- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

As soon as Christian Gimenez arrived with Veracruz in the Mexican First Division in 2004, teammates informed him of the heated rivalry between the Mexican and U.S. national teams.

Gimenez played primarily with Boca Juniors in Argentina and wasn’t fully aware of the animosity between the North American neighbors.

Now a center midfielder with CF Pachuca, Gimenez will be a part of that rivalry, somewhat, in the inaugural SuperLiga — a tournament consisting of four teams each from Major League Soccer and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).

“I’ve had my share of games against American teams, and they are very hard,” Gimenez said at SuperLiga’s press conference Monday in Hollywood. “When you’re on the field, you feel it. None of their players ever want to lose.”

SuperLiga started last night with the Los Angeles Galaxy playing Pachuca and FC Dallas playing host to Chivas. D.C. United plays its first game against Monarcas Morelia tonight at RFK Stadium. The tournament concludes Aug. 29.

“We contemplated creating a tournament that could highlight some of this passion,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said at the SuperLiga press conference. “This is not an exhibition. This is a legitimate athletic competition with serious prize money.”

The winner will earn $1 million and a silver and gold trophy. United, the Houston Dynamo, the Galaxy and FC Dallas were selected, in part, because those teams have won the most MLS Cups. Club America, Pachuca, Chivas de Guadalajara and Monarcas Morelia represent the FMF.

In subsequent years, MLS teams with the best regular-season records the previous season will play in SuperLiga.

“Their clubs have been different and around longer than our clubs,” D.C. United coach Tom Soehn said. “We’re still looking to establish ourselves, and I think we’re growing rapidly. It’s good any time we have a chance to test ourselves against some of these teams that have been out there.”

The United States has dominated its rivalry with Mexico lately, winning nine of its last 12 meetings, including a Gold Cup victory this year. America’s upset over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup serves as the main highlight of the U.S. emergence in international play.

But that competition has not carried over at the club level. MLS officials hope SuperLiga is the first step.

“I hope we take advantage of it because we don’t automatically get into these things,” United midfielder Ben Olsen said. “We haven’t done that in the last couple of years. We’ve been fairly good at times, but we never closed and pushed forward. We’d like to win this one.”

MLS officials also see this tournament as another way to attract the league’s Hispanic fan base. MLS has a five-year deal with both Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Espanol, as well as an eight-year partnership with Univision.

The majority of fans who attend MLS games in major cities, including Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Chicago and the District, are of Hispanic descent.

“We need to connect with them,” MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. “One of the ways to do that is to play against the teams the Hispanic community is familiar with.”

But MLS still faces challenges. GolTV, a Spanish soccer channel based in Miami, started in 2003 and now has 11 million subscribers, according to Rodrigo Lombello, GolTv’s chief operating officer. Most of its content consists of leagues in Latin America instead of MLS.

“We’re still taking the initial step,” Lombello said. “A logical step in the future is if the MLS gets better, we will be more involved there. We still have a lot of ways to go.”

United, in particular, conceded most of its crowd won’t be cheering for the home team. Players know winning against their fans’ favorite club teams from home could tilt their leaning.

“They might be rooting for them against us, but they’ll see us playing against them,” United midfielder Dominic Mediate said. “If they like us, most of them have been [to] D.C. games and supported us when we’re not playing Mexican teams, but we could attract a few of those fans and set a foundation for future games.”

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