COLUMBUS, Ohio – First thought upon arrival at Crew Stadium tonight ahead of the big U.S.-Mexico clash: I am positive that I have been to MLS matches where there were fewer people at kickoff than there are here already.
And that was three hours and change before kickoff Tuesday.
It’s a big match, and it has a big-match feel. That’s more easily accomplished, by the way, when these matches land in the relatively smaller cities, where game-day is more evident around the city for the splash of color representing both teams.
U.S. fans have clearly gotten up to speed on early arrival. In the past, more seasoned fans of visiting nations would happily find their way to the ground hours in advance, while American supporters, accustomed to on-time arrival for soccer events, hammered their way through traffic as kickoff approached.
Tuesday at the hardscrabble Ohio fair grounds area (a bit dusty and untidy, if we’re being honest), the U.S. fans were more than a match of their rivals in early arrival. “USA! … USA …”
There is clearly extra security for this one. I listened in momentarily on a security briefing for ushers and gate staff and, without spilling any meaningful secrets, leaders advised the big group on how to be extra vigilant about naughty fans who might try to sneak things in.
Close by, bomb sniffing dogs – not all business, all the time, as one played fetch with his handler between assignments – checked out any cars with access to the inner ring of security.
Beefy security types inside the very yellow ground rehearsed their lanes for proper pursuit of a pitch invader two hours before the contest. They weren’t satisfied with the result, apparently; they did it all a second time.
Strategic ticket sales approaches help ensure a pro-American crowd. U.S. Soccer opens early ticket sales to the American Outlaws and other independent supporters groups, including the local Columbus Crew supporters group. Then sales are open to paid members of the official U.S. Soccer supporters groups and then opened to the general public. Net out: fewer fans of the visiting nations make their way into the match.
Drilling down a little more on who bought tickets, let me say this: next time some marketing maven yammers on about selling professional soccer to “the families,” laugh at them. Yes, there is a place for more of a family balance at league matches, but the crowd here on a sweaty, late-summer night is the very picture of the hardcore U.S. Soccer fandom: a high percentage of adult males in their 20s and 30s, with younger women and few families making up the balance.
There are fewer little kids in soccer uniforms here, more “big kids” in kooky U.S. Soccer-inspired get-ups.
Another sign of the ever-increasing sophistication of the U.S. Soccer audience: almost everyone in the stands has a U.S. jersey, a flag, a star-striped hat … something that announces loudly that they care enough to wear their nation’s colors.
The “Dos a Cero!” chant rings out loud and strong as the first group of U.S. players are out to check out the field. It’s an hour before kickoff.