When you think of venues for the CONCACAF Champions League, it’s natural to think of some of this hemispheres great cathedrals of sport. Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. RFK Stadium (RIP) in Washington D.C. Montreal’s Stade Olympique. It’s also natural to recall some of the more eccentric stadiums like the old Estadio Tecnológico in Monterrey with its view of the Cerro de la Silla.
You’d be forgiven if H-E-B Park isn’t the first place you think of when you think about a CONCACAF Champions League venue. For starters it isn’t a very big venue, holding 9,700 people. It serves as the home venue for the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, who are an affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. The Toros play in USL - the second division of soccer in the United States. The Toros aren’t eligible to qualify for the CCL - their only path would be to win the U.S. Open Cup, and MLS affiliates are prohibited from competing in the tournament.
Edson Ochoa, host of Down in the Valley Podcast, told me a little bit about the history of soccer in South Texas and about what this game will mean to the region. “Sustaining a professional soccer team has proven to be very difficult for the region,” Ochoa tole me via email. “Before RGVFC, there were two other teams that participated in the USL PDL. First came the RGV Bravos, who proved to be a successful team in its inaugural season, but was abruptly sold by its owner and moved to Brownsville, Texas where it folded after the second season. Then came the RGV Grandes, who only lasted one season. Now with the Toros, it has proven to be an exhausting task to attract fans to the stadium, but we hope to see it improve this next season.”
“Soccer is huge in the community down here in the Rio Grande Valley, since the overwhelming majority are of Mexican heritage,” Ochoa said. “In a state where American Football is king, watching the youth and adult leagues, whether ran by the city or private organizations, filled with participants every weekend is incredible. Then in the afternoons, many people light up the barbecue pit and watch Liga MX with their friends and family almost like a ritual.”
Thanks in part though to political instability in Honduras, CONCACAF made the decision to move the CCL match that FC Motagua was scheduled to host against Club Tijuana to H-E-B Park. According to an interview with Toros President Bert Garcia, the site was chosen in part “thanks to the relationship with the Houston Dynamo and what they have said about our site, stadium and facilities.”
Ochoa seemed as shocked as anyone that the CCL was coming to South Texas. “The news definitely did surprise us when RGVFC President Bert Garcia mentioned it to the media after Gerson Echeverry’s official presentation as the head coach,” Ochoa said in an email. “We definitely were not expecting news of this magnitude. I feel that this achievement benefits the Rio Grande Valley because it will put the region on the spotlight, not only in Mexico and the US, but in all of Latin America.” Ochoa went on to say “Three years ago I would have been called crazy if I said that the Rio Grande Valley will host a match of such magnitude. Hopefully, this will also work in RGVFC’s favor to attract the soccer community in the region who hesitate to support the team due to their ‘allegiance’ to Liga MX teams.”
Ochoa said he didn’t think there were many local fans of either team, however that shouldn’t stop fans from traveling. “Honestly, the Honduran community is quite small in the Rio Grande Valley. However Houston, which is almost six hours away, has a considerable amount of Hondurans that currently live there. According to the Pew Research Center, Hondurans make up 3.2% of the Hispanic population in that city. We may see some Hondurans make the trip down to the valley to watch the game. As far as Xolos is concerned, they have a really small following due to how new the club is to Liga MX and the small amount of immigrants from the Baja California region.” Ochoa brought up a good point however regarding fans of other Liga MX teams coming to watch. “We may actually see many Liga MX fans from the RGV go to the game to watch players they may not see many minutes of if the match was a friendly. It also helps that many of Tijuana players are ex-Americanistas. Club América has a huge following in the valley and northern Mexico, and may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for them to attend an international club match.”
Ochoa finished with a note for those planning on making the trip to South Texas for the match. ”First of all,” he said “welcome to the Rio Grande Valley. As a native of the RGV, I hope that our visitors feel welcome and enjoy the match. One of the advantages of H-E-B Park is that its location is close to Interstate 69 making it simple to navigate for first timers. Just exit the highway at the Freddy Gonzalez Drive and turn towards the east. The road takes you directly to the stadium about a mile away. Be sure to come early as our parking lot is tailgate friendly, and will help guarantee you a spot inside the stadium grounds. If you have any additional questions, you can contact me on twitter at @EOchoa_8 and I will try my best to help you and if you are a citizen of the Rio Grande Valley, I invite you to return to H-E-B Park on March 16 to support our RGVFC Toros as their 2018 season will begin against Saint Louis FC. #WeAreToros”