U.S.-Mexico soccer game at Rose Bowl will have stepped-up security, officials promise

Security checks a UCLA fan's bag prior to a game.

Security checks a UCLA fan’s bag prior to a game.

(Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)

David Ma has seen U.S. national soccer teams play in seven stadiums in three countries on two continents.

But he never felt more in danger than on a Saturday night in 2011 at the Rose Bowl, when the U.S. lost to Mexico, 4-2, in front of 93,420 fans.

“Beer and beer bottles were thrown at us,” Ma remembers. “After the match, many fights broke out, with no security or police in sight. Looking back I did feel threatened for wearing red, white and blue. There was violence all around.”


Despite that, Ma will be back in a sold-out Rose Bowl this Saturday night when the U.S. and Mexico meet again in a one-game playoff to determine the region’s representative in the 2017 Confederations Cup, a prestigious warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Crowd control has long been an issue for Mexico-U.S. games at the Rose Bowl because of the huge crowds and a soccer rivalry that has grown more bitter and spirited. Add in Southern California’s huge Mexican American population, and it’s no surprise the 2011 game drew the biggest home crowd for a U.S. soccer game since the 1994 World Cup.

But this time, Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn promises Ma and other fans they have nothing to worry about.

“You learn from all your experiences,” Dunn said. “We’ve recognized that it’s an intense rivalry. Inside the Rose Bowl it’s going to be electric and it’s going to feel like a World Cup match.”

It’s also going to be orderly and safe, said Dunn, the result of a larger police presence, cooperation from the soccer federations of both countries and a ticket-distribution system designed to keep fans of the two teams separated.

“It’s going to be more akin to a Rose Bowl game,” Dunn said, referring to the annual college football contest. “You go to a Rose Bowl game and you have half the stadium for one school and the other half for the other.”

Dunn and Ted Howard, the acting general secretary of CONCACAF, the ruling body for soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean and the chief organizer of Saturday’s game, concede mistakes were made in 2011, when scattered pockets of U.S. fans were overwhelmed by a crowd cheering for Mexico.

A reported 27 people were arrested at that game, most on suspicion of public intoxication or fighting in the parking lots and areas outside the stadium. Dozens more could have been taken into custody inside the stadium for drunkenness and fighting, say fans who were there.

“The main problem in the stadium wasn’t what happened, but what didn’t,” said Korey Donahoo of Lincoln, Neb., president of the American Outlaws, a U.S. soccer supporter group with 30,000 dues-paying members. “Our tiny section of a few hundred U.S. fans was surrounded by 90,000 Mexican fans and I had a hard time spotting any security.”

Ma, who works for a medical technology company in San Jose, said a fight broke out in front of him as people tried to enter the Rose Bowl. Moments later, a belligerent fan pushed Ma, dressed in a U.S. jersey, and took a swing at his friend when the two men tried to take their seats.

Not everyone remembers it that way, though. Many Mexican fans said they never felt threatened at the game.

“Everyone was being respectful with each other,” said Manny Arias of Sylmar, who sat in the northeast end of the stadium. “There was some talking back and forth among opposing fans, but it never got violent.”

Another Mexico fan, Miguel Guillen from Turlock, enjoyed the festive atmosphere in 2011, the tailgating, barbecuing and live music. “I actually don’t remember things getting out of control or anything bad,” he said.

George Yanez chalked some of the incidents up to a difference in soccer cultures.

“The beer throwing happens at all Mexico soccer games,” said Yanez, who lives in Fontana. “Sometimes people up front don’t sit down and beer is thrown. The message is made to sit down.”

Either way, with the Rose Bowl crowd growing louder and more raucous with each goal in El Tri’s win four years ago, to some it felt as if Dodger Stadium had been taken over by Giants fans.

As a result, U.S. Soccer quietly began pressing organizers for more stringent security measures.

The 2011 game was the final of the 12-team Gold Cup tournament, so the U.S.-Mexico match wasn’t determined until three days before the game. That made it impossible to segregate the fan bases.

This year, organizers had two months to prepare for the U.S.-Mexico game.

Soccer United Marketing (SUM), a New York-based group that has the U.S. commercial rights to both the American and Mexican national teams, came up with a plan to allocate about 50,000 tickets to the soccer federations of the two countries. Those tickets were offered first to members of official supporter groups, who will be seated in specially designated sections, Mexican fans on the north end of the Rose Bowl and U.S. fans in the south end.

Another 20% of the 86,000 tickets sold were dispersed through a lottery system that allowed buyers to select which section they wanted to be nearest to.

“That will play a big, big role in the way the fan base is going to react on the day of the game,” said CONCACAF spokesman Jurgen Mainka. “Because one is not going to be overpowering the other.”

Yet that won’t solve every problem since thousands of additional tickets, with face values of $49 to $500, are selling on the secondary market for as much as $1,500 with no pledge of allegiance necessary.

To address that, Pasadena Police Lt. Art Chute said Saturday’s security presence inside and outside the stadium — uniformed and undercover police — will be a third larger than in 2011, plus 60% more private security personnel.

Granted, bigger crowds mean bigger security headaches.

Still, it’s easy to see why CONCACAF, seeking a lucrative payday, chose the Rose Bowl for Saturday’s game. Pasadena will profit too, with Dunn saying the city will make more than $400,000 — possibly a lot more — for hosting the game.

By contrast, if Jamaica had qualified for the Saturday playoff instead of Mexico, the match against the U.S. would have been played in New Jersey at a Major Soccer League facility with a capacity of just 25,000.

The unease some fans felt at the Rose Bowl in 2011 has been rare at other U.S.-Mexico games. The two teams have played against each other in nine other U.S. cities since 2003, largely without incident.

So at the invitation of SUM, Rose Bowl officials attended Mexico’s friendly with Argentina last month in Arlington, Texas. Dunn and Chute credited the group for providing valuable information that helped them determine staffing levels and tweak some game-day procedures.

Among the things they learned was a large crowd doesn’t necessarily mean an unruly one, even when it’s split between fierce foes. Many of the same supporters who complained about the lawlessness at the 2011 game were quick to say the vast majority of fans were there simply to enjoy the event.

“I met Mexican fans that shared their beer and tried to calm tensions. I shook hands with many El Tri supporters,” Ma said.

Sergio Tristan, founder of Pancho Villa’s Army, the largest Mexican soccer fan group in the U.S., agrees.

An attorney in Austin, Tristan said he got the idea to form the group while watching the 2011 U.S.-Mexico game at a bar in Texas. As the only fan that showed up wearing the green of Mexico, Tristan said he felt intimidated.

Tristan will be in Pasadena for Saturday’s game, and he embraces the additional security.

“We obviously welcome anything that will make the game experience safer for everybody. We are not a barra brava,” he said, referring to violent fan groups in Latin American. “We have lots of women, lots of children who join us.”

But the new measures weren’t enough bring back Brandon Margulies, a TV camera operator from North Hollywood who had beer poured on his U.S. soccer jersey four years ago. “None of my friends or my girlfriend were interested this time around,” he said. “So I think I’m just going to watch from home or a bar.”

Not Guillen, who will be at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. “I’m hoping we get another memorable game like the last one.”

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11