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USMNT venue selection deserves some scrutiny

The U.S. Soccer Federation picked the wrong time to place a competitive match in its largest metropolis.

Josh Dunst Photography

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this column are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the entire staff at Stars and Stripes FC.

A 2-0 loss in World Cup qualifying is always bad. A 2-0 loss in World Cup qualifying, at home, this late in the Hex, is calamitous.

There is no question that the United States were outplayed by Costa Rica from the beginning. From Tim Ream’s disastrous positioning to our team’s repeated inability to finish, the USMNT simply was not up to snuff on the night. Red Bull Arena’s atmosphere most certainly didn’t help either.

As I argued last month, the U.S. Soccer Federation has strategically placed World Cup qualifiers in order to secure a significant home-field advantage. St. Louis, Columbus, Jacksonville, Columbus, San Jose, and Denver – the other locations of this cycle’s World Cup qualifiers – are far from the main American hubs of the nations they played. U.S. Soccer’s recent qualifier against Costa Rica, played in Jersey, was a test case and one which U.S. Soccer hoped could break the mold.

This experiment failed.

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 is a minuscule number compared to the number of Trinidadians (110,000), Hondurans (100,000), and Mexicans (600,000) in the same area, scheduling a World Cup qualifier in the #1 location of your opponent’s fans seems, uh, not wise.

Despite the relative smallness of this community, along with strategic ticket sales aimed to create a partisan pro-U.S. crowd, the Ticos made their collective voice notably heard.

With the exception of the American Outlaws sections in the south endzone, Ticos supporters were present in every section in the Arena. Although the U.S. Soccer Twitterverse seemed surprised at the number of Ticos fans in attendance, the evidence was written on the wall for months:

In fact, Red Bulls President Joe Stetson expressed hope for Tico attendance, telling 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 New York Red Bulls, creating a partisan atmosphere was not important so long as every ticket was sold. Despite the massive Tico presence, and the negative result for the USMNT, the Red Bulls accomplished their goal and sold out the stadium. To be frank, I’m not sure why more of us didn’t expect this. Red Bull Arena experienced a similar Tico takeover for a 2015 friendly against the USMNT. It should be absolutely no surprise that these fans were even more of a presence at a competitive match where World Cup qualification were part of the stakes.

Let me be quite clear: I am not bashing the Ticos. They turned out massively, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. They were, at least in my section, largely respectful and good sports—fair play to them. My issues with the placement of this World Cup qualifier have nothing to do with the ethnicity of the visiting fans, but simply the manner in which they managed to disrupt what should’ve been a markedly pro-USMNT environment.

In the Hex, securing results at home is absolutely vital. As of writing, the U.S. has already dropped six points within our borders this cycle. While the U.S. fell 2-1 to Mexico in Columbus, that result was far from disastrous. Of course, you never want to drop points at home, but a 2-1 defeat to Mexico, arguably the best team in the CONCACAF, at the beginning of the Hex wasn’t exactly a surprise or a disappointment.

In Columbus, Mexican fans made their voices heard, but not quite as loudly as the Ticos in New Jersey. Throughout the rest of our home qualifiers - St. Louis, Columbus, Jacksonville, Columbus, San Jose, and Denver - the chorus of visiting fans was largely muted. In the selection of these sites, the U.S. Soccer stayed the course, as indicated by U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, selecting partisan sites rather than relocate to new or large markets – like that of the New York Metro area.

Despite Gulati’s noted preference for selecting partisan sites, he admitted that Red Bull Arena’s cosmopolitan location promised to shift the norm.

“We think we’ll have a very pro-US crowd. Will it be 100%? The answer is not,” Gulati told Sports Illustrated,

Obviously, Gulati realized that Red Bull Arena was not a safe choice, but an experimental play aimed at expanding U.S. Soccer’s reach.

It could be said that Bruce Arena was far from pleased, as he bristled when asked about the choice of venue, flatly stating, “It was done without my input. It was already established.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation knew that Red Bull Arena, due to its location in the middle of America’s Costa Rican community, broke the mold in location choice for a World Cup qualifier. The Federation also knew that, as a result, Red Bull Arena would inevitably attract a large Tico crowd. The Federation obviously also knows that every point in qualifying is vital, particularly at home. The bottom line here is quite simple: the Federation opted to place business concerns ahead of practical soccer pursuits.

Rather than simply play another qualifier in a partisan, pro-U.S. environment —-potentially damaging ticket sales and cultural reach — the Federation opted to experiment in America’s #1 Costa Rican community, even with three crucial points on the line. Red Bull Arena, along with its big city allure, was too big an opportunity to pass up. In prioritizing these concerns over qualifying concerns, the Federation actively played a role in allowing for the creation of a mixed crowd.

Most nations have a stark advantage in home matches. Most nations are also not nations made up of immigrants. Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama are still largely made up of a single ethnic group in a way the United States is not. Home games in these nations are therefore guaranteed to provide an advantage in a way that the U.S. cannot.

Sure, Americans may follow when the U.S. travels to Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama, but they would never show out in numbers like Costa Rica did Friday, nor would they dare to mockingly wave an American flag or “olé” the home team.

Now, the demographics of the Red Bull Arena crowd do not excuse the Americans’ play. Not by a long shot. However, they failed to provide the home-field advantage other nations tend to have by default. I am not arguing that U.S. Soccer needs to segregate competitive matches to the middle of the country, far from most immigrant hubs. Instead, I am imploring the Federation to simply be more strategic in its choice of location.

If the U.S. had to play Poland in a competitive match, we wouldn’t play in New York, Chicago or Detroit. If the U.S. had to play Cuba in a competitive match, we wouldn’t play in Miami. It shouldn’t have to be said that when hosting Costa Rica in a must win match, hosting them in the most Costa Rican part of America simply wasn’t a wise decision.

While our players deserve a home-field advantage, it would be unfair if we failed to represent the diversity of our nation and play matches in as many parts of our great nation as possible. However, while every game doesn’t have to be played in middle of the country, the Federation has to be smarter. We wouldn’t play Mexico in Los Angeles, so why did we play Costa Rica in the New York metro area? The USMNT and its supporters deserve better — we deserve to feel at home in our home matches.