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Can the USMNT create a national home-field advantage at Red Bull Arena?

September’s WCQ in New Jersey will test the limits of USMNT’s reach.

United States v Jamaica: Final - 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During the last year, the United States Men’s National Team has played a slew of matches within the fifty states. Disregarding the Gold Cup, a competition in which U.S. Soccer had no say in stadium choice, the USMNT have played matches outside of the urban centers of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia and San Antonio. These cities, the seven most populated American cities, have long been deprived of competitive and important national soccer matches outside of regional tournaments like the Gold Cup and Copa America.

Throughout this cycle of World Cup qualifying, the USMNT has hosted six World Cup qualifiers, with two on the horizon. Those matches were in St. Louis, Columbus, Jacksonville, Columbus, San Jose, and Denver. With the exception of San Jose, each of those metropolitan areas contain no more than 2 million people. The Bronx itself is home to nearly 1,500,000 people.

The next two qualifiers will take place in Harrison, New Jersey — in the New York City metro area — and Orlando. USMNT lately have avoided huge urban centers such as New York City in an effort to create a pro-U.S. crowd. Harrison plans to break the mold.

So, why are USMNT matches often played in small-to-medium cities? Huge urban metropolises tend to have larger-than-average Hispanic communities, and Hispanic Americans watch far more soccer than the average non-Hispanic American. Mexico’s Liga MX is the most watched soccer league within the fifty states. In 2016, Liga MX averaged 1.1 million Spanish-language viewers, an audience 19% larger than NBC averages for weekly Premier League broadcasts.

This Spanish-language community that watches Liga MX on a weekly basis is largely segregated to certain markets. In Southern California, for example, Liga MX matches average around 100,000 viewers a game — once again outpacing Premier League viewership—this time, by five times the margin. Spanish-speaking Hispanic Americans are therefore more likely to watch soccer than their non-Hispanic counterparts.

In order to secure a home-field advantage, and have a better shot at securing the points they need to qualify for the World Cup, U.S. Soccer has long advocated for and successfully strategically placed matches. Clark Hunt, head of Hunt Sports Group, told Sports Illustrated back in November, “U.S. Soccer became very focused on the importance of winning its qualifiers, especially against Mexico, and they were looking for a location where they could count on a pro U.S. crowd.”

The six USMNT World Cup qualifiers this cycle — played in St. Louis, Columbus, Jacksonville, Columbus, San Jose, and Denver — certainly fit the bill. U.S. Soccer has repeatedly opted for smaller and less glamorous venues in exchange for a guaranteed home-field advantage. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati told Sports Illustrated, “U.S. Soccer continues to believe that playing must-win matches in smaller stadiums helps ensure a supportive, partisan crowd....[we’re] happy to forego revenue in exchange for points.”

So, the questions should be asked: Why Harrison? Why now?

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the New York Metropolitan Area is home to over 28,000 Costa Ricans. That is the number one concentration of Costa Ricans anywhere in the United States. While 28,000 isn’t a massive number, and Costa Rica isn’t Mexico, this population density explains why more competitive USMNT matches aren’t played in urban centers, especially New York City. A USMNT win, particularly in World Cup Qualifying against Costa Rica, is far more important than either profit or some proof of the team’s geographic mobility. While it is not as if all 28,000 Costa Ricans in the New York Metropolitan Area will be at Red Bull Arena, there is the potential for a sizable visiting crowd.

While the number of Panamanians in the Metropolitan Area is roughly the same to that of Costa Ricans, other potential qualifier foes, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, and Mexico, far outnumber 28,000. There are over 110,000 Trinidadians and 100,000 Hondurans in the New York metropolitan area. Nearly 600,000 Mexicans call the same area home. Along with selectively choosing the comparatively underrepresented Costa Rican population as a foe to appease New York’s soccer fans — rather than Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, or Mexico — U.S. Soccer and the New York Red Bulls have taken steps to avoid being overrun by hostile visiting fans.

This doesn’t mean Costa Rican faithful aren’t to be expected. Red Bulls President Joe Stetson told CBS New York that “from U.S. Soccer fans to the large Costa Rican population in the New York/New Jersey area, we’re just excited for them to come, sample soccer at Red Bull Arena and hopefully come back for Red Bulls matches as well.” For the Red Bulls, attendance and fan engagement is the key. While Stetson indicates his willingness to support Costa Rican fans, his words largely ring hollow.

Stetson’s goal is to satisfy U.S. Soccer in September and keep them coming back for more. Stetson wants to keep the USMNT coming back to Red Bull Arena for as long as possible. “[It’s] an honor and hopefully it won’t be the last...hopefully it’s the start of a regular occurrence where Red Bull Arena is circled as a destination and a venue for these World Cup qualifiers going forward.”

In order to secure Red Bull Arena as a long term option for the USMNT, Stetson needs to prove Red Bull Arena is truly capable of securing and maintaining a home-field advantage, despite the diverse urban center it calls home.

A trained eye should read the U.S. Soccer’s strategic ticket sales strategy as an attempt to bulwark against an invasion of Ticos fans.

Tickets for the match were sold in waves:

By strategically selling to U.S. Soccer and Red Bulls supporters first, the hope is that a Costa Rican takeover similar to the one experienced at Red Bull Arena back in 2015 for a friendly with the USMNT is avoided. In a competition like the Hex, where home points are precious, USMNT cannot afford to play politics and profit with match placement. Points are, and will continue to be, more important than profit.

Costa Rica, when supplanted with a strategic ticket sale process, is the goldilocks team for New York soccer fans. The team is a strong enough foe for fans to care, but not a substantial enough minority to create a hostile, point-risking environment. Costa Rica is a specific opponent whose fans U.S. Soccer can plan against. The same cannot be said for Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras, or Mexico. A match at Red Bull Arena against any of these foes, particularly the latter two, would be severely overrun by visiting fans and their chants.

New York soccer fans should therefore not get their hopes up for Red Bull Arena to surpass MAPFRE Stadium as U.S. Soccer’s preferred home. However, they better be ready to rock on September 1st. You never know when our precious USMNT will return.