Red Bull Arena doesn’t discriminate among the noise it’s built to amplify so why are there calls to blacklist it as a World Cup qualifying venue?
The discussion after the United States men’s national team loss to Costa Rica were not the center backs, goalkeeper or the coaching staff. Referee John Pitti, was seldom mentioned despite making decisions that infuriated the Americans. Instead, the discussion focused on the people who paid to attend Friday night’s game and whether the New York/New Jersey area should ever host another qualifier.
American players and broadcasters expressed frustration with the level of support Costa Rica received throughout the game when in reality the majority of the crowd at Red Bull Arena was rooting for the home team. It was just that they didn’t provide many moments for them to get excited. As the Americans chased the game and their fans grew more frustrated, the olés from Costa Rican fans grew louder. Once Marco Ureña sealed the result, some went for the exits while the Costa Ricans reveled.
None of this is atypical for a soccer game even on an international level or CONCACAF for that matter. Americans traveling to countries across the region for the Hex are always celebrated yet we shudder at the idea of ex-patriots from those countries making every attempt to attend games held here. That logic has driven U.S. Soccer away from holding competitive games in the tristate area and after Friday night, was repeated with smaller cities like Kansas City and Salt Lake City championed instead.
The justification for keeping competitive games in smaller cities is that it will lead to a more positive crowd that will help the team to victory. It is an argument based in myth with no real tangible way of proving itself correct. U.S. Soccer can continue to engineer crowds through pricing and allocation to host clubs, associations and various supporter groups but that does not guarantee the result. Nor does it effectively prevent people from buying tickets on the secondary market.
What is proven to get the U.S. a win at home? A positive style of play that’s designed, implemented and executed by a technical staff and group of players. We did not see that at Red Bull Arena. We saw Costa Rican fans wave flags and flock toward the front rows after the game to take photos of their heroes who saluted all who came out. We would have seen the same scenes if the U.S. had won and their players coming to the supporters section to share the moment much like New York Red Bulls players do with the South Ward.
Supporting the national team is seen as patriotic and loyal but what is one supposed to do when they have connections with two countries? As a Chilean-American, I was comfortable with spending Thursday angry at their loss to Paraguay and spending Friday angry at the loss to Costa Rica, but the degree with which those embrace America and the country our families come from varies, especially in the current moment.
Those who want to make it as difficult as possible for these individuals to attend the games under the guise of competitive advantage are caught up in the first word before the hyphen and not the second. Broadly speaking, immigrants and their sons and daughters want to embrace American ideals and symbols, and the national team is a natural example. But they also also want to maintain a connection to their ancestral homeland and soccer has provided an outlet to do so.
The game works both ways. A team that’s better than the one that played Friday can draw in new fans as past World Cups have shown even amongst those who hold strong connections with the land of the forefathers. Rooting interests can change but only with effort and outreach from U.S. Soccer. If the Federation decides to stick with Kansas City, Salt Lake City and other safe cities like Nashville for its qualification games, it may lead to louder pro-U.S. atmospheres, which would be terrific but the team will only exist on TV for too many people.
U.S. Soccer and those who follow are in this position because they rightly lack the confidence in their team. Two home losses (one in the reputed stronghold of Columbus, Ohio) in the Hex is unprecedented and for the first time in many supporters’ memories, the team is running the risk of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That creates the room to justify the efforts to make competitive games as out of reach as possible for people who fellow Americans whose rooting interests aren’t as fixed as their own. But where is that? Alaska?
To alleviate these concerns, U.S. Soccer can face its insecurities and work harder to make a better national team. Then it can return to the New York/New Jersey area for the next cycle and work harder to reach out to the immigrant communities and some of them will embrace the American team as their own. But in this moment of political and demographic history, I fear that may be too much to ask.