At one end of Rabobank Arena on Saturday night, the local chapter of the American Outlaws cheering group unfurled a giant American flag. At the other end, hundreds of miniature Mexican flags waved.
One side banged drums and sang for the Stars and Stripes. The other chanted, “Si, se pueda!” and “Me-xi-co!”
On the field, the United States beat Mexico 7-6, thanks to a late goal from Matt Clare, who ripped off his No. 99 jersey and ran down the field to a chorus of cheers and boos. Mexico scored to cut the USA lead to one with 49 seconds left, but the Americans held on.
“You get goosebumps if you just think about it,” Clare said. “Scoring a game-winning goal for your country against a rival. There’s a lot of passion, heart and fight in this game.”
In the stands, the game might have been an even bigger success. The crowd was 4,982 — a bit smaller than what organizers had hoped — but it was loud, passionate and involved until the final horn sounded.
“It’s amazing, that’s the word,” Mexico defender Eddie Velez said. “Unreal for the first time here. Look at this crowd: they’re watching, taking pictures. They want to be a part of this.”
And Bakersfield might just be a part of it soon, if you listen to Bernie Lilavois, the general manager of the Ontario Fury in the Major Arena Soccer League. Lilavois hopes to bring an MASL team to Rabobank Arena as soon as next year, and he said he was encouraged by the response to the USA-Mexico game, both from fans and potential sponsors. A final decision in regards to a Bakersfield franchise will be made by June 1, he said, but Saturday night was a step in the right direction. The players are on board with that decision.
“It was phenomenal,” Clare said. “If they brought everybody down from the top, they could have filled the lower bowl and still had some left over.”
Clare and Uzi Tayou each scored twice for the U.S., which led from the first quarter on but never by more than two goals. The U.S. beat Mexico to win the 2015 World Cup in indoor soccer (or Minifootball), but the Mexicans had won the teams’ past five meetings, including each of the past two nights in an exhibition series across California.
With the next World Cup looming this fall in Tunisia, the U.S. wanted to stem that momentum.
“On the bus on the way down to this game, we just sort of said, ‘This is what we need to do: We need to win if we want to go to Tunisia with this group,’” Clare said. “If we lost a third in three nights, we’re not a winning team, and they would find other guys.”
Brandon Escoto scored three goals for Mexico, and Erik Tovar added two, but El Tri’s last-minute pressure couldn’t produce the equalizer in a match that featured some pushing and shoving late.
“When you play a team three times in three nights, it gets a little more competitive,” Velez said. “It got dirty for a little moment, but we all respect each other.”
That allowed the crowd to enjoy a good show, waving flags and singing songs all the while.
“We hope to grow the game of indoor soccer, and everything was just awesome here, first class,” Clare said. “We thank the fans of Bakersfield.”