COLUMBUS, Ohio – USA’s World Cup qualifying tilt against Mexico began with tailgating and beer drinking in 100 degree heat, a kind of Grateful Dead parking lot festival with an international soccer twist — homemade carne asada and salsa and guacamole for the Mexico fans, Oscar Meyer products on hibachis for the USA fans, a multicultural, intergenerational crowd gathered around coolers and kegs, even a few hookas. There was soccer ball juggling and air-horn blowing and tents with mariachi bands and SUVs blaring country music, people wearing American flags as capes, and Mexico fans with papier-mâché iconography affixed to sombreros: a giant chili-pepper with “Mexico” on the side, the Virgin of Guadalupe holding both Mexican and American flags, and the national coat of arms of Mexico, which features an eagle perched atop a prickly pear cactus with a rattlesnake in its beak. I saw fans from both sides in colorful pro-wrestling get-ups, a nod to lucha libre: tights and boots and those leather bondage masks. There were photo ops with former U.S. National Team players, games of futsal (a variant of futbol played with a smaller ball), and plenty of giveaways from corporate sponsors.
The growth of soccer in the United States — it’s happening at a startling rate, at least to those who follow sports, due in large part to immigrant communities who love the game and Major League Soccer’s maturation into a quality domestic league. The U.S. Men’s National Team, historically inferior to the women’s team, seems to be improving apace. Until it lost at Costa Rica on Sept. 6, the USMNT was on a 12-game win streak, the longest in program history, with a 2-1-1 record against teams ranked in the top-10 in the world. The biggest wins included a victory over Italy for the first time ever, a win over second-ranked Germany, and a first-ever win over Mexico on Mexican soil. Even though those games were friendlies, as in glorified scrimmages, it was still an impressive run under head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who took over in 2011. Going into the qualifier against Mexico, the team was ranked No. 19 in the world, up from No. 28 in June 2013. A victory over Mexico, coupled with a win or a tie for Honduras against Panama on the same night, would clinch USA’s passage to next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
The night before, at a pep rally organized by the U.S. Soccer Federation, fan excitement brimmed to a fever pitch, stoked by former National Team and Columbus Crew player Frankie Hejduk, a long-haired sinewy Iggy Pop-looking guy who says “dude” a lot with a surfer affect. He mosh-danced onstage to soccer chants invented by the American Outlaws, a highly organized traveling supporters group, which was founded in 2007 in Lincoln, Neb. The group has grown to 95 chapters nationwide, and its name and insignia — a soccer ball and crossbones — are supposed to convey a dangerous, hooligan soccer sensibility. Along with T-shirts designating their local chapter, they favor stars ‘n’ stripes bandannas, which they tie on their heads do-rag style or over their faces marauder-style. They stay on their feet chanting through entire matches, and occasionally set off smoke bombs. Most remarkably, based on my 48 hours of observation, they like to booze more than any other American sports fan. At a bar near Ohio State, for an official Outlaw party following the pep rally, boxes of pre-packaged liquor shots were deployed like international aid food stuffs. After everyone was good and bladdered, former National Team player and ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas — he of the flowing red mullet — delivered a passionate address from a balcony “Evita style,” as Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl termed it.
It was still sweltering hot as the 8 p.m. kickoff approached, and the drunken flag-waving legions marched into well-weathered Crew Stadium — the first of Major League Soccer’s futbol-specific stadia, opened in 1999. To commemorate the high-stakes match, U.S. Soccer distributed winter scarves that said “Land of the Free” — team scarves are a soccer tradition borrowed from England, the birthplace of soccer. Vinyl signage had been custom fitted to the stands, most of it commemorating the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 100 years of existence. The Outlaws’ tifo display (“tifo” is an Italian word for any choreography displayed by fans in a stadium) was a massive roll-down banner in one end-zone: an eagle coat of arms that read, “Columbus, Ohio HOME.” This was meant to remind the Mexico players of Dos a Cero.
The U.S. had beaten Mexico 2-0 in Crew Stadium three previous times since 2002, a kind of supernatural suerte attributable, at least in part, to strong fan support in the Columbus area. Compared to the parking lot, Mexico fans clad in green were few and far between. Not only were the 24,000 seats not nearly enough to meet demand, ticket sales had been rigged by U.S. Soccer to skew pro-stars ‘n’ stripes. With an estimated 25,000 Mexicans living in and around Columbus, hush-hush pre-sales to “special” groups, such as Columbus Crew season ticket holders and Visa card holders, had relegated many Mexico fans to the parking lot. Tickets were being scalped for as high as $470. U.S. Soccer didn’t used to be so savvy. Team captain Clint Dempsey told me home games against Central American nations used to feel like away games.
During President Obama’s recorded video address, in which he paid tribute to the USA-Mexico rivalry, a smattering of boos issued forth. This was an hour before his live address reminding the nation that it was seriously wrong to gas people. No telling if the boos were anti-war or anti-Obama or both — which political persuasion attends a USA-Mexico soccer match? The Outlaws, sweaty and beer-sodden, numbered 9,000 strong, a new record for the group. They chanted “dos a cero” not only at the Mexico players, but to any Mexico fan unlucky enough to have made it inside. One guy passed out before the game even began, crashing into a cocktail table in the concourse. Another spilled his whole $6 beer down the front of my shirt as he swerved into the men’s room. “Sorry, dude.”
But for all the inebriation, I didn’t hear or witness any of the racism or hooliganism that plagues other countries at their futbol games. No human excrement projectiles, for example — it’s been well-documented that fans of Mexico sometimes hurl plastic baggies of poop and piss at U.S. players in Estadio Azteca. One Outlaw below me did conjure up some mildly offensive lyrics to Mexico’s National Anthem, though, slurring the words “Obama for President of Mexico.”
Underachieving Mexico was fighting for its World Cup life, on the brink of disqualification after lackluster performances in its previous qualifying matches. They had just fired their coach and put a new guy in charge. You can imagine the pressure. After attacking furiously for a goal over the first 20 minutes and coming up empty, you could see the pressure mounting — poor passes, waning energy even before halftime, though the score was still 0-0. It was like watching shame manifest on the field; missing a World Cup would rate as a national crisis in Mexico. A loss wasn’t going to put them out of the running completely, but who could blame them for tightening up?
The Outlaws were merciless, banging on drums, blowing horns, stomping on bleachers with thundering synchronicity. They sang, “We are going, we are going, we are going to Brazil!” And to the Mexico players: “You’re not going, you’re not going, you’re not going to Brazil!” They chanted, “We love ya, we love ya, we love ya, and where you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, ‘cuz we support the U.S., the U.S., that’s the way we like it, we like it, whoooaaaooo,” which they recycled throughout the 90-minute game with a kind of tenacious joy.
Some of the Outlaws were in Costa Rica just four days earlier, where the U.S. lost 3-1 (Costa Rica is considered one of the hardest places to play in the qualifying region; the Ticos were hell-bent on revenge after being forced to play in a Colorado blizzard last March, a victory for the U.S. now called the “SnowClásico”). A female Outlaw from D.C., 34, told me she spends about $10,000 a year following the men’s team around the globe, but not the women’s team because the games are more “family oriented.” For her, partying with the Outlaws is an ideal vacation. Outlaws with less disposable income watch away games in their home bars in their home cities, the gatherings organized by leaders called capos. Capos actually carry calling cards that say “Unite and Strengthen.” When U.S. Soccer tried to appoint a capo from Seattle to lead chants for the game in Columbus, Columbus Outlaws got pissed.
U.S. travel to the World Cup figures to be immense; the team had yet to qualify and the Outlaws had already booked three charter planes to Brazil. There was reportedly a long waiting list. Fans were either taking qualification for granted, or they planned to go with or without the USMNT, just for the love of the game. These days, soccer games on TV are always breaking their own Nielsen records, and media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated and Fox are expanding their soccer coverage and their platforms for delivering it. Aside from fans in immigrant communities, the demand is coming from all those suburban kids who grew up playing soccer in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. They still love soccer and want to see the U.S. National Teams succeed, both the men’s and women’s teams. They follow Major League Soccer and the popular European club teams, such as Manchester United and Barcelona and Real Madrid.
For younger Americans aged 12-24, soccer ranks second only to football as America’s most popular sport. This according to Dr. Rich Luker, a social psychologist who developed the ESPN Sports Poll, which tracks interest in 31 different sports by approximating technology engagement, media usage, sports television viewership, attendance behaviors and sponsorship support. Among the most popular athletes in America, Lionel Messi (16), David Beckham (20) and Cristiano Ronaldo (24) rank ahead of household names in the NFL and the NBA. The Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade, a perennial NBA All-Star, is less popular than the Argentine Messi, who plays his club soccer for Barcelona. Messi, in turn, is less popular than only two Major League Baseball players: Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter.
On game days, most USA fans wear one of the various iterations of the official Nike USA jersey; some pay big bucks on eBay for vintage jerseys dating back to the days of Alexi Lalas. The more recent jerseys have “Dempsey” and “Donovan” on the back, though Nike makes jerseys for the younger, lesser-known players on the roster too, the future of USA soccer, whose names reflect the most diverse National Team in the world, both in terms of race and nationality.
There’s Haitian-American Jozy Altidore; Mexican-Americans Michael Orozco, Edgar Castillo, Omar Gonzalez, Herculez Gomez, Joe “Benny” Corona, Jose Torres; Filipino-Mexican-American Nick Rimando; German-Americans Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Terrence Boyd, John Brooks; Icelandic-American Aron Johannsson; Colombian-Americans Juan Agudelo and Alejandro Bedoya; Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud (who joked to me that he’s part Viking); and African-Americans Eddie Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu.
Many are the sons of first-generation immigrants; others were born abroad but can play for the U.S. thanks to the “granny rule,” which allows eligibility in the birth country of a player’s parents or grandparents. A couple of the German-Americans were born to U.S. military personnel.
Now more than ever before, the USMNT reflects the melting pot of cultures in the U.S., which isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to gelling as a team. Klinsmann’s job has been to blend all these perspectives and styles of play into a cohesive unit. He would only say that the task has been “a real joy.” As for an American style of play, a blending of influences from different cultures — which would be super cool, no? — the identity of U.S. Soccer is still a work in progress. Of the players I spoke to, none could decide if an American style exists, though a few explained what it had ceased to be: well-conditioned athletes with inferior technical skills sitting back in a defensive shell, waiting for the other team to cough up the ball for a quick counterattack. Generally, the U.S. is trying to play the more possession-oriented, attacking style played by the most powerful soccer nations. The 23 players named to roster for the Mexico game ply their trade in eight different countries, and they’re more skilled than their USMNT predecessors.
There’s a bigger player pool at the youth level, meaning more talent to develop, and the coaching has improved at all levels, from recreational leagues to traveling select teams to MLS youth academies to college and semi-pro. Mr. McKnight, my first youth coach circa 1977, was an auto mechanic who wore coveralls and boots to practice. He only knew that you needed to kick the ball into the goal, and parents, every bit as clueless, were OK with that level of knowledge. But not anymore, which is sorta too bad. Even at the youth level, coaches have to earn coaching licenses. Parents used to play themselves, and they harbor dreams of Premiere League greatness for their progeny. And kids harbor those dreams too, because of another change: great players on TV. Back in my day, there weren’t any channels showing soccer played at the highest level. Had I been able to watch the pros in Europe, both on TV and online, I would’ve been so much better!
Klinsmann, a German who has lived in California since retiring as one of the best players ever, has instated a more demanding training regimen coupled with an emphasis on nutrition, even yoga classes. He’s been instrumental in revamping the youth academy system for U.S. Soccer. He’s been vocal in his suggestions to MLS for how to improve player development at the pro level. Most of all, he’s instilled more of a swagger — he won a World Cup as player for Germany in 1990, and coached Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup. He’s got major futbol cred, a former association with several of the top European club teams. Nike has expanded its U.S. soccer line, and there’s even a blog called “What Klinsmann Wears.”
I chose to watch the game outside the press box, beside a TV camera where the cement foundation of the stadium meets the aluminum bleacher seats of the lower level. At the final whistle, the score USA 2 Mexico 0 for a fourth straight time, the Outlaws chanted “Dos a cero! Dos a cero!” while jumping up and down en masse. It felt like the bleachers might collapse, and I planted myself on cement, not only for safety’s sake, but to avoid getting drenched in beer. U.S. Soccer then got on the P.A. and encouraged everyone to stick around and watch the Honduras-Panama match on the Jumbotron. When it ended in a tie, 45 minutes later, the chant of “We are going to Brazil” rained down as truth. The next day, the team’s ranking rose to No. 13 in the world. Mexico, meanwhile, hired another coach.