The Hidden Gem of Sports Travel: USMNT Away

One of the essential and little-known experiences of the American sports fandom requires you to leave American soil entirely. Every fou...

One of the essential and little-known experiences of the American sports fandom requires you to leave American soil entirely.

Every four years, the United States men’s soccer team embarks on a months-long journey to qualify for the World Cup, bouncing across North America, Central America and the Caribbean for an extremely tense of high-stakes matches against regional rivals. That these games have to be experienced in person to be truly understood has become a well-worn trope for players on the team, who often struggle at the start to adapt to the environment.

Turns out fans have been saying the same thing to each other for years. These traveling supporters – a small group of American fans afflicted with both a borderline irrational sense of team loyalty and an insatiable thirst for travel – are the road warriors of Concacaf, the regional confederation that includes the United States and its hemispheric neighbors. They are, in a way, a breed of their own as fans: reveling in opportunities for international exchange, seeing the beauty in cultural and competitive differences, dismissing warnings (justified or not) about personal safety and absorbing the often considerable expenses associated with monitoring their national teams.

“Football is the catalyst to get us to visit these places, but we dive into the full experience and come away with a better understanding of a country, and often an affinity for it,” said Donald Wine, 38, Washington, who is among a half-dozen fans planning to attend all 14 games of the 2022 World Cup qualifying round finals: seven in the United States and seven away.

The quest, however, has taken on a new level of urgency in the current qualification cycle as the Beloved Rite, in its current form, has an expiration date. Qualifying for the World Cup will be very different as the 2026 tournament approaches, when the field expands to 48 out of 32 teams, and the United States is expected to automatically qualify as the host. After that, the Concacaf region will receive around twice as many places in the tournament as it does today: given its relative strength compared to its regional rivals, this could offer the United States a relatively unexcelled path in qualifying for generations.

This means the journey – for gamers and fans alike – will never be the same again.

“I said to everyone entering this qualifying cycle, ‘If you weren’t able to do the others, do this one, because this is the last time we’re going to feel that pressure’,” said Ray Noriega, of Tustin, Calif., who has attended every game of Team USA’s last three World Cup qualifying rounds and plans to do the same this time around. “It sounds like the last hurray. “

It’s this pressure, fans say, that makes everything else meaningful, that for years has inflated the underlying tension and the atmosphere in the stadiums. Every game, every trip to another country, offers another chance to be surprised. It happened last month, for example, when the team started their qualifying campaign in El Salvador.

Only a few dozen Americans made the trip. Before kick-off, they were parked at the stadium by local police and taken to their seats against a wall behind a goal. To the Americans’ surprise, as they took their seats, local fans around them began to cheer. The people in the next section noticed and started clapping as well. Soon much of the crowded stadium rose to give visiting spectators a loud standing ovation. Americans were stunned.

“I’ve never seen this before,” said Dale Houdek, 49, of Phoenix, who has attended more than 100 US national team games (men and women), “and I don’t know if I will never see it again. “

The heat can be a pleasant surprise because, at least inside the stadiums, there is always the potential for hostility.

“I was hit by a battery in Costa Rica,” Noriega said. “I was hit with a coin in Mexico. I got hit with a baseball in Panama – I guess they say they are a baseball country. “

But frequent travelers insist such incidents are rare. The vast majority of people they meet, they said, are more interested in taking photos, swapping stories, swapping shirts and scarves, and offering advice on local attractions.

Given some of the complexities of traveling for these games, especially now in the midst of a global pandemic, traveling fans are coordinating with the team ahead of most trips. A security specialist who works for the United States Football Federation connects with the American Outlaws, the team’s largest organized fan group, to help orchestrate game day moves, organize police escorts (if necessary), find safe accommodation and choreograph their entry and exit from the stands.

“We are always on the phone if they need anything,” said Neil Buethe, chief spokesperson for the federation.

Fans who travel to Concacaf have come to feel like a subculture within a subculture – one with some level of disposable income and flexibility with work and family. Travel and expenses for a typical three-game window can cost a few thousand dollars.

“My dad says it’s my Grateful Dead,” said Max Croes, 37, of Helena, MT, 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 looks likely to take place behind closed doors, with no fans, in case the rules change at the last minute and they can attend.

“And if not, it’s Jamaica – there are worse places not to see a football game,” said Jeremiah Brown of Austin, Texas, who is trying to see all of qualifying this round with his. wife, April Green.

For the sheer scale of the occasion, however, one destination stands out from the rest.

“Mexico,” said Ivan Licon of Austin, “is its own beast.”

Matches at Mexico City’s enormous Estadio Azteca – where visiting fans are locked in fences, seemingly for their own protection – may inspire fans to pull out a multiplication table to describe its appeal:

“It’s 10 times college football,” said Licon, a die-hard Texas A&M fan who plans to attend every road qualifying this cycle.

“It’s the Red Sox and the Yankees 20 times,” said Boris Tapia, of Edison, NJ

More and more Americans are receiving the memo. Before the 2014 World Cup, a few hundred fans watched the Americans qualify in Mexico. Prior to the 2018 tournament, the US contingent was estimated by fans to be closer to 1,000. The teams will renew their rivalry at Azteca in March, when the teams are in the final stages of qualifying.

Football, however, is only part of the appeal of these trips. Fans happily listed the side quests that made the trip even more special: dawn surfing in Costa Rica; hiking in the mountains of Honduras; attend one of the biggest Easter celebrations in the world in Guatemala; spontaneously transporting baby turtles to the sea in Trinidad; the adoption of a donkey on the island of Antigua.

“His name is Stevie,” Wine said. “We are always getting updates on him.”

Small countries and more modest places have their own appeal. At Estadio Olimpico in Honduras last month, around two dozen American fans were hidden in a corner of the crowded stadium, a red freckle in a sea of ​​blue. Honduran fans gave them bags of plantain chips drizzled with hot sauce. When the US team made their comeback, Honduran fans, in a surprise development, began bombarding 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, not another source of light in the surrounding sky, giving the night a timeless quality.

“The experience is so pure,” Houdek said.

More low-key trips also have a way of breaking the fourth wall that usually separates fans from the team.

Kelly Johnson, 44, of Phoenix, recalled meeting former national team defenseman Geoff Cameron after she and Houdek, who is her boyfriend, continued to run into him at hotels and airports over the years.

A few years ago, Johnson messaged Cameron on Facebook as she and Houdek prepared for a vacation in England, where Cameron was playing professionally. She wasn’t expecting an answer, but Cameron surprised her not only by offering them tickets to a game, but also by inviting them over to his house and taking them to lunch.

This, she said, symbolized the fortunate coincidence of the national team’s trip.

“Random things happen,” she said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Hidden Gem of Sports Travel: USMNT Away
The Hidden Gem of Sports Travel: USMNT Away
Newsrust - US Top News
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