The leafy hills surrounding the Rose Bowl were packed with traffic a full seven hours before kickoff, a mass of vehicular inertia, most of it bedecked in Mexican green.

Home field advantage might be one of soccer's most cherished concepts, but here it was, being turned on its head Saturday. The CONCACAF Gold Cup final might have been held in this picturesque corner of the City of Angels, yet the United States felt very much like the visitor.

Mexican fans invaded the famous old stadium and its parking lot en masse, determined to give their team the benefits and vibe of a home game even when it was being played on enemy soil. The upshot was that on a sweltering day soccer became an excuse for a carnival, one splashed with color and energy and a fascinating mix of cultures.

Pretty much anywhere else in the soccer world, the rival fans would be separated and segregated, both inside the stadium and on the streets leading up to it. The fear of soccer violence in Europe and South America is real and justified, and a return to the dark days of yesteryear where problems were frequent and ugly is avoided at all costs.

Not so here, and the cross-national banter was underway from lunchtime onwards on Saturday. A group of Americans representing the national team’s most vocal fan group, the American Outlaws, exchanged words with some high-spirited Mexicans, but nothing more serious of physical. Later, there were some rumors of a mild scuffle, though nothing significant enough to attract the attention of the police on hand.

"We are the hardcore fans," said Kale Cheney of Los Angeles. "We shout and cheer and chant and sing and give some crap to the other team's fans. But we also know where to draw the line."

Nearby, there were some touching scenes. A man wearing a Landon Donovan USA jersey posed for a picture with his father, clad in the Mexico shirt of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, with his arm around him. One of the Outlaws broke off from a hotly-contested game of parking lot beer pong to offer a slice of pizza to a Mexican he had been chanting in the face of minutes earlier.

For some, loyalties were split. Several fans wore differing combinations of both team's colors, one sporting a Mexican headband, USA jersey, and carrying miniature versions of both flags.

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The scent of carne asada wafted through the air, a mariachi band played, then a group of Americans responded by blaring country music at high volume, faces daubed in paint and covered in red, white and blue finery.

"They can try to drown out our noise by pumping up the volume," said Mexico fan Cynthia Rodriguez, from Santa Ana, Calif. "But once the game starts there will be too many of us, we will be too noisy. You won't be able to hear the Americans at all."

This was the third straight Gold Cup final between the USA and Mexico, but there was a different vibe about this one, a dream final in every way. For a while it looked shaky, with the USA having lost to Panama in pool play before responding to beat the same opponent in the semifinal, while Mexico survived scary moments against both Guatemala and Honduras in the knockout stage.

The structure of this tournament is derided by many as being set up to ensure USA and Mexico meet in the final. It is hard to fault CONCACAF's financial logic -- this game is a huge draw card worth millions to the regional federation's coffers, and the format is still reasonably fair.

Outside, the Rose Bowl, as kickoff approached, there were certainly no complaints.

"This is the final everyone wanted," said an American fan already veering toward a level of drunkenness which suggested he might not remember much about the game. "When it is any other combination of teams it is a game.

"When it is USA v. Mexico, it is a party."

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