time in U.S.-Mexican relations, the partisanship of sports, even when largely unserious and driven by fandom, rather than geopolitics, can resonate further than it’s intended to. For the most part, American fans will cheer for their team and root against Mexico, because El Tri just so happens to be the Yanks’ opponent. There probably won’t be much more subtext to it than that for the overwhelming majority of fans.

But the optics of it will be deceiving, with a mob of red-white-and-blue clad Americans pitted against neighbors outfitted in green.

“I think it definitely is awkward, because for as much as there’s no intention to be nationalistic, the current national climate gives other people, Mexico fans, the feeling that the chants and the T-shirts have a subtle connotation to them,” says Sergio Tristan, the founder of Pancho Villa’s Army, the Mexican national team’s fan club in the United States.

Tristan was born and raised in Austin, Texas, to Mexican parents. He served his country proudly in Iraq in two tours totaling 30 months and then became an attorney in his hometown. He started Pancho Villa’s Army in 2013. It now has 1,000 members across 30 chapters, he says. (Their U.S. national team counterparts, the American Outlaws, by contrast, claim to have 30,000 members in 175 chapters.)

Unlike the Outlaws, PVA won’t have its own, dedicated section on Friday. Tristan doesn’t blame U.S. Soccer for this. “We completely understand,” he says. “It’s a home game and they want to make it a home game crowd.” It was on the Mexican federation to secure a block of seating, if at all possible. It didn’t, although plenty of members will still go.

There’s no malice there, Tristan contends. Any federation would try to fix the conditions to be as favorable as possible. This is about the game. And that’s how he likes it.

“On our part, we’re trying to make an effort to make sure it’s about sports,” he says. “On both sides, there’s no ill will or intention, but in the current climate a T-shirt that might be your normal sports banter might be taken differently by someone else, even if the intention wasn’t there.”

The key is a certain cognizance that a double meaning might be read into things that are usually passed off as sports banter. In the current context, the Outlaws’ “This land is our land T-shirt”, for instance, can easily be misconstrued, especially when an “I Voted” sticker is affixed to it, as one member had. She tweeted out a picture of it but then deleted it when PVA took issue.

“You see that thrown around in the political arena, and it gets used for a different message,” Tristan says of the T-shirts text.

The poster in question says she meant nothing by it. The T-shirt isn’t supposed to be exclusive, AO says, but this all just underscores the fragility of perceptions in our times.

A little thought can go a long way to preventing a potentially tricky situation and keeping the focus on the game. “I would much rather talk about soccer and soccer only, and tweet about soccer and soccer-bashing and trash-talking than anything even remotely related to politics,” Tristan says. “Fans on both sides need to be a little tolerant with each other this week. If a T-shirt seems to be offensive, we should think if that was really the intent. At the end of the day, we’re all neighbors, we all live together.”

“And at the end of the week,” he continued. “We watch soccer with each other.”

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