You will have to leave American soil altogether for one of the essential and unheard of experiences in American sports fantasy.
Every four years, the United States men’s soccer team embarks on a one-month journey to qualify for the World Cup, an excruciatingly tense series of high-stakes matches against regional rivals in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Bounces around. That these games need to be experienced individually to truly understand has become a well-worn trope for team players, who often struggle to adapt to the surroundings.
It turns out that fans have been saying the same thing among themselves for years. These traveling supporters—a small group of American fans plagued at once by a borderline irrational sense of team loyalty and an insatiable wanderlust—are the road warriors of CONCACAF, the regional federation that includes the United States and its hemispheric neighbors. They are, in some way, a different breed as fans: reveling in opportunities for international exchange, seeing the beauty in cultural and competitive differences, setting aside and obeying warnings (warranty or not) about personal safety. Often absorbing considerable expenses associated with the national team.
Donald Vine, 38, of Washington, said, “Football is the catalyst for us to go to these places, but we dive into the whole experience, and we’re left with a better understanding of a country, and often an affinity for ” The final round of the 2022 World Cup qualification cycle is one of half a dozen or more fans planning to participate in all 14 sports: seven in the US and seven outside it.
However, the quest has taken on a new level of urgency in the current qualifying cycle because the beloved sacrament, in its current form, has an expiration date. Qualifying for the World Cup will look quite different to the 2026 tournament, when the field expands from 32 to 48 teams, and the United States is expected to qualify automatically as hosts. After that, the CONCACAF region would receive almost twice the berth in the tournament as it is now: given its comparative strength against its regional rivals, which may have provided the United States a relatively suspense-free path through qualifying for generations. Is.
That means the journey – for players and fans – will never be the same.
“I’ve told everyone going into this qualifying cycle, ‘If you weren’t able to do the other guys, do it, because this is the last time we’re going to feel this pressure,'” Ray Noriega said. Said, of Tustin, Calif., who has featured in every game of the US team’s last three World Cup qualifying cycles and plans to do the same this time around. “It feels like the last storm.”
It is this pressure, fans say, that gives meaning to everything else, which has increased the underlying tension and atmosphere at the stadium over the years. Each sport, each visit to another country, offers another chance to surprise. This happened last month, for example, when the team began its qualifying campaign in El Salvador.
Only two dozen Americans made the trip. Before kickoff, they were parked in the stadium by the local police and cowled in their seats against a wall behind a goal. To the surprise of the Americans, as soon as he took his seat, the local fans around him began to clap. The people in the next section saw and started applauding. Soon, much of the packed stadium was on its feet as the spectators stood up and applauded. Americans were stunned.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dale Houdek, 49, of Phoenix, who has competed in more than 100 US national team games (both men’s and women’s), and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see one. Then.”
The warm-up can be a pleasant surprise, as there is always the possibility of hostilities, at least inside the stadiums.
“I’ve been hit by a battery in Costa Rica,” Noriega said. “I’ve been hit with a coin in Mexico. I’ve been hit with a baseball in Panama – I think they say they are baseball country.
But frequent travelers say that such incidents are rare. He said that most of the people he meets are more interested in taking pictures, business stories, swapping shirts and scarves, and offering advice on local attractions.
Given some of the complexities of travel for these games, especially now in the midst of a global pandemic, traveling fans tend to coordinate with the team ahead of most trips. A security specialist who works for the United States Soccer Federation ties up with the American Outlaws, the team’s largest organized fan group, with police escorts (if needed) to help organize matchday movements. Makes arrangements, finds safe accommodation and choreographs their entrances and exits. standing.
“If they need anything, we’re always a phone call away,” said the federation’s chief spokesman, Neil Buethe.
Fans traveling around Concacaf are beginning to feel like a subculture within a subculture – one with a certain level of disposable income and flexibility with work and family. Travel and expenses can run a few thousand dollars for a typical three-game window.
“My dad says it’s my Grateful Dead,” said Max Kroes, 37, of Helena, Mont., of following the team around the world.
A handful are so dedicated to the cause that they plan to fly to Kingston, Jamaica next month, for a game that is likely to be held behind closed doors, without fans, with the last on the off chance In time the rules change and they can participate.
“And if not, it’s Jamaica – there are worse places not to watch a soccer game,” said Jeremiah Brown of Austin, Texas, who is trying to watch the full set of this cycle’s qualifiers with his wife, April Green. Huh.
For the sheer magnitude of the occasion, however, one destination stands apart from the rest.
“Mexico,” said Austin’s Evan Licon, “is its own animal.”
The game at Mexico City’s sprawling Estadio Azteca – where visiting fans are locked in fencing, apparently for their own safety – may prompt fans to break a multiplication table to describe its appeal. Is:
“It’s college football time 10,” said Likon, a Texas A&M fan who plans to attend every road qualifier this cycle.
“It’s 20 times that of the Red Sox and Yankees,” said Boris Tapia of Edison, NJ.
More Americans are getting the memo. Before the 2014 World Cup, the Americans’ qualifier in Mexico was attended by a few hundred fans. Before the 2018 tournament, the American contingent, fans estimate, was closer to 1,000. The teams will renew their rivalry at the Azteca in March, when the teams are in the final stages of qualification.
However, football is only part of the appeal of these trips. Fans happily listed the side quests that made the trip extra special: surfing at dawn in Costa Rica; Hiking in the mountains in Honduras; witnessing one of the largest Easter celebrations in the world in Guatemala; Effortlessly taking turtles out to sea in Trinidad; Adopting a donkey on the island of Antigua.
“His name is Stevie,” said Vine. “We still get updates on that.”
Smaller countries and more modest places have their own appeal. Last month at Honduras’s Estadio Olimpico, nearly two dozen American fans flocked to a corner of a packed stadium, a blaze of red in a sea of blue. Honduran fans offer him bags of plantain chips dipped in hot sauce. When the American team returned, Honduran fans, in a surprising development, began beating their own players with bags of drinking water that were being sold outside the stadium.
There was not a single digital screen in the stadium, no other source of light in the surrounding sky, giving the night a timeless quality.
“The experience is so pure,” Houdek said.
Lower-profile trips also have a way of breaking down the fourth wall that usually separates fans from the team.
Kelly Johnson, 44, of Phoenix, remembers getting to know former national team defender Geoff Cameron when she and Houdek, who is her boyfriend, crossed paths with him in hotels and airports for years.
A few years ago, Johnson messaged Cameron on Facebook as he and Houdek were preparing to vacation in England, where Cameron was playing professionally. He didn’t expect a response, but Cameron surprised him by not only getting him tickets to a game, but by inviting him to his house and taking him out to lunch.
“This national team epitomizes the seriousness of the journey,” he said.
“Random things happen,” she said.