"In the litter of empty soda cans and empty dreams, Gregg Thompson had a question burning across his face. The young defender from Minnesota strode across the rudimentary locker room and blurted at the American soccer coach, Alkis Panagoulias: 'When are we ever going to play a home game?' The answer from Panagoulias was equally blunt: 'Never.'"
- New York Times sports journalist George Vecsey describing the aftermath of a 1986 World Cup qualifying game the U.S. played against Costa Rica in which the Americans played before a "largely hostile crowd" in Torrance, California.
There are a few interesting storylines attached to tonight's FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Mexico and the United States.
Attracting the most media buzz recently is the foolish infatuation Mexican supporters have developed for voodoo dolls. Then there is, of course, the ever-present geopolitical aspect of the match in which political issues such as immigration, citizenship, and economics add a social and cultural layer to the on-the-field rivalry that does not surround, say, a U.S. vs. Barbados game. And don't neglect the hopeful fact that the Americans have turned the tide in the historic rivalry, compiling a nine-game home unbeaten streak (seven wins and two ties) in friendlies or World Cup qualifying matches since the tricolores beat the Yanks 2-1 in San Diego in a March 1999 friendly.
The most interesting phenomenon about this matchup, however, melds the latter two narratives together: Namely, it is fascinating how the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body of soccer in the United States, shrewdly embraces ethnicity when scheduling exhibition games to maximize revenues, but shies away from ethnic enclaves when scheduling important home games (like a World Cup qualifying game) as a way to ensure as much as support for the home team as possible--even if it means a financial sacrifice for the organization. Consider, for example, the discrepancy in the USSF's scheduling of exhibition games and World Cup qualifying games against tonight's opponents, Mexico.
Since their aforementioned 2-1 loss in March 1999, the U.S. has hosted (or will host) Mexico for seven exhibition games and three Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) World Cup qualifying matches.
Of those seven exhibition games, six of them took place in pockets of the country populated relatively heavily by hispanics in general, and Mexican immigrants in particular.* In October 2000, for example, the U.S. hosted Mexico in Los Angeles, a city whose population is nearly one-half (47%) hispanic, about two-thirds of whom are Mexican (64%). And the subsequent games--Denver in April 2002 (31% hispanic, 69% of whom are Mexican); Houston in May 2003 (37% hispanic, 72% Mexican); Dallas in April 2004 (36% hispanic, 83% Mexican); Phoenix in February 2007 (34% hispanic, 83% Mexican); and Houston again in February 2008--all indicate the USSF is willing to sacrifice home-field advantage for a large gate receipt for exhibition games, as crowds for those games were 61,072; 48,476; 69,582; 45,048; 62,426; and 70,103, respectively.
All three qualifying games against Mexico since 2000, on the other hand, have not only been played (or will be played) in Latino-light Columbus, Ohio, a city whose relatively sparse population (at least compared to L.A. et al.) consists merely of 2% hispanics, 49.7% (or 8,686) of whom are of Mexican descent. But they have also been (or will be) played at Columbus Crew Stadium, a soccer-specific facility (read: not a cavernous football stadium plagued with many empty seats), whose capacity of only about 25,000 ensures the crowd figures--and dollar signs--from tonight's game will not match those of the friendlies against Mexico.
Now, considering the Americans' stellar record in Columbus (they are unbeaten in five WC qualifying games played there), and the advantage Ohio's February climate gives the Americans (one of those five qualifying wins took place in February 2001, when the U.S. beat Mexico in a game played in weather chilly enough to inspire the Mexican press to dub the game La Guerra Fria--The Cold War), it could be argued Columbus's demographics have little to do with the USSF's decision-making.
But by saying the USSF considers only past performance and an advantageous climate when making scheduling decisions--a limited scope the soccer press has persistently maintained--would ignore the American side's sore history of playing home games in front of the opposition's supporters, as well as neglect the USSF's habit for scheduling friendlies that cater to a region's ethnic proclivities.
Consider the discrepancy in the USSF's scheduling, even when friendlies and World Cup qualifying games not against Mexico are concerned.
Since 2000, the U.S. national team has hosted twenty-two World Cup qualifying games at only nine locations, with Columbus (6); Foxboro, Massachusetts (5); and Washington, D.C. (4) hosting the vast majority of the games. Of these three recycled sites, only Foxboro's urban neighbor Boston even remotely approaches the national average for hispanic population (14.4%, compared to the national average of 14.7%). Moreover, when you consider some of the other, one-time hosts--cities such as Kansas City, Missouri in April 2001 (6.9% hispanic); Birmingham, Alabama (1.6% hispanic) in March 2005; and Nashville, Tennessee scheduled for June 2009 (4.7%)--it is not coincidental that the USSF schedules World Cup qualifying games within a hispanic-heavy qualifying group (besides Mexico, CONCACAF includes such countries as Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama) in cities with a relatively low hispanic population. Especially when you consider the USSF's willingness to schedule friendlies with an eye toward embracing a region's immigrants, not avoiding them.
Besides the five Mexican friendlies I mentioned earlier, there's the June 2000 exhibition game against Ireland played in the backyard of Irish-heavy Boston, the March 2004 exhibition played against Haiti in Miami, and the July 2004 exhibition against Poland hosted by Polish-heavy Chicago. And don't forget the three friendlies played against Asian squads--China in January 2001 and June 2007, and Japan in February 2006--played in the Asian-heavy San Francisco Bay area (Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, respectively). So it appears that when the USSF is not throwing a bone to underrepresented soccer regions--Birmingham in March 2000 and March 2002; Seattle in March 2002 and March 2003; Richmond, Virginia in 2003; Albuquerque, New Mexico in March 2005; Cary, North Carolina in April 2006; Cleveland in May 2006; and Hartford, Connecticut in May 2006--it embraces ethnicity as a way of maximizing revenue for an exhibition game, even at the risk of ensuring the American national team does not enjoy overwhelming home-field advantage. Sadly, a lack of home-field advantage would not be foreign to an American national team.
Indeed, David Wangerin's history of soccer in America during the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, Soccer in a Football World, is littered with references to instances in which the American national team has hosted World Cup qualifying games on their own soil, only to play before a mostly hostile crowd. In a 1957 qualifying game played against Mexico in Long Beach, California, Wangerin notes the decision to stage the game at that locale was "tantamount to playing away" and that "[a]lmost all of the 12,500 in attendance came to support the visitors, and took pleasure in the 7-2 hammering of yet another slapdash American collective." Ditto a qualifying game for the 1966 World Cup--once again, against Mexico--when Wangerin describes the game site as "hostile Los Angeles" and wryly blankets the phrase home crowd with a pair of ironic quotation marks. This phenomenon even occurred as late as 2001, when the Americans hosted Honduras for a key qualifying game in Washington, D.C. In his book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer describes how, despite the USSF's letter to the Washington Post urging American supporters to wear red (a cause the USSF is also championing for tonight's game) to distinguish its cheering bloc from Hondura's supporters, "the Washington stadium might has well have been in Tegucigalpa."
Thanks to the USSF, though, it is unlikely Columbus, Ohio will not be mistaken for Morelia, Michoacán tonight--for more reasons than two.
- John C.L. Morgan
Related: The Sportswriter: Three Ideas for a Better American Soccer Fan.
* Population figures are based on the 2000 U.S. Census.