The hidden gem of sports travel: USMNT away

One of the essential and unsung experiences in American sports fandom requires you to leave American soil altogether.

Every four years, the United States men’s soccer team embarks on a months-long journey to qualify for the World Cup, bouncing through the Americas and the Caribbean for an excruciatingly exciting series of high-stakes matches against regional rivals. That these games need to be experienced personally to be truly understood has become a common figure of speech for the team’s players, who often struggle to adapt to the environment at first.

Fans, it turns out, have been saying the same thing to each other for years. These traveling supporters—a small band of American fans simultaneously plagued by a borderline irrational sense of team loyalty and an insatiable wanderlust—are the fighters of Concacaf, the regional confederation that encompasses the United States and its semicircular neighbors. Somehow they are a separate breed as fans: they relish the opportunities for international exchange, see beauty in cultural and competitive differences, ignore warnings (whether justified or not) about personal safety, and take on the often significant costs. associated with following their National team.

“Football is the catalyst for us to visit these places, but we dive into the full experience and we leave with a better understanding of a country, and often an affinity with it,” said Donald Wine, 38, of Washington, who is a of approximately six fans who plan to attend all 14 matches in the final round of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle: seven in the US and seven abroad.

However, the quest has taken on a new level of urgency in the current qualifying cycle because the beloved rite, in its current form, has an expiration date. Qualifying for the World Cup will look very different in the 2026 tournament, when the field expands to 48 teams from 32, and the United States is expected to automatically qualify as hosts. After that, the Concacaf region will gain about twice as many places in the tournament as it does now: given its relative strength to its regional rivals, that could provide the United States with a relatively stress-free path through generations to qualify.

That means the journey – for the players and the fans – will never be the same.

“I’ve told everyone going into this qualifying cycle, ‘If you couldn’t do the other one, do this one, because this is the last time we’re going to feel this pressure,'” said Ray Noriega, of Tustin, Calif. of the U.S. team’s past three World Cup qualifying cycles and plans to do the same this time. “It feels like the last hurrah.”

It’s that pressure, fans say, that gives meaning to everything else, which for years has fueled the underlying tension and atmosphere in stadiums. Every game, every trip to a different country, offers another chance to be surprised. For example, it happened last month, when the team started the qualifying campaign in El Salvador.

Only a few dozen Americans made the trip. Before kick-off, they were herded to the stadium by local police and escorted to their seats against a wall behind one goal. To the surprise of the Americans, the local fans started clapping around them as they took their seats. The people in the next section noticed and started applauding too. Soon, much of the packed stadium rose to give the visiting spectators a loud standing ovation. The Americans were stunned.

“I’ve never seen that before,” said Dale Houdek, 49, of Phoenix, who has attended more than 100 U.S. national team games (both men and women), “and I don’t know if I’ll ever see that again.” .”

The heat can be a pleasant surprise, because at least in the stadiums there is always a chance of hostility.

“I got hit by a battery in Costa Rica,” Noriega said. “I was minted in Mexico. I got hit with a baseball in Panama – I think they say they’re a baseball country.”

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

Given the complexity of travel for these games, especially now amid a global pandemic, the traveling fans coordinate with the team before most travel. A security specialist working for the United States Football Federation works with the American Outlaws, the team’s largest organized fan group, to help organize match day moves, arrange police escorts (if needed), find safe shelter and choreograph their entrances and exits. the stands.

“We’re always a phone call away if they need anything,” said Neil Buethe, the federation’s chief spokesperson.

The fans who travel through Concacaf feel like a subculture within a subculture – one with a certain level of disposable income and flexibility with work and family. Travel and expenses for a typical three-game window can run into a few thousand dollars.

“My dad says this is my Grateful Dead,” said Max Croes, 37, of Helena, Mont., of following the team around the world.

A handful are so committed to charity that they plan to fly to Kingston, Jamaica next month for a match that will likely take place behind closed doors, with no fans, if the rules change at the last minute and they can attend.

“And if not, it’s Jamaica — there are worse places not to watch a football game,” said Jeremiah Brown of Austin, Texas, who is trying this cycle with his wife April Green to see the full run of qualifiers.

However, for the sheer magnitude of the occasion, one destination stands out from the rest.

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

Games in Mexico City’s huge Estadio Azteca — where visiting fans are caged in a fence, ostensibly for their own protection — can inspire fans to break a multiplication table to describe its appeal:

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

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

More Americans are getting the memo. Before the 2014 World Cup, several hundred fans attended the Americans’ qualifying match in Mexico. Before the 2018 tournament, the U.S. contingent, fans estimate, was closer to 1,000. The teams will renew their rivalry at the Azteca in March, when the teams are in the final qualifiers.

However, football is only part of the appeal of these trips. Fans liked to mention side missions that made the trip extra special: surfing at sunrise in Costa Rica; hiking in the mountains in Honduras; witness one of the world’s largest Easter celebrations in Guatemala; spontaneously carrying baby turtles to the sea in Trinidad; adopt a donkey on the island of Antigua.

“His name is Stevie,” Wine said. “We’re still getting updates about him.”

The smaller countries, and the more modest locations, have their own appeal. At the Estadio Olimpico in Honduras, about two dozen American fans sat in a corner of the packed stadium last month, a freckle of red in a sea of ​​blue. Honduran fans offered them bags of plantain chips, topped with hot sauce. When the US team made a comeback, Honduran fans, in a surprising development, began pelting their own players with bags of drinking water sold outside the stadium.

There was not a single digital screen in the stadium, no other light source in the surrounding sky, which gave the night a timeless quality.

“The experience is so pure,” Houdek said.

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

Kelly Johnson, 44, of Phoenix, recalls getting to know former national team defender Geoff Cameron after she and Houdek, her boyfriend, continued to cross paths in hotels and airports over the years.

A few years ago, Johnson messaged Cameron on Facebook as she and Houdek prepared for a holiday in England, where Cameron played professionally. She didn’t expect a response, but Cameron surprised her not only by buying them tickets to a game, but also by inviting them to his home and out for dinner.

That, she said, symbolized the serendipity of traveling with national teams.

“Random things happen,” she said.

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