Few things induce puffed-out chests as much as international sporting events, a truth that was on display once again Saturday at Livestrong Sporting Park, where four under-23 national teams vied for a spot in London’s Summer Games during the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals.
The presence of Honduras and El Salvador, who share a border and a healthy rivalry, along with Mexico, which battled Canada in the second semifinal, imbued Sporting Kansas City’s home field with a Latin flair for the balance of the evening.
“It’s good to see your fellow Mexicans and other Latinos all together to celebrate soccer,” said Trino Arce, a Mexican immigrant who drove from Columbia with his son, Freddy.
Fans drove in from far and wide for the game.
The crowd’s eclectic nature became apparent while walking down just one aisle in Parking Lot F, but it wasn’t just the mix of blue-and-white El Salvador and Honduras flags sprinkled among proudly waving Mexican flags.
A quick scan of license plates revealed plenty of Kansas and Missouri tags, but a healthy number of travelers from Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Illinois and even some cars from as far away as Virginia, New York and California.
“We were so happy and excited when we found out our national team was going to be in Kansas,” said Arce, who wore a Mystico luchador mask and wore a Mexican flag for a cape.
His son, Freddy Arce, wore a Rey Mysterio luchador mask and also had a Mexican flag draped around his shoulders, making the father-son duo popular among fellow revelers seeking a photo.
By the night’s end, green-clad Mexico fans had overrun the stadium, but El Salvadorian and Honduran fans set a raucous tone early.
“The stadium is probably 60 percent El Salvadorians right now, which is just incredible,” said Miguel Portillo, who brought his family up from Rogers, Ark., for the game. It’s such a great feeling to have El Salvador here. We brought the whole family and our kids. It’s nice. The only problem is the score right now.”
Honduras scored less than a minute into the first semifinal and won 3-2 in overtime, but that did little to dampen spirits among El Salvador’s supporters, which included a small band of drums, trumpets and trombones.
While there were some initial fears about the rival fans clashing, the atmosphere remained celebratory and civil — even family friendly.
“It feels good to be able to bring my son out to see Honduras,” said David Flores, moved to the Kansas City area from Honduras in the mid-1990s. “I’m excited and it’s very emotional for me.”
His young son seemed to understand the importance.
“I was really excited when Honduras qualified to play here,” said John Flores, 10, who lives in Shawnee but was rocking a Honduras jersey.
Canadian fans were much harder to spot, but there were a few supporters for our red-and-white neighbors to the north.
“It’s pretty bad how much we’re outnumbered,” said Francis Baidoo, who made the trek from St. Paul, Minn. “I’ve seen three other people. They were really just happy to see us.”
Baidoo’s traveling partner, Jim Nguyen, bought the only Canadian flag he saw at the in-stadium store and wore it proudly even though he knew he was rooting for the underdog.
“It’s not very often Canada is in position to qualify for the Olympics,” he said. “We wanted to be here for it.”
Some U.S. soccer fans also came out despite the fact that the U.S. under-23 team was eliminated in pool play. That contingenct included Kent Randall and his daughter, Jillian, who were decked in Kansas apparel and stuck out like a sore thumb.
“I’m going to follow the Jayhawks on my phone,” said Jillian Randall, who refused to break a date with her dad even after her alma mater reached the Final Four. “My dad asked me about a month ago before we knew KU was playing and I didn’t want to back out.”