CHICAGO -- Ricardo Ruiz came to America from Guadalajara, Mexico, 20 years ago and is an American citizen.
"I love this country," he said. "I support this country. I would go to war for this country."
But when it comes to soccer? "My heart is always in Mexico," he said.
The deep passion that Mexican-Americans have for their homeland's soccer team has been on display across America in the buildup to the World Cup, which starts next month in South Africa. On Friday, Mexico played Ecuador in the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and drew a sellout crowd of 77,507. In February, it attracted 95,000 for a game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., against New Zealand. And on Monday, it drew another sellout crowd, including Ruiz, at Soldier Field for a match against Senegal. Next up is a game Thursday against Angola in Houston. You can expect another sellout there.
"It's just love," said Roberto Equihua, who was born in America and roots for the U.S. national team except when it plays Mexico. "For the people, for the soccer, for our team. Look at the atmosphere of all the people here to come and see a game. Mexico is part of us."
It's pretty much a one-of-a-kind situation in the soccer world, a nation that draws big crowds in the home of its most-heated rival. England doesn't schedule matches in Germany and Argentina doesn't schedule matches in Brazil. But Mexico will have played 11 matches in the United States in the past two years.
You could see that passion in the parking lots at Soldier Field, where tailgating began in earnest four hours before kickoff. Almost every car had a grill behind it, and almost every person was wearing a Mexico jersey. (And if they weren't, they were available nearby.) There were fans wearing sombreros, drinking Coronas or Modelos, wearing masks worn by Mexican wrestlers and carrying Mexican flags.
The scene could have been one you would see outside Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, except for the cars bearing license plates from the entire Midwest.
"My brother lives in Chicago," said Jose Luis Barron, who made the drive from St. Louis to watch the game. "He called me and said Mexico is going to play here. I said, I'll see you there."
While the passion for the U.S. national team is growing, it still comes up short compared to Mexico's. Comparisons can be difficult because the United States has played only a few domestic friendlies in recent years and its World Cup qualifiers usually are held in smaller stadiums. But when the United States played Brazil at Soldier Field in 2007, the game drew 43,543. In the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. team's three domestic matches drew between 25,000 and 30,000. Last year, the United States (with a depleted lineup) played Sweden in Carson, Calif., and drew 9,918. Five days later, Mexico played Sweden in Oakland, Calif., and drew 46,550.
"Mexico is more about heart, about feelings," said Ruiz, whose has two children, one who roots for Mexico, the other for the United States. "When Mexico is not doing good, we still follow them. When it's cold, we are here. When we're in last place, we are here. They can charge 100 bucks a ticket, and we're still here."
That last point is one of the reasons Mexico comes to America, that more can be charged for a ticket than for games played in Mexico. Doug Quinn, the president of Soccer United Marketing, the branch of MLS that puts on the games, sees it as a win-win situation.
The soccer interests on both sides of the border make money off the games, and the events call more attention to the sport in America, with the expectation that it will help the growth of MLS.
"It's raising the profile and awareness of soccer in North America by raising the water level," Quinn said. "It's what ESPN and Univision will do this summer (with World Cup telecasts). Every time you raise the awareness, you have people who are going to sample it and be reminded how great it is. . . . The fact we're getting these kind of gates shows the growth of soccer in the United States. MLS is truly the beneficiary."
It's not just the Mexican national team that has done well in America. This is the eighth year SUM has worked with the Mexican federation, and there will be about 50 matches involving either the national team or a Mexican club in America this year. Last year, a match at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City between Chivas and Club America drew 26,119. Big-name clubs from other countries also bring big crowds, a case that almost certainly will be proved this summer when Manchester United plays three matches in the United States, including one in Kansas City.
As for the Mexican national team, while the crowds have been big on the team's American tour, the team's offense hasn't. Its last two friendly matches, the game at the Meadowlands and a game against Iceland in March that drew 63,227 in Charlotte, despite the fact that North Carolina doesn't have a huge Mexican population, were both 0-0 ties. On Monday, it created plenty of chances but got only one goal, a 60th minute tap-in by Alberto Medina in a 1-0 win. Mexico will need to find some offense somewhere. It drew a challenging group at the World Cup, with France, Uruguay and host South Africa.