published Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Club America earns fiesta win at Chattanooga's Finley Stadium

Mexican pro soccer teams, Club America and Pachuca, play an exhibition match on Saturday, July 7, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Mexican pro soccer teams, Club America and Pachuca, play an exhibition match on Saturday, July 7, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Photo by Allison Love.

Ninety minutes before kickoff Saturday night, a few thousand soccer fans -- many of them wearing Club America jerseys and blowing on vuvuzela horns -- were already turning the exhibition at Finley Stadium into a celebration.

With two of Mexico's finest professional soccer teams, Club America and Pachuca, making a very rare appearance in Tennessee, a mostly Hispanic crowd of about 10,000 (no official number was announced) made their voices heard from late afternoon until the final horn a little after 10 p.m.

There were cheers, songs, drums, even those dreaded vuvuzelas that were the bane of the 2010 World Cup. It was a feel-like-home party from the opening kick to the end of Club America's 1-0 win.

Finley Stadium executive director Merrill Eckstein said he was pleased with the turnout, especially considering that Chattanooga wasn't on the soccer map five years ago when the Chattanooga Football Club began its first season.

"This is amazing to me," Eckstein said. "When you get the New York Yankees of Mexican soccer [meaning Club America] coming in here, you have accomplished something."

Eckstein sounded like he was back serving as president of the Greater Chattanooga Sports and Events Committee when he talked about the impact of the game.

"The intriguing thing about this is that it's brought a tremendous crowd in from outside the city," he said. "There's a great economic benefit for the community."

Pachuca and Club America are two of the best teams in the Primera Division, the top level of Mexican soccer. They had some history this season, with Club America having defeated Pachuca in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

For Club America, Saturday's game was part of a U.S. tour -- the only stop east of the Mississippi River -- while Pachuca flew in late Thursday night just for the game.

Sergio Valencia, a Club America fan who drove from Sevier County, said Saturday's game was a special, and rare, opportunity to see his favorite team play in person.

"They play in the States, but they don't play around here," he said. "My uncle's the one who told me they were coming -- he saw it on the Internet -- and I was really surprised, and really excited."

Before the kickoff, Chattanooga city councilman Manny Rico, a sub for Mayor Ron Littlefield, presented Pachuca coach Hugo Sanchez -- perhaps Mexico's greatest player ever -- with a key to the city and made him an honorary citizen.

The crowd was about 85 percent Hispanic, and of that contingent thousands were wearing gold Club America jerseys (the team wore charcoal-colored gear) with the doesn't-quite-translate "BIMBO" lettering across the chest. Team sponsor Grupo Bimbo, with its headquarters in Mexico City, is the world's largest bread company.

Club America, one of Mexico's oldest and most storied teams with 10 championships, is based in Mexico City and has a following throughout much of the Americas. Pachuca, located about 60 miles northeast of Mexico City, doesn't have the following despite having won five titles since 1999.

The fans in gold were roaring soon after the game began when Christian Benitez got free and scored in the third minute. Benitez got loose again in the 31st minute but was denied on the shot and the rebound by Pachuca goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota.

In the 33rd minute, the wave began. It circled the stadium a few times throughout the night. It was a party, after all.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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