This story appeared in the October 12, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
The Brambilas—José and José Jr., of Ontario, California—take pride in their close relationship and the bonds they've built through their mutual love of soccer. But when the U.S. meets archrival Mexico in Saturday's CONCACAF Cup at a sold-out Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena, theirs will be a house divided over the most fundamental of choices: Whose side are you on?
José Sr., a 55-year-old trucking company owner, will wear the green jersey of Mexico, like so many other Mexican-Americans who were born in the U.S. but grew up cheering for El Tri. But José Jr., a 21-year-old journalism student at University of La Verne (California), is part of an emerging demographic of second- and third-generation hyphenates. A die-hard fan of the Stars and Stripes, he has a U.S. Soccer tattoo on his right forearm and chose his Twitter handle (@Jozy_Brambila7) to honor forward Jozy Altidore.
"My dad teases me but not on the level of my mom's side of the family in Mexico," says José Jr. "They call me pocho"—a term for a person with Mexican roots who has embraced U.S. culture. "I tell them, 'I love Mexico as a country. And I love my family. But I feel 100% American.'"
We hear a lot of talk these days about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and it's no surprise that the loudest voice behind those calls—Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—has been a fixture of the buildup to the 66th soccer match between these neighboring nations. The Mexican television channel TV Azteca went viral with a hype video for the game featuring Trump's voice laid over highlights of sad U.S. players. ("We don't have victories anymore. ... The American Dream is dead.")
Against the backdrop of the Build-a-Wall debate, though, this week's game can help remove barriers between the two countries and their respective sports cultures.
First, this game matters: It's arguably the most important U.S.-Mexico match since World Cup 2002, a showdown for regional supremacy and a berth in the '17 FIFA Confederations Cup—essentially a World Cup dry run—in Russia.
What's more, fans of each team have come to care in critical mass. Unlike previous U.S.-Mexico games at the Rose Bowl, in which Mexico fans filled 90% of the stadium, the crowd of over 90,000 Saturday is expected to be much more evenly balanced, more like 60–40 in Mexico's favor.
GALLERY: USA vs. Mexico through the years
USA vs. Mexico Soccer
November 11, 2016 – Mexico 2, USA 1
USA and Mexico players watch Rafa Marquez's 89th-minute header find the net in a famous World Cup qualifying win in Columbus for El Tri.
October 10, 2015 – Mexico 3, USA 2 (AET)
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
April 15, 2015 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Stanford University's Jordan Morris marked his first senior national team start with his first international goal, sparking the USA in another 2-0 triumph over Mexico, this one at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
September 10, 2013 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan scored second-half goals to beat El Tri by the same score for the fourth consecutive qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.
March 26, 2013 — USA 0, Mexico 0
Clint Dempsey captained the U.S. to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca, the second time ever the Americans registered a point in World Cup qualifying in Mexico (the other a 1997 tie). Defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were the stars as Mexico couldn't cash in on several opportunities. The U.S. escaped to remain in second place in CONCACAF qualifying.
August 15, 2012 — USA 1, Mexico 0
It took 25 attempts, but after this friendly, the United States could finally say that it had won at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. Despite being outplayed for most of the match, the U.S. won thanks to an 80th-minute goal from Michael Orozco Fiscal — the first international goal of his career.
August 10, 2011 — USA 1, Mexico 1
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. debut got off to a rough start, as the Americans trailed Mexico, 1-0 after an uninspired first half in Philadelphia. The U.S. showed more verve after halftime, though, and an impressive display from Brek Shea and a 73rd-minute goal from Robbie Rogers led to a 1-1 draw.
June 25, 2011 — Mexico 4, USA 2
In the Gold Cup final, Mexico captured its second straight title in the battle for CONCACAF bragging rights and secured a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Pablo Barrera scored twice; Giovani Dos Santos and Andres Guardado also had goals. The U.S. was up 2-0 early on Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan goals, but poor defending (partially due to the loss of Steve Cherundolo by injury) doomed the Americans.
August 12, 2009 — Mexico 2, USA 1
The U.S. took its first-ever lead at Azteca Stadium, but went on to lose 2-1 in what was a critical World Cup qualifier for Mexico. The win changed the tide for the then-struggling Mexican squad, as it went on to go 3-0-1 in its next four matches to earn a trip to South Africa. The U.S. still went on to finish first in CONCACAF qualification.
July 26, 2009 — Mexico 5, USA 0
Mexico put an emphatic end to the Americans' 9-0-2 home streak against "El Tri." The Mexicans took the Gold Cup from the two-time defending champion, with five different players scoring goals in the second half at Giants Stadium.
February 11, 2009 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Two goals from Michael Bradley gave the U.S. another home victory over Mexico. It marked the eleventh consecutive time that the Americans had gone unbeaten against Mexico when playing on U.S. soil.
June 24, 2007 — USA 2, Mexico 1
Down 1-0, second-half goals from Landon Donovan and Benny Feilhaber gave the U.S. the victory in the 2007 Gold Cup finals. The win earned the Americans a spot in the 2009 Confederations Cup, where they achieved their famous upset over Spain.
September 3, 2005 — USA 2, Mexico 0
A 2-0 victory over "El Tri" clinched a spot in the 2006 World Cup, with goals coming from Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley.
May 8, 2003 — USA 0, Mexico 0
In their first meeting since the 2002 World Cup, an all-MLS squad of Americans played Mexico to a 0-0 draw in front of more than 69,000 people in Houston.
June 17, 2002 — USA 2, Mexico 0
Arguably the biggest win in U.S. soccer team history came against its archrivals at the 2002 World Cup. Brian McBride and Landon Donovan gave the Americans a 2-0 victory in South Korea to send their team to the quarterfinals. It is the furthest stage the team has reached in the World Cup since 1930.
July 1, 2001 — Mexico 1, USA 0
Needing a win to stay in contention for the 2002 World Cup, the Mexicans won 1-0 at Azteca Stadium, making their record 21-0-1 when hosting the Americans.
February 28, 2001 — USA 2, Mexico 0
For the first time ever, the Americans won their third consecutive game against Mexico. The victory came in the World Cup qualifying finals and was held in Columbus, Ohio.
August 1, 1999 — Mexico 1, USA 0
Cuauhtemoc Blanco's goal in extra time eliminated the U.S. in the semifinals of the 1999 Mexico City Confederations Cup. The win capped off a long tradition of Mexican dominance over the American side, a streak that shortly thereafter ended, as the Americans won the next three matches against their rivals.
July 17, 1995 — USA 0, Mexico 0
The USA outlasted Mexico in a penalty shootout to reach the semifinals of the 1995 Copa America. After a 0-0 draw, goalkeeper Brad Friedel was the hero in PKs, making two saves. The U.S. made all four of its attempts and advanced.
That change is partly attributable to CONCACAF's allotment of large blocks of tickets to the U.S. and Mexican federations for distribution, but there are also simply more hardcore U.S. fans these days. Korey Donahoo, co-founder of the supporters group American Outlaws, says his organization nearly doubled in size around World Cup 2014, growing from 18,000 to 32,000 members in what are now 180 chapters (the latest: AO Anchorage). More than 4,000 AO members will travel to Pasadena from all over the U.S. Not to be outdone, Pancho Villa's Army, a U.S.-based supporters group for Mexico fans, will also be on hand with some 1,500 members.
If you're under age 35, it's unlikely that you've sensed any stigma attached to being a soccer fan in the U.S.; fútbol is cool these days. Breaking down the demographics by Facebook likes (a rough estimate), the American Outlaws are most popular among ages 25 to 34 (35%), 18 to 24 (26%) and 35 to 44 (19%). Anecdotally, at least, those young supporters include an increased number of U.S. fans such as José Brambila Jr.
Like most aspects of a hyphenate identity, however, national team fandom is a complex thing.
"Out of 10 personal [Mexican-American] friends, I'd say four are die-hard U.S. fans and the others are Mexico fans," says José Jr. "When the U.S. isn't playing Mexico, they support the U.S. because they were born here. But when Mexico plays the U.S., they feel like they're betraying their heritage if they cheer for the U.S."
Nobody is more aware of the gigantic stateside following for Mexican soccer (and the growing stature of the U.S. team among Spanish-speaking Americans) than Juan Carlos Rodríguez, president of Univision Deportes, which will air the U.S.-Mexico game in Spanish.
Rodríguez notes, "[The Mexican league] is by far the most-watched soccer league in the U.S. And the Mexican national team is the most-watched soccer team in America, regardless of language. It is the jewel of the crown.
"But the U.S. is everyone's team now too. For second- and third-generation Mexicans, it has become their No. 2 team at the very least. So you have a first-generation Mexican cheering for Mexico. And you have a second-generation Mexican struggling over whom to cheer for. There are going to be nearly 100,000 people [at the Rose Bowl on Saturday] and millions watching [on TV] cheering for both teams with a very nonpolitical mind-set."
In other words: removing barriers, dissolving walls.
That's not meant to be naive, of course. A soccer game won't erase the immigration debate, and one of the world's great rivalries will no doubt produce flash points on the field and in the stands.
"There are so many issues extraneous to the game," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia professor who specializes in immigration issues, citing Trump, the ongoing drug war and decades of contentious U.S.-Mexican relations. "The U.S. has been Mexico's one real [non-soccer] enemy in its history. So the Mexicans have an added incentive: Beat the historical enemy, beat the insulting enemy and beat a good team."
Yet even then you can argue that soccer itself is helping to tear down walls. Until the 1990s this rivalry was so one-sided in Mexico's favor that nobody cared much on either side of the Rio Grande. Most telling of the ensuing reversal: The U.S. has beaten Mexico by a 2–0 score so often in the last 15 years that U.S. Soccer applied to trademark the phrase "dos-a-cero."
New chapters only add to the rivalry's rich history. Mexico's 4–2 victory in the 2011 Gold Cup final resulted in the firing of U.S. coach Bob Bradley. Two years later Mexico was seconds away from the indignity of being knocked out of World Cup 2014 during the regional qualifying tournament. Survival depended on charity from the U.S., which had already qualified, and there was Graham Zusi (San Zusi now south of the border) delivering a last-minute goal to knock out Panama and save Mexico's chorizo. "God Bless America!" screamed the TV Azteca commentator.
These days it's a major North American sporting event whenever the U.S. and El Tri take the field, and their countries fight to recruit dual-citizen players the way SEC schools might grapple over a prized tailback. This week's U.S. squad includes three members who could have chosen to play for Mexico (goalkeeper Nick Rimando and defenders Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco); Mexico's has one (goalkeeper Moisés Muñoz) who could have worn the Stars and Stripes.
The winner of this meeting gets a trophy and the Confed Cup berth—but there may be more at stake. In the 15 months since the U.S. reached the World Cup round of 16, coach Jurgen Klinsmann's crew has fallen into a funk, underscored by a fourth-place finish in the 2015 Gold Cup.
Is Klinsmann's job in jeopardy? His boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, says Klinsmann will be safe even if the U.S. loses on Saturday.
But if that happens, you can be certain that for the first time during the coach's four-year tenure there will be widespread calls in the U.S. media for the German with the $3 million-plus annual salary to be axed.
If that sounds like the script for a telenovela, consider the drama on the other side. Mexico coach Miguel Herrera was fired just two days after his team won the Gold Cup in July. His offense: allegedly punching a Mexican media personality—the same TV commentator who cried "God Bless America!"
These latest plot twists have only increased the banter inside the Brambila household as the clock ticks down to Saturday's kickoff. But even then, all is not as simple as it seems. These days José Sr. coaches the youth soccer team of his 12-year-old daughter Isabel, who's a goalkeeper.
"My dad wears a Mexico jersey, but he loves the U.S. women's national team," says José Jr. "My sister is a huge Hope Solo fan, and her dream is to play for the U.S. So when it comes to women's soccer, he's a U.S. fan."
José Jr. laughs. So does his father. National team relationship status: It's complicated.