At Home on the Road in South America

View from the stands at Estadio Alejandro Serrano Aguilar as supporters of Club Deportivo Cuenca cheer.

Two days have passed since I spent an evening at Estado Alejandro Serrano Aguilar, the home of Deportiva Cuenca, in southern Ecuador. Since then I’ve searched a dozen local retailers for a kit, tried to change the team I support on FIFA16, and spent at least an hour trying to understand the Ecuadorian league and tournament structure.

You see, when traveling, I love to support a home team.

After visiting Italy a few years ago I started supporting Fiorentina, and in some closet back home I have a Padres jersey with a forgotten player’s name stitched on the back. I’ll pull out my hair, jest the opposing team, and high-five neighboring fans after a score. As the song goes, it’s a shame if they don’t win.

We’re traveling through South America this summer and are on a bit of a respite, hiking the gorgeous Parque Nacional de Las Cajas and strolling the relatively low-key markets of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city. Our first night in town I read a local paper previewing a match-up between Cuenca and Delfin SC. After a partial blessing from my partner I asked our waiter which direction we should go in to get to the stadium.

Affectionately known as the Morlacos, or big bulls, the club plays in Serie A, the first tier futbol league in Ecuador. In the 59 years of professional soccer here, they’ve only been crowned champion once; in 2004. But, recent years have been good to Cuencanos. They’ve made it to five of the last six Copa Libertadores (essentially South America’s Champions League) and seem to always be in contention for the championship.

The city of Cuenca is surrounded by Andean hills and split down the middle by a rushing river. Like much of Latin America the town’s colonial architecture is centered around Catholic churches and sprawling plazas dedicated to South American liberators. Rather conveniently, the stark concrete and rebar bastion of Cuenca Deportivo sits only a few blocks from the town’s colonial beauty.

We waited in the longest line, in order to purchase the cheapest and most popular tickets situated in the south end, where Cuenca would shoot in the second half. We ended up in H153 and 152, a fence slightly obstructed the far goal, but we had a damn fine view from the near side corner. We also happened to be really close to the concession stand selling dirty water dogs.

The Morlacos started off slow, in fact most of the early action was on our end of the pitch with Delfin pushing their offense on both wings. That strategy paid off in the 34th minute as a ball was centered from the right and headed into the top shelf, past Cuenca goalie Hamilton Piedra.

At some point shortly after this goal a guy in front of us started heckling the team in English. Then he would translate and most of the people around us would laugh. For example he heckled a Cuenca player by calling him “pork chop” and then would yell “chuleta.”

Our game friend, Donald, had spent most of his adult life working for TGI Friday’s in Long Island and Boston, returning to Ecuador a few years ago, at the tender age of 47, to start a family (he now has two kids under the age of three).

The remainder of the first half was sloppy, with rather conservative backwards passes by Cuenca. Towards the end Donald and most of the fans around us were whistling at what they interpreted as bad plays. The whistle was the dual pitched sound young women might hear walking down the sidewalk. A sort of sarcastic “that was great” whistle.

None of these jests seemed to kick any life into the home team so they ended the first half down 1-0.

The quality of Ecuadorian soccer has drastically improved over the last 30 years. That’s probably due to a booming economy, the second fastest growing in Latin America, and a significant drop in poverty. In 1995, the country sat at #76 in FIFA’s world ranking system, and this year they’re up to #17 and reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America.

I can personally say, that quality has extended to the stadium’s hot dogs. The boiled dogs are served with stewed onions and array of condiments. I followed local custom and topped it with mayo, ketchup, mustard, and some sort of pickled hot sauce. At only $1.50 each, it was hard to resist the second.

Cuenca Deportiva came out of the locker room on a mission in the second half. The atmosphere was rowdy as the supporter section beat their drums and chanted, waving red and black flags. That energy translated into an early corner kick for Cuenca.

From our side the ball was centered in, and an early shot rebounded off the goalie’s gloves. Luckily, Juan Segovia was there to slide the ball over the line for the equalizer.

Like I had imagined the stadium exploded and I got to act like a crazy nut, high-fiving Donald and the fans around me.

Cuenca dominated the rest of the game. There were numerous shots on goal, but none seemed to pass the goalie’s gloves. A bad call by the referee forced Donald to explain to us that hijuepunta translated to “son of bitch.” That seemed to be used the rest of the evening. Not just to the referees, but players in both kits.

The night ended with a 1-1 draw. A slight letdown after a second-half full of chances, but a draw’s a draw, and one point in the right direction for my new team. Our goodbyes to game friends were brief and I left with a tinge of regret for not being able to become a regular in this concrete palace of futbol.

After a multi-day search I’m able to type this in a bright red home kit as we travel south into Peru. I’m keeping tabs on the league table this week and it’s not looking good for the Morlacos. We tied El Nacional on Sunday evening and are now four points out of third place with just one game remaining in the first leg of the season. That leaves us with a lot of work to do this fall as the second leg of the season starts up.

Looks like I’ve got myself a new home team to root for.

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Travis Hargett is a not-quite-returned Peace Corps Volunteer traveling through South America. Highlights: pickup futsal matches, Peruvian Chinese, and long, cramped bus rides.