While Alexi Gomez was pondering his predictions for this World Cup, his Loons teammate Miguel Ibarra walked past him on his way off the practice field with a well-timed “Mexico.”
Gomez laughed, and maybe rolled his eyes a bit, before continuing with his assessment of his Peruvian national team.
When the World Cup begins Thursday, pitting 32 countries against each other for the chance to be world champion, Gomez and Ibarra won’t be the only Loons with rooting interests. And that’s brought a lot of friendly tension to the locker room.
“It’ll be a fair amount since it’s the first one with this group to be having a World Cup and being able to banter over that,” forward Christian Ramirez said. “We banter a lot. Almost too much to some degree. So it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.”
Nine players on United’s 30-man roster have countries in the mix, as does coach Adrian Heath with England. Several other players have national teams that just missed out on the tournament. In fact, it was Kevin Molino’s Trinidad and Tobago team that took the U.S. out of contention, while Gomez’s Peru beat Michael Boxall and his New Zealand squad for the final spot in the World Cup.
It’s the Americans, though, who endure the most ribbing from their teammates, specifically Ramirez and cohort Ibarra, who have both been called up for the U.S. national team in the past.
“They don’t let you live it down,” Ramirez said.
Ibarra said his teammates also tease him and Ramirez for being “fake” fans, since Ramirez’s parents are from Colombia and Ibarra’s are from Mexico. But those family ties have given the pair alternate teams to root for in this World Cup and a chance to not be at odds with relatives. Ramirez said he’s hoping to watch some of the World Cup back at home with his family in California, since the players have some time off while MLS takes a break during the group stages.
One particular group holds a lot of intrigue for the Loons: Group E has Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. Two United players, Francisco Calvo and on-loan Johan Venegas, are playing for Costa Rica while their United teammates Ibson and Maximiano will be cheering for Brazil and Jerome Thiesson for Switzerland.
“Of course we had some jokes about it, and I wished him when he left the best of luck except against Switzerland,” Thiesson said of his parting words to Calvo. “It’s all jokes and only half-true and stuff, but it’s pretty special for me to have a teammate playing against the country I come from.”
Maximiano said he and his wife plan to watch Brazil’s games at Ibson’s house. Ibson said he has a bunch of Brazilian friends in Minnesota who will watch together, possibly while enjoying Bud Lights. The Brazilians exude a calm confidence about their team’s chance of winning after a fourth-place finish in 2014 and had words of caution for their departing team captain.
Ibson told Calvo to “be careful,” against a very good Brazilian team, while Maximiano told him it would be “tough” to defend against the likes of star Neymar.
Ibarra said the team also told Calvo to “get out” and “don’t come back,” which was the players’ tough-love approach to making sure the Costa Rican doesn’t return early after not advancing past the group stage. But despite the messing around, the Loons are excited to support their captain and will likely try to watch his games together.
“We know he has the potential to do great over there,” Ibarra said. “If he gets the opportunity, we’re going to be watching, supporting.”
And Gomez’s prediction of the winner made that even more evident.
“I hope it’s Peru,” he said. “But if not, Costa Rica.”