Copa America games in Arizona expected to draw large crowds

Mexico’s fans at a game in Soccer City, Johannesburg. (Photo courtesy of Celso FLORES/flickr)

“Soldado” Marco Medina of the Phoenix Battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army sits at his favorite pub in downtown Phoenix, talking strategy with his commander, Richard “El Coronel” Guel.

At first glance, the scene may seem straight out of a revolutionary planning plot, but these two are discussing a plan of for their next event in Glendale — not with bullets but with soccer balls.

“We’re a very passionate, colorful and dedicated battalion here in Phoenix,” Medina said.

Pancho Villa’s Army, known as PVA, is team support group that follows El Tricolor — a common nickname for the Mexican soccer team — when it plays in the United States. The fans are similar to the American Outlaws, the support group for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.

Since its founding in 2013, PVA has attended almost every Mexico game in the United States. With membership at an all-time high, the group is setting its sights on the Centennial Copa America, where Mexico is scheduled to play South American powerhouse Uruguay in its opening match at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

“(Going to a Mexico game) is blissful,” Medina said. “It’s so surreal, you can’t really put the right word to do it justice. You just have to appreciate every single second of it, because it’s that captivating.”

The Copa America is the oldest international soccer tournament and crowns the champion of South America every four years. The last games were held in Chile in 2015 and plans are set for Brazil 2019, but this year, the tournament will leave its native continent for the first time in history to celebrate its 100th birthday in the United States.

Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of Major League Soccer, announced that it expects the move to attract at least double the number of spectators of last year’s tournament.

SUM President Kathy Carter said in January that the organization expects this Copa America to be the single biggest soccer event in the United States since the 1994 World Cup, with an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people expected to attend the games in person.

That’s an average of about 62,500 people at every game — an exciting prospect for many businesses at the Westgate Entertainment District, a shopping center just a couple blocks from the University of Phoenix Stadium.

“On a weekend (game day, revenue goes up) about $2,500 to $3,000,” said Allan Krier, managing partner of OPA Life Greek Cafe in Westgate. “On a weekday, that’s about $2,000 to $2,500.”

Last summer, businesses at Westgate were unsure about their future.

The Coyotes’ losing streak the season before left the team at the third lowest among all NHL teams for the 2014-2015 season, dropping business at Westgate, which is located just next to the team’s home at the Gila River Arena. Not too long after that, Glendale City Council voted to terminate the city’s 15-year lease and arena management deal with the team.

A deal was finally settled and the Coyotes will be back in Glendale until 2017, but the scare was enough to remind those affected how impactful sporting events are for the businesses there.

With three Copa America games scheduled in Glendale, including the opening game between Mexico and Uruguay and the third-place game, businesses are hoping this will be a boost to the slower summer months.

“If it’s like a normal football game, we would be really happy,” Krier said. “Westgate would be happy.”

The count won’t be completed until the final tickets are sold later this year, but those at Westgate can already depend on the support from Pancho Villa’s Army.