Águila fans on the Cruz Azul side
  • David Fellerath
  • Águila fans on the Cruz Azul side

O’KELLY RIDDICK STADIUM/ DURHAM—It wasn’t quite like the Secret Game, but for a gringo like myself, and my equally gringo companion, witnessing this affair was like being privy to a vibrant underground event that will go unnoticed by the cultural mainstream. But we knew about this game thanks to a flyer we spotted in a Mexican restaurant.

It was Cruz Azul, lions of Mexican soccer, versus Club Deportivo Águila, feral tomcats of Salvadoran soccer, duking it out on the artificial turf of N.C. Central University’s football stadium. Despite an afternoon of heavy rain, and despite the $30 ticket price, several thousand showed up for a spirited and occasionally violent contest that ended in a 1-1 draw.

This is the season of the international club friendly as foreign teams barnstorm the United States and Canada in preparation for their upcoming seasons. These past few nights tell an interesting story about soccer in North America.

On Friday night, 40,000 fans showed up in Toronto’s Rogers Centre to watch Manchester United’s non-superstars beat the Scottish power Celtic, 3-1. Manchester United is the world’s richest sports club, and their appearances constitute upscale entertainment ($90—$150 Canadian). In contrast, the English Premier League’s mid-table mediocrity, the Bolton Wanderers, had to settle for the USL-2 (division 3) Charlotte Eagles on Wednesday night and the USL-2 Charleston Battery last night (where ticket prices started at $15).

What I found interesting was the existence of parallel soccer cultures—most especially in Charlotte. The Bolton game versus the Charlotte Eagles drew 2,383 fans to a 4,000-seat stadium. On the very same night, however, the Cruz Azul-C.D. Olimpia battle drew approximately 6,500 to a 24,000-seater, according to Carlos Villamarin, the Raleigh-based promoter of both Cruz Azul matches. Villamarin added that he won’t be given the official figure for another two or three weeks.

Predictably, the Charlotte Observer covered the Bolton-Eagles game, played in the northern suburbs of the city, but the reporter did include a note about the result of a contest that drew three times as many fans to a stadium 10 blocks or so from the newspaper’s downtown offices.

Last night in Durham, we’d believed the game time to be 7 p.m., but the national anthems (including “The Star-Spangled Banner”) didn’t go off until around 7:45. So, we had ample opportunity to stroll around the stadium. The crowd was almost exclusively Latino; it was mostly young men but there were plenty of families, too. There was a food truck or two, but we opted for a ramshackle mom ‘n’ pop setup on the visitors’ side that was doing a brisk business in tamales and pupusas. Presumably because this event was on a college campus, there appeared to be no alcohol sales.

We looked out at the field, which NCCU converted to artificial turf last year. Nothing could be done about the gridiron markings, but NCCU’s operations staff manfully prepared the pitch. The soccer lines were applied Friday night with special water-soluble paint acquired from a company in Missouri. The goals came from the intramural fields, and were equipped with new nets. (NCCU has no varsity soccer team.)

An impressive proportion of the crowd came decked out in colors—approximately two-thirds were in blue, while a substantial element turned out in Águila’s very cool tiger-orange kit with black stripes. There were also vuvuzelas, this year’s bane of popular culture. It doesn’t take many to make a racket, but thankfully most of the blowers lost interest once the game got going.

Both clubs are gearing up for new domestic seasons. Cruz Azul was coming off a 1-0 victory over the Honduran power C.D. Olimpia in Charlotte Wednesday. Prior to that, they’d played friendlies in Tijuana and Pasadena (the latter was played against Club America in the Rose Bowl, before a crowd of 22,395).

Last night in Durham, Cruz Azul started captain Gerardo Torrado, the sole member of their squad who was a member of Mexico’s World Cup team. Torrado was a busy man in a cluttered midfield as he effectively directed Cruz Azul’s possessions. However, Shawn Martin, Águila’s flashy young right back, put the underdogs up top in the first half (I was so confused by the countdown clock that I gave up recording minutes) by beating Cruz Azul’s keeper at the far post.

In stoppage time in the second half, however, Edcarlos, Cruz Azul’s token Brazilian, salvaged the 1-1 draw with a rebound put-back.

The game was spirited but not particularly high-quality. Both teams were hemmed in by the narrow gridiron even as it was stretched to within several feet of the grandstands (on the near side, we couldn’t see the touchline and often couldn’t see the wingers as they were obscured by spectators. Cruz Azul’s old-school 3-5-2 formation, in particular, created a midfield bottleneck. Although the Mexico City stalwarts dominated possession, striker Javier “Little Lamb Chop” Orozco in particular squandered several opportunities that came through the central channel.

And how was the turnout in O’Kelly Riddick Stadium last night? Pre-game educated guesses ran around 3,000, but by the end, the crowd looked stronger and organizers were optimistically predicting 5,000. (The Bolton-Charleston Battery game played last night drew 5,249, a capacity crowd.)

The game was conveniently situated for Durham’s large Latino population, but it took place on the campus of NCCU, a historically black school that area Latinos would presumably have little experience with. Villamarin suggested that it was a challenge to educate Latinos about the location of the venue, but he noted that the evening’s event was the biggest soccer event in the history of Durham.

While the Durham turnout was decent but not spectacular, the quality of the crowd was impressive. It was a crowd that stood throughout the match, responding to the ebb and flow of the game—the runs down the flanks, the hard tackles, the outrageous flops. I imagined them being amused by the constantly aggrieved gringo referee—who was none other than Jamey Walter, he of the infamous RaIlHawks-Montreal match—who spent an increasing amount of his time brandishing yellow cards at Meso-American hooligans. He rather resembled an ineffectual middle-school assistant principal, but in fairness, it’s difficult for a referee to be cool under any circumstances.

Did I mention the RailHawks? We were going to watch their game in Rochester online in the O’Kelly Riddick press box, but the narrow bandwidth we encountered precluded that. At any rate, the RailHawks beat the Rhinos (attendance: 7,339), 1-0.

In the 14th minute and against the run of play, Mark Schulte sent a ball to Josh Gardner down the flank. Gardner crossed to Sallieu Bundu, who knocked it in the goal.

Gardner and Bundu are two of the most in-form RailHawks at the moment. Gardner has been strong all year, while Bundu is catching fire. Both players have scored two goals this month.

With Bundu in such fine form, RailHawks coach Martin Rennie started Etienne Barbara on the right wing last night. However, even more striker support is coming to Cary, as Scottish Premier League veteran Allan Russell should be making his debut soon.

The RailHawks (6-3-6) now have 24 points, good for second place in the (exceedingly weak) NASL Conference. They have a solid week and a half off before returning to WakeMed on Tuesday, July 27. Ten of their remaining 15 games will be at home.