Life in Mexico a very different experience for three U.S. players
Mexico League has become an alternative destination for U.S. players
The pay in Mexico is far better than what MLS or Argentine league offers
Player safety in Mexico can be an issue because of the crime and violence
Last Friday started like most other Fridays for DaMarcus Beasley. The three-time U.S. World Cup midfielder woke up in his house, located in a tony neighborhood on a golf course in Puebla, Mexico, where he plays for the top-flight soccer team. He hopped in his new Chevy Camaro, passed through two security checkpoints in his gated community and drove to Estadio Cuauhtémoc for practice and the ensuing bus trip to Pachuca for a Mexican league game.
But then things got strange. When Beasley approached the stadium, a security official told him he had to park outside the perimeter, far from the usual place. Inside the locker room, a teammate informed him the Mexican government was seizing the stadium after an audit revealed $1.05 million in unpaid taxes from 2007. Stunned, Beasley snapped pictures as government officials took possession of a locker-room TV, weight-room equipment, office computers and even soccer balls. "They took everything, basically," he says. When the team bus was seized, players started organizing carpools for the Pachuca trip, until finally team officials located another bus.
It was only the latest example that life as a U.S. player in Mexico isn't always the same as it is in, say, Western Europe or the United States. On Wednesday, Beasley, 29, revealed on Twitter that twice in the past week Mexican police had stopped his car and demanded bribes, threatening to confiscate his driver's license. (According to Beasley, he paid $225 and $45, respectively.) Then there's the issue of his own paycheck. "We haven't gotten paid for December," he tells SI.com. "We don't know when that's going to happen, don't know if it's going to happen."
Beasley is quick to say that playing in Mexico has its positives. The quality of the soccer is good, and the technical style fits his game. Beasley hasn't encountered any of the violence that has spiked in other parts of Mexico in recent years. "Puebla is a nice city," he says. "I don't feel threatened going anywhere. My parents came down here and felt safe." What's more, due to TV money the pay in Mexico is better for most players than any league in the Americas this side of Brazil -- more than in Argentina, more than in MLS. For some foreign nationals salaries are tax-free, and in Beasley's case he gets paid in U.S. dollars.
That is, when he does get paid. Plenty of questions surround Puebla's future right now. It's one thing to go without wages for a month, but any longer could be a major issue. "If it keeps going, we might have to sit down with the captains on the team and find out what's going on," Beasley says. "But right now it's not a big concern. We're just trying to play football."
Herculez Gomez thought long and hard about joining Santos Laguna this year. From a soccer perspective the move made sense: Gomez, 29, a member of the 2010 U.S. World Cup team and the Mexican league's co-leading scorer in the '10 clausura, would be moving from 15th-place Tecos to a team that reached the final of the most recent Mexican playoffs. The only stumbling block was a big one. In the five years since president Felipe Calderón began deploying troops to fight the Mexican drug cartels, more than 47,000 people have died in the country. And Torreón, where Santos is based, has become one of Mexico's most violent cities.
Five months ago, a Mexican league game in Torreón had to be suspended after a gun battle took place just outside the stadium, sending players and fans scurrying for cover. Just last week Gomez read a story that included Torreón (and four other Mexican cities) among the 10 most dangerous cities in the world.
Gomez's three previous clubs in Mexico had been in relatively safer areas: in Puebla ("a beautiful city," he says), Pachuca ("like Green Bay: small town, amazing team") and Guadalajara ("one of the nicest places I've ever lived"). But knowing Torreón's reputation, he spoke to some of the Santos players, who told him he should be OK -- and could even bring his Camaro and Audi SUV.
"There's no two ways about it: There are things you can't hide, and insecurity in some cities in Mexico is one of them," Gomez says. "As great as the team is here, I knew what I was getting into. In my first week here I thought it was almost a ghost town at night. People aren't really on the streets at night, and for good reason. There's a lot of worry here with everything going on. So far I haven't felt unsafe, but I also don't turn the TV on," owing to some of the graphic violence shown on local news programs.
For now, Gomez is still living in a hotel in Torreón, though he's looking for a house in the area with the help of local advisers. He has had plenty of experience with new housing in the last two years. In Pachuca, where the main concern was overzealous home fans unhappy about a result ("guys said don't go out, even if you tied"), Gomez rented a house owned by teammate Miguel Calero. "This is not a joke: The place was straight out of a Colombian druglord movie," Gomez cracks. "It was bricks and pavers inside, high ceilings, an awesome place with a terrace and backyard and two-story-high walls with barbed wire on top. You couldn't get in without a key, and you couldn't get out without one. It was Fort Knox."
As long as he's safe in Torreón, Gomez says, playing there is worth it. He earns much more money with Santos than he ever did in his eight-year MLS career with Los Angeles, Colorado and Kansas City. Gomez tells the story of speaking to MLS commissioner Don Garber at an event in the White House honoring the U.S. World Cup team in 2010. When Gomez was playing for Colorado in '07, Garber had spoken to the team and mentioned Gomez by name as a good example for local Mexican-American fans and children. At the time, Gomez was making $50,000 a year.
The next time Gomez saw Garber was at the White House, where the MLS commish told the player how proud he was of Gomez's success in Mexico. Then he pulled Gomez aside. "So what's the pay like down there?" Garber said.
"The money?" Gomez asked.
"Compared to MLS."
"Well," Gomez said, "if I came back to MLS..."
"I'd be a Designated Player." (I.e., making at least $330,000 a year.)
Gomez laughs as he shares the memory. It helps to have a sense of humor about things, and as he settles in with his new team, Gomez tries to stay positive about the dangers of living in Torreón. "People here, they all assure you as long as you're not in the wrong places at the wrong times, those things won't necessarily happen to you," he says. "The people causing these problems aren't going after innocent people, they're going after each other in turf wars. As long as you don't go where you're not supposed to, you should be fine. Nobody in any part of the world wants to live that way, but it's reality. Mexico isn't the only place affected by these things."
Marco Vidal can remember every detail of the day he got carjacked. It was the Christmas season in Ciudad Juárez, the violence-riddled city on the other side of the border from El Paso. Vidal, a tough central midfielder from the Dallas area, was playing for Indios in the Mexican first division, and he was driving his 2008 Audi sedan through town to go shopping for presents. Vidal stopped at a red light and was cut off by a Ford Explorer. He turned and saw the driver pointing a gun at him. Then he turned and saw another gunman on foot, telling him to get out of the car. And so he did.
"The guy just took off, but it was like everything was normal. He didn't even speed," says Vidal. "I turned around and saw a cop. I told him, 'My car was stolen. Can you chase him?' You could still see my car from a distance. The cop says, 'Sure! But you can't get in my car due to security.' So I jump in a taxi behind the cop, but the cop was driving 15 miles an hour, like he was trying not to catch him. My taxi drives past the cop, and I see my car at a red light. But I turned around and the cop was gone."
Insurance eventually covered Vidal's stolen Audi, but he resolved not to own any more nice cars as long as he was in Juárez. His story with the Indios team is a central plot line of a terrific new book by Robert Andrew Powell called This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez, coming out in April. Juárez's descent into violence hasn't been easy for Vidal or his family. He still owns the house in Juárez that he spent most of his savings on a few years ago. Last year he rented it to some players for Indios, but now the club is defunct due to economic problems. (Vidal went more than two months without being paid during his last season with the team.)
"I bought the house when the violence wasn't as high," he says. "But when everything started getting worse I couldn't sell the house because it was worth a lot less than what I bought it for. Now it's just sitting there. I'll wait and see if things get better so I can sell it, because it's not a place where I want to be in the future."
These days Vidal, 25, is playing for second-tier León, a team that's fighting to return to the top flight for the first time in a decade. He's enjoying his new city with his wife, Dany. "León is a good place to live," Vidal says. "It's calm. You don't see as much violence as you see in Juárez. There still is violence -- there is everywhere in Mexico now -- but we live a more comfortable life."
A comfortable life. It's still possible to have one if you're a U.S. soccer player in Mexico. Like everyone else, though, you have to be careful.