Setting the scene at Crew Stadium for U.S-Mexico qualifier

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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 …”

(MORE: U.S.-Mexico, just the fact — with links to all other PST preview posts)

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.

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE