April 28, 2015
They came with the green, white and red Mexican flag draped around their shoulders.
They came wearing jerseys emblazoned with the Mexican national soccer emblem.
They came filled with national pride.
Last Friday night's matches between the University of Notre Dame women's soccer team and the Mexican national Under-20 team, and the Fighting Irish men's team and the Mexican national U-17 team, were exhibition contests that had the passion of championship events.
While the competition was intense, the celebration of sport and culture by a sellout crowd of more than 3,000 fans at Alumni Stadium was thunderous.
High-level soccer ruled the day. Notre Dame's women's team posted a 4-1 victory against the Mexican U-20 team, and then the Notre Dame men scored a thrilling 2-1 victory in extra time against the Mexican U-17 team.
While soccer owned the stage, so did culture. The tempting aromas of meats grilled for tacos wafted over the Alumni Stadium crowd. Both the Mexican and American national anthems were sung before the matches, and announcements in Spanish and English rang out over the public-address system.
"This is a great opportunity for the Hispanic community in the area to come out and show its support for Mexico," Yessica Gonzalez, the family services coordinator for La Casa De Amistad in South Bend, said of the Mexican national teams competing against Notre Dame. "It's a little taste of Mexico that comes to us.
"Soccer is something that runs deep in our veins from when we're young. All of our community is involved in soccer in some way. Coming to these events brings us together as a community and a culture."
Notre Dame opens its campus and heart to the local Mexican community through the soccer friendlies. Former Notre Dame women's soccer head coach Randy Waldrum started the event, and then Fighting Irish men's soccer head coach Bobby Clark asked Waldrum about arranging a spring exhibition with a Mexican national team. The doubleheaders featuring the Notre Dame and Mexican men's and women's teams have been going on the past 10 years.
Clark said the United States national teams have made strides against the Mexican teams since that time.
"It used to be an automatic win for Mexico against the U.S.," Clark said. "Now the U.S. is winning at the full national level in almost every game. Our Olympic team just beat the Mexican Olympic team 3-0. I think the U.S. has come a long way. It's amazing how far soccer has come in the United States in the 30 years since I've been here.
"They're very good soccer players, the Mexican teams. We love to play them, because they challenge us in a different way. The Mexican 17s have won two World Cups in the last four World Cups, and their Olympic team was the Olympic champion."
Notre Dame women's soccer head coach Theresa Romagnolo said the event is special for both Notre Dame and the local Mexican community.
"Any time we do this event, it's exciting for the fans and it's exciting for our team," Romagnolo said. "We get to play in front of a great crowd. Whether they're cheering for us or cheering for Mexico, it's creating an environment that's going to replicate what we're going to see in the fall. We've got people on the field who are experiencing this for the first time, and they have to rise to the occasion. That was exciting for me. They did rise to the occasion."
Elkhart resident Pablo Ramirez, who came to Indiana from Leon Guanajuato, Mexico, 10 years ago when he was 22 years old, said he appreciated the chance to see the Mexican teams without having to drive to Chicago.
"This is important for our culture," Ramirez said. "We're happy Notre Dame does this every year. It brings people from the whole area to cheer for Mexico. It's important to us to see the Mexican team here. Sometimes, we travel a long distance to Chicago and other cities. It's nice the game is here and so many people from our area can see the Mexican team.
"It's good to help grow soccer, but any sport is good. It helps kids to stay away from drugs and gangs. This is very important for our community."
Sergio Aguayo of Bremen loves that the event grows the sport of soccer and heritage.
"This is an event that showcases cultural pride, and we enjoy seeing Mexico play Notre Dame," Aguayo said. "It's a great rivalry. This is very enjoyable. This brings all of the Mexican community together from the entire area. It's good to see Notre Dame do this. This is an important event. This helps grow soccer a lot for the younger generation. They get the feel of the game and the passion that people have for the game."
Although Richard Castaneda is of Peruvian heritage, he wanted to see some outstanding international soccer and enjoy the festivities.
"You have not only strong support from the Mexican community, but you have a lot of other people supporting the Hispanic community in general, which is always a plus," Castaneda said. "I think it's good for the Latin community in South Bend. There's a lot of support from the Mexican community especially. I like to come and watch good international soccer. It gives you that international flavor, which is good for this area.
"This is about growing the sport of soccer, and growing cultural pride. You have a lot of second- or third-generation people from Mexico here, and for them it's supporting the women and countrymen. It gives them a sense of longing for their country, and at the same time they are supporting the sport as it's growing here. It's a great event, it's a great time for the family."
Players on the Mexican U-17 team appreciated the turnout at Notre Dame.
"Notre Dame has been a great experience," Ivan Guttierez said. "They've been very good to us. Indiana has so many fans here supporting us. We're so grateful to the fans who came here to see us. It's amazing. There's a lot of motivation for us and the game of soccer. It helps us a lot to try harder when all of these fans are here for us."
One thing Casteneda said he would like to see come out of the Notre Dame event is more support for the Fighting Irish.
"The crowd speaks for itself," Casteneda said. "This is a record crowd. This is just a small glimpse of the support for the large soccer clubs in Mexico. You'll always see colorful attire and a lot of pride. Unless Notre Dame is playing in the NCAA tournament, you don't see a record crowd like this. Hopefully, a lot of fans come to appreciate Notre Dame and support the Notre Dame men's and women's programs."
Clark wishes the electricity of the Mexican exhibition games would be present in the fall season for the Fighting Irish.
"We get the benefit of playing a quality team," Clark said. "I just wish more of our Hispanic community would come to more of our regular games. They love their soccer."
Taylor Klawunder scored two goals, and Katie Naughton and Sabrina Flores scored one goal in Notre Dame's 4-1 victory. Flores also had an assist.
"I think it was a great ending to the spring," Romagnolo said. "Sabrina Flores was incredible. Taylor Klawunder came off the bench and had a special game, scoring two goals for us.
"I was really happy with the way we moved the ball. We talked a lot about unselfish passing. I thought we moved the ball very well and for the most part just kept it simple. A lot of our attack just came out of playing the way we faced and just not overcomplicating things."
Romagnolo said she wanted to see the Irish improve their attacking quality and score more goals.
"I think we created a lot of opportunities to score today," Romagnolo said of the game against Mexico. "It all kind of happened for us. It was nice to see us being pretty efficient in the attack, especially that first half. We were trying to get more combination play going in the final third, and we did that. It was fun."
Speedy Jon Gallagher broke through the Mexican defense to score with 24:38 left in the game. After Mexico tied the score with 3:26 left, Brandon Aubrey scored on a penalty kick in the 90th minute.
Clark loved the play of Gallagher and Jeffrey Farina in the spring.
"I think Gallagher and Farina are special together," Clark said. "They play off each other very well. They're a fantastic tandem. One is big and can really hold the ball up, and Jon can make runs behind. They're still only freshmen. They have an exciting future.
"You're never satisfied," Clark said of the work done in the spring. "You always feel you could have done more and done things better. There are a lot more positives than negatives. There's also a good battle with the two goalkeepers, Brian Talcott and Chris Hubbard."
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent