Alfonso Lopez left Mexico 26 years ago. But he didn't leave behind his passion for the Mexican national soccer team.
"It's my country. It's my team," he said Sunday, speaking in Spanish from his seat near midfield at the Rose Bowl, where Mexico met Panama on the opening day of the biennial Gold Cup. "This is a chance to feel close to home, close to my roots."
The game didn't provide much of a chance to celebrate though, with Mexico's young "B" team losing a sloppy and mistake-filled 2-1 decision. At the final whistle, embattled Mexican Coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre was pelted by cups of beer and soda and bottles of water as he made his way toward the tunnel leading to the locker room.
Under De la Torre, Mexico's first-choice national team has won only one of six matches in the final round of World Cup qualifying and won only once in three tries in last month's Confederations Cup. For this tournament, Mexico, like other teams still alive in World Cup qualifying, called up primarily a reserve team. And that one hasn't fared much better, losing a pair of tuneup games to club teams before Sunday's disastrous performance against Panama.
"They weren't very good," grimaced Lopez, who joined many in the crowd in chants calling for the coach's ouster.
"I think it's time for a new coach. I'm a little disillusioned."
The afternoon didn't start out that way. For Lopez, Sunday's game was a rare treat, only the second time he has seen the national team in person since leaving Mexico in 1987.
"We always watch them on TV. It's cheaper," said his wife, Elva, who snapped photos with her cellphone and emailed them to a son in Italy, who was watching the game on the Internet. "It's like watching one of my kid's games. I like soccer, but I care only for Mexico. And the USA."
Lopez, a 43-year-old maintenance man at an apartment complex near his Newhall home, wore a national team jersey. His 19-year-old daughter, Iris, dressed similarly, making them two more drops of water in a sea of green that washed over the Rose Bowl. (Late in the game, a tiny part of that sea splashed onto the field when two fans in the crowd of 56,822 ran onto the field. In the second instance, in stoppage time, a man carrying a Mexican flag eluded security and briefly played defense, interrupting a building Panama attack.)
While Lopez was content to watch the game with his family, three sections away, Jesus Perez sat in the middle of an army. A 21-year-old warehouse worker from Paramount, Perez heads up the Southern California chapter of Pancho Villa's Army, a group of Mexico soccer fans founded in November by Sergio Tristan, an Austin, Texas, attorney.
Sunday, the army mustered 250 soldiers to take on Panama. But unlike other such groups, Pancho Villa's Army is composed mainly of English speakers.
"When I'm on Twitter, Facebook or whatever, we communicate in English," Perez said. "So I guess you can say we're different."
Different too in that Pancho Villa's Army insists members leave their allegiances to club teams at home when they come to support the national team.
"We want a supporters' group that integrates the family and the passion for soccer," said Army soldier Rey Salcedo. "When you come to support Mexico, it's all about Mexico and about supporting the flag."
Even if the national team appears to be flying that flag upside down.
Mexico was done in Sunday by a pair of goals from Gabriel Torres. The first came on a penalty kick in the seventh minute, a score Mexico matched with a goal from Marco Fabian in first-half stoppage time. But the tie didn't last long, with Torres scoring again three minutes into the second half.
Although Mexico dominated in time of possession and outshot Panama, 13-8, the team was far from crisp and had trouble finishing. But De la Torre insisted he isn't worried about his job and said Mexico's struggles had the potential to strengthen the team.
"If you don't have character, you can't overcome difficult situations," he said. "Any difficult situation that you have along the road, you have to think: How are you going to turn things around?"
In the first match of the tournament-opening doubleheader, Fabrice Reuperne's goal late in stoppage time gave Martinique a 1-0 win over Canada and earned the 37-year-old a measure of redemption for a devastating penalty-kick miss in a loss to Canada in the quarterfinals of the 2002 Gold Cup.
Reuperne, who entered the game in the 79th minute, pounced on the ball after a poor Canadian clearance of a corner kick and bent a 25-yard shot just out of the reach of keeper Milan Borjan and into the upper right-hand corner of the net.
The U.S. opens play in the Gold Cup on Tuesday against Belize in Portland, Ore.
Times staff writer Andrew Gastelum contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times