The first of September. Harrison, New Jersey. Red Bull Arena goes wild as the crowd’s team runs over the USMNT. What was ostensibly supposed to be a home game turned into what felt like a 2-0 away loss in Costa Rica in front of a packed house of Costa Ricans. And that would turn out to be the major domino that fell before the US crashed out of World Cup qualifying.
Well, at least that’s the narrative.
In truth, that’s not really what happened.
There aren’t actually all that many Costa Ricans in the US. We’ve been having a lot of discussions over the past few years about Central Americans coming into the States, including the epidemic of unaccompanied minors crossing the border a few years ago. But those people tend to come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In the entire country, from California to New York, the last census recorded only 126,000 people from Costa Rica. In the New York metro area, that ends up being some 27,000 people, mostly in New Jersey. On its face, that might seem like a lot. But that same area holds 24 million people. In that massive crowd, Costa Ricans make up merely a passing face. You could almost fit every single one of them into Red Bull Arena, which held 26,500 fans that September night. While obviously there was a significant number of Costa Ricans there that night, to say that they dominated the stadium would require essentially ALL of them in the area to buy a ticket and show up. And that didn’t happen.
But to stop there would be to miss the point.
Why does the US want to avoid crowds that cheer for the other team? Why is that a major concern?
Ostensibly, the answer is because securing a favorable home environment provides the US men’s national team a significant advantage. This has meant going to smaller stadiums, usually in smaller cities with small populations of people from the opposing country. The small stadium means that USSF can rely on MLS season ticket holders and USSF supporter’s groups to fill a large percent of the seats, while the difficulty in traveling large distances to see a match speaks for itself.
But this viewpoint is toxic to the broader American soccer culture, and it stunts the longterm growth of our sport in this country.
To understand that point, we need to really consider who these fans rooting against the USMNT are. They are immigrants. They are people who left their home country — the country that they are rooting for — to come to this one. They are people who live here, in the US. People who work here. People who send their kids to school here. People who have lives here. These people are, as far as is relevant here, Americans.
More specifically, these are the people who care about soccer in this country. These are the people willing to pay the overpriced tickets, to brave the New Jersey traffic, and show up when the rest of the New York area was not interested. These are the people watching club soccer, whether it is La Liga or MLS. These are the people who drive up the viewership rates. The people who make soccer such a viable business that major club teams tour the country every year. They are the reason why the Mexican national team plays as many friendlies in the US as possible, filling the coffers for both the Mexican federation and USSF. These people are the reason why the Copa America Centenario was such a stunning success, why matches featuring Argentina and Colombia and Honduras and Jamaica were full of fans. And these are the people who disproportionately play soccer in this country. Per a Forbes Report
31% of Hispanic Millennials are soccer fans (more than two times than the general population) and 75% of Hispanic Millennials are actively using social media . Thus, it is believed that Hispanic Millennials are driving the growth of both the online soccer conversation and the stadium experience
These people can support whoever the hell they want, because, without them, soccer in this country would be nothing.
In this context, it becomes clear why making such a dedicated effort to have a specific sort of atmosphere is bad for American soccer. When we say that we want our home games to not have a hostile environment, we are saying that we want some Americans and not others. When we do that, we are explicitly taking people who stand with one foot here and one foot on the other side of a border, and demanding that they stand on one foot. That you cannot root for both, but, instead, that you must choose. We are splitting the American soccer community. On one side are people who root for the national team. On the other, are people who want to root for a place where they came from. And to change and choose the other means to cross a line and give up the other. All because we demand that people be Mexican OR American, Costa Rican OR American, Jamaican OR American, rather Mexican AND American, Haitian AND American, Colombian AND American. The USMNT is significantly less popular among Americans than other national teams. And it is because we push people away, because we demand that they give up something precious, that we have a fractured community.
What do you think happens in fractured communities? One side gets more attention than the other. And, of course, that is exactly the case in the US soccer community. Here at SSFC, we are constantly talking about how horrible USSF and MLS have been in reaching out to the Latino community, to scouting and coaching talent, to being accessible to those communities when they need outreach. But what do you think was going to happen when we don’t even want those people in our stadiums? Neglect and apathy is the natural conclusion. In this context, of course there will be cases like Jonathan Gonzalez. Of course players who have long been in the youth national team set up will leave when Mexico or another nation comes calling. Of course USSF will be caught blind by such switches. If the federation has this attitude of only looking at the explicitly American side of the culture, then of course we will lose players who are given the opportunity to lean into another part of who they are. Of course players understand how hard it is when you are forced to choose between different parts of your identity, between different parts of who you are. Cristian Roldan said as much when he talked about how he understands the difficult nature of Gonzalez’s nature.
It does not have to be this way. You can ask just about any immigrant who has been here long enough, and they will tell you, outside the context of soccer, that they feel like they belong both to their homeland AND America. There are Americans on the national team who take exactly this stance. Look at Alejandro Bedoya. During the Copa America Centenario, the USMNT played Colombia (twice). Alejandro Bedoya took the field as a Colombian American. And he himself will tell you that he grew up as a Colombian fan.
Growing up, I would watch Colombian football. My grandfather would have it on the radio and I know when the World Cup was the states in 1994, he and my family went to all of the Colombia games. I grew up wearing Carlos Valderrama wigs all over the house and playing like him. At that time (the 1990s) it was a big period for Colombian soccer and they were one of the best in the world; they played with a lot of fire and a lot of great players. So I grew up watching that team play and trying to emulate them, they were my big role models. My grandfather played goalie for Deportes Quindío and my father played for Millionarios FC, both in Colombia. I never really followed the Colombian league closely, but I did follow a lot of the players closely. I knew about (Radamel) Falcao being at River Plate before coming to Europe. Colombian soccer runs in my household, and I followed it closely growing up.
But he has found a way to be both Colombian AND American. Now, he and his extended family root for both the US and Colombia. That should be the sort of blueprint for American soccer. Fans should be allowed to support both the US and their mother country. And that can only happen if fans are allowed to root against the USMNT.
I am not so naive to believe that making a point to invite in fans who will cheer for the opposing team will make the USMNT’s job of winning games easier. I am not saying that I suddenly believe that the atmosphere will become calm and easy and in favor of the home team. No, games would definitely be hostile events. But the difference is that we take the people, those Americans cheering against the national team, that we take seriously all those who show up to these games. Because when we do that, our culture has a chance to change for the better. Those kids who show up for those games can see what it looks like to be on the field, to be in that jersey. Because it gives our players a chance to go before a full spectrum of the American soccer community and show what they can do, a chance to win the hearts of their compatriots, to make them believe in our national team. Because the United States is a country of people who came from somewhere else, and a home crowd rooting for the away team is exactly something distinctly and uniquely American - not something to be afraid of, but something to be embraced.