HOUSTON -- If you want to know the day it all changed, if you want to understand how the relocation of one Major League Soccer franchise forever altered the life of one Mexican-born fan, you have to go to Miguel Sada's bedroom.
Here, in the north Houston suburb called The Woodlands, in a room full of soccer scarves, posters, press passes and autographed pictures, a tiny plastic container holds the answer. There, stuffed inside a drawer is an MLS game ticket and a passport with a Dept. of Homeland Security U.S. Customs and Border Protection entry stamp. At first it would seem they have nothing in common. Until you see the date.
April 2, 2006.
"That was the day," Miguel said. "A very special day."
Three years earlier, while living in Monterrey, Mexico, Miguel's mother and father divorced. His mom met a man in Houston and moved there with two of her children. But Miguel refused to go. Why? Houston's lack of a professional soccer team. A die-hard C.F. Monterrey fan who attended nearly every home match with his uncle, Miguel couldn't fathom a life without soccer.
"It would be like not having a church," he said. "The coach is the pastor. The players are his disciples. And the fans are the choir singing the praises.
"A soccer match is where you go to let out all your stress from the work week. It's an escape. And I couldn't imagine not having that."
So Miguel lived on his own, making $3,000 a month as an IT manager for a security company. He missed his family, but he had a great job. A beautiful girlfriend. And Monterrey was playing well. But one day while surfing the Internet, he came across a story that the MLS franchise in San Jose was relocating to Houston. Almost immediately he began planning to move to the United States. Back in Houston, Miguel's stepfather told his younger brother German the news.
"He was all excited, 'We have this soccer team coming,'" German said. "And I was like, 'Yeah. OK. Whatever. It's MLS. It's boring. Nobody cares.' But then he said, 'Your brother is coming.'"
And on the morning of April 2, 2006, Miguel boarded an Aviacsa Airlines 737 in Monterrey and headed for the United States. When the plane landed, 23-year-old Miguel and his three overstuffed suitcases headed straight to Robertson Stadium for the inaugural home game for the Houston Dynamo.
"How many Mexican soccer fans decide to move to a new country because of an MLS team?" asked Dynamo president Chris Canetti. "One. And you found him."
Five years later, Sada is one of the central figures in the growth of the Dynamo, who will move into a new stadium next year. He and German started El Batallon, one of the largest supporters groups in MLS. He writes and edits for a popular soccer blog, HinchaTV.com, and hosts a weekly sports television talk show by the same name.
While the majority of Mexican fans shun the MLS as an inferior product, Miguel is just the opposite. He's cut nearly all ties to Mexico and passionately supports his Dynamo. It's more than just entertainment or a release. It's his future. Miguel, now 29, is currently studying at the University of Houston on a student visa that will expire one year after his graduation in 2012. It is at that point when he hopes soccer can save him from being forced to return to his crime-ravaged hometown back in Mexico.
"I know I have an expiration date -- a point where I'm going to have no choice but to go home," he said. "But my goal is to stay here forever, to make a life out of my love for soccer," he said. "I want this to be home and soccer to be my life."
He's given everything he's had to American soccer. Now he waits to see if the game will give him anything back.
Lost in translation
It's the first half of the Houston Dynamo's inaugural home game, and Miguel, German and their sister Claudia are bored. They've spent 45 minutes trying to watch a match like a dignified American sports fan and they're miserable -- siting in their seats, chit-chatting between plays. They politely clap when a Dynamo player makes a big run. But they hate it. It isn't them.
"It felt like being at the library," Claudia would say later.
At halftime, they leave their midfield seats and head behind the north end zone where they begin to scream, yell and dance like they would back in Mexico. To most of the 25,462 fans in attendance, they probably look like fools. They don't care. This is what they know.
But the Robertson Stadium security cares. They don't get it. They ask the three kids to stop. When they don't, they're ejected from the stadium. On his first day of his new life in his new country, Miguel Sada is in trouble with University of Houston police.
"They weren't prepared for us," Miguel would say later. "You don't see that at a baseball or American football game so they didn't know what was going on. They thought we were drunk. I told them that this is something that people do in every country in the world. And the guard said to me, 'Well not here.'"
"Early on, it was a work in progress," said Canetti, who didn't join the Dynamo until the team's second month and wasn't there for the first game. "There were communication issues. But we've built relationships now where we don't have those problems."
After spending the first few games sitting with the Texian Army supporters group, Miguel and German started "El Batallon," a supporters group that better represented what they were used to in Central and South America. They spread the word through Houston's Hispanic community, and the group quickly grew. One member went to Argentina to gather authentic horns and instruments. Miguel's mother and stepfather drove to a textile factory in Mexico to gather authentic fabric for a massive 50-by-25-yard orange and black Dynamo flag that covers nearly the entire north end zone when it is unveiled. Every game the group would gather and bring its Central and South American flair to the MLS.
"Every game there are people who are coming here for the first time," Canetti said. "And they look up in that North End and are amazed. There are moments every game where those guys ignite the rest of the stadium. And that ignites our team, too."
A new course
As the sun begins to set and another Houston Dynamo Saturday night game draws near, the members of El Batallon prepare as they always do. They stand in a tucked away corner of the Robertson Stadium parking lot and drink, eat and get caught up with family and friends. A band plays testosterone-fueled rock songs and a few guys slam their bodies against each other with little regard for safety.
Clean cut and well spoken, Miguel stands a few feet away and watches. This is what makes him unique. He's as comfortable in a boardroom with Canetti as he is out here with tattoo-covered guys bobbing their heads up and down and chugging beer.
Over the years, the group has had its run-ins with security. Fights with opposing fans, drunken and disorderly charges, foul language. On this day, one intoxicated supporter is arguing with a woman in the parking lot. Security asks them both to leave. The situation reveals the fine line that is toed for every game. While the Dynamo want El Batallon in the stadium for the enthusiasm they bring to every match, they're also trying to create family-friendly entertainment.
"Breaking the law is the clear line," Canetti said. "We don't allow anything that's unlawful. That's unacceptable. But there are lots of other things we allow with permission. We want their energy. We want their passion."
Sada's mother insists the worst thing you can do is judge the group by its exterior. Beyond its appearance is a bond between members that can't be broken. When Hurricane Ike ravaged the area in 2008, there were members of El Batallon, picking up debris all around the Sadas' yard. When their air conditioning went out one summer, there was another member of the group coming by to fix it for a six-pack of beer. And at just about each and every game, there is Claudia and her American husband smack in the middle of the El Batallon feeding frenzy at Robertson's north end zone.
"It's a really good group of guys," Sada's mother said. "But people don't want to see that."
The group doesn't get any money from the team for its materials. Instead, Dynamo players often donate game-used jerseys and cleats that are then auctioned off to raise money to cover the expenses for their materials. The flag alone cost $2,000.
On this night, the horns and drums are lined up for the march into the stadium. So, too, are the six grocery bags full of confetti the group cut the night before. Tonight's opponent is a special one. It's Monterrey, Miguel's boyhood favorite team and one of the most popular teams in Houston, thanks to the legion of former Monterrey residents who now live here.
The Dynamo fans are in the minority. The blue and white of Monterrey is everywhere. Tension fills the air. On one side, El Batallon members who have embraced the Dynamo and tried to blend their love for soccer with an American sports landscape. And on the other side the locals who build their weekends around the Mexican Premiere League television schedule and couldn't care less about the MLS.
As the fans file into the stadium, two banners bearing slogans in Spanish are revealed. One by the Monterrey supporters group that translates to, "We don't share our heart." The other created by El Batallon says, "We don't sing to the television."
On the march into the stadium, one man is noticeably absent: Miguel. Though he is still technically one of the group's leaders, he no longer sits with El Batallon for matches. Instead, he attends as a member of the media, representing his Hincha website and TV show, which his family helps him fund on his own. Miguel has distanced himself from the group as of late amidst growing concern that the group's reputation could affect his prospects for a bigger role with the Dynamo or another MLS team.
The move has left an impression on the organization.
"He's a level-headed and smart guy with a good head on his shoulders," Canetti said. "He doesn't realize it yet, but there are big things in store for his future. He's one of those guys you just know is going to make it."
The expiration date
On a recent morning in her family's Woodlands home, Claudia Bruchmuller' dreams were coming true at the kitchen table. Her three children and husband all sat at the same table, in the same house, in the same country, waiting for her famous tamales.
Covering the floor in the living room next door was the massive parachute-like Dynamo flag she helped make. It has a few holes she needs to fix before the next game.
"Having all my children together, it's amazing," she said. "There are many days where I just want to cry tears of happiness."
Because Miguel's sister Claudia came with her mom to the United States before her 18th birthday, she's a naturalized U.S. citizen. Miguel's situation is far more complicated. He is on pace to graduate from the University of Houston next year. After that, he can stay for one more year until he'll have to return to Mexico.
"And I refuse to be an illegal," he said. "I'll go back if I have to. But that's not what I want."
A couple of years ago he filled out the paperwork to apply for a green card but was told the wait is 12 years.
"I was so sad," Miguel said. "Then I asked the guy, 'What should I do?' And he goes, 'You want me to be honest with you? Get married.'"
Miguel's mother and stepfather have spent more than $75,000 on Miguel's college education in the U.S. He could easily return to the IT job he had in Mexico before moving to the U.S., but has little interest. In his mind, doing so would be a failure.
"That would mean everything my parents did for me here would have been a waste," he said. "And with the money they've spent, I can't have that."
And besides, that isn't the dream. The dream is to stay here, in the U.S., and find a job in soccer, perhaps even with the Dynamo. That's why Sada cried during the 2010 World Cup when Landon Donovan scored his last-second, game-winning goal against Algeria.
"My brother thought I was crazy, but I knew what that moment meant for the growth of soccer in America," he said. "And the more the game grows the more chances I will have to stay."
For now, he studies, he works, he waits and he cheers. Maybe the Dynamo will someday call with a job offer that includes sponsoring him for a work visa in the United States. Maybe it will be someone else. He knows his time will soon be up. He just hopes it can all work out before then.
"I would work for any team and do everything I could to help that team grow," he said.
Well maybe not every team.
"Not Dallas," he said of the Dynamo's bitter rival. "I couldn't work for them."
"Never," German added. "I wouldn't talk to you anymore. That would be the last day I could call you my brother."