CINCINNATI — The most popular soccer team in the United States is a traveling circus that draws Incondicionales everywhere it goes. “Unconditionals,” the Mexican national team calls them. Diehard fans of El Tri who, in recent years, have filled stadiums coast to coast. They packed Soldier Field. They took over Las Vegas. They regularly make the U.S. men’s national team a de facto road team at home.
But once every four years, in Ohio, U.S. Soccer doesn’t let them.
When the U.S.-Mexico rivalry resumes in World Cup qualifying here on Friday, American officials expect Cincinnati’s glistening TQL Stadium to fill with red, white and blue. They’ve planned light displays and synchronized chants. They expect a rabid, patriotic crowd, in part because they — a group of prominent U.S. Soccer staffers that includes USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter — have worked for months behind the scenes to create it.
They “absolutely” believe that they could sell out a 100,000-seat stadium for this game, which one U.S. Soccer employee calls “the Super Bowl of what we do.” But they know many of the 100,000 would be cheering for Mexico. And they’d rather win. So, using everything from Census data to complex ticket lotteries, they follow a 20-year-old blueprint to make this home game … well, a home game.
Gaming the ticket allocation
Nearly a quarter-century ago, before Dos a Cero and frigid Columbus, with USMNT fandom nowhere near as robust as it is today, U.S. Soccer brought its first modern-era qualifying showdown with Mexico to Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts. And on that April day in 1997, from a crowd of 57,000 with split allegiances, it learned a lesson.
“If you're playing against a team that has a large community of expats in the U.S.,” longtime U.S. Soccer official Sunil Gulati said in a phone interview, “you almost have to play in a smaller stadium.”
So U.S. Soccer took its 2001 qualifier against Mexico to 24,000-seat Crew Stadium in Columbus, where it could more selectively distribute tickets. It won the game in front of an overwhelmingly pro-U.S. crowd. So it kept coming back. The lore around the venue and a succession of 2-0 victories made that decision almost automatic, even as moderate-size, soccer-specific stadiums multiplied across the country. Amy Hopfinger, U.S. Soccer’s vice president of events, remembers “at least entertaining the idea” of playing the game elsewhere in 2016. “But,” she said in an interview, “there was no real consideration.”
That choice alone, though, didn’t ensure that stars and stripes would fill the stands. Behind the scenes, U.S. Soccer’s commercial department refined the process that does. They grant exclusive ticket access to a variety of groups with ties to the American soccer establishment. For Friday’s game in Cincinnati, they designed a “weighted random draw,” essentially stacking a lottery in favor of fans who pay to be U.S. Soccer “Insiders.”
The first batch of tickets went to fans who pay a $500 annual membership fee. The second and third went to lower-level paying members. The fourth was available to recognized U.S. supporters groups, such as the American Outlaws, and to FC Cincinnati’s MLS season-ticket holders. Only the fifth and final batch was available to non-paying “Insiders.” In total, according to a federation spokesman, there were requests for more than 30,000 tickets. Requests for around 10,000 tickets were left unfulfilled. The general public never got access.
The scheme, of course, is rooted in the fact that relatively few of these members will support Mexico. And it has worked. The average fan-ratio estimate from those who attended qualifiers in Columbus is roughly 85-15 in favor of the U.S. Five consecutive World Cup cycles brought a true home-field advantage. Only a USMNT loss in 2016 opened up the venue selection process to other candidates — and, perhaps, some thought, to other regions of the country.
But according to Donald Wine, a prominent American Outlaws leader, “a few more Mexican fans have gotten into the building each time.” The secondary market offered opportunities. So do free or cheap memberships. The scheme isn’t foolproof. It’s penetrable. It's why the location of the game still matters.
“I still don't think we would go to a strong Mexican American community,” Hopfinger said.
Finding a U.S.-friendly venue
U.S. Soccer’s unofficial venue selection committee comprises Hopfinger, chief commercial officer David Wright, longtime administrative whiz Tom King and director of marketing Mike Gressle — but also Berhalter, sporting director Earnie Stewart and USMNT general manager Brian McBride. They consider dozens of factors, but ultimately, for the Mexico game, as Berhalter said last week, “our priority was finding a venue that we know we'd have a pro-U.S. crowd.”
He went on to mention the nation’s “rich Hispanic heritage.” Mexican Americans, specifically, now make up 12% of the U.S. population. Not all of the roughly 36.6 million care about soccer; and not all of those who do care root for El Tri. But many are fanatics. The Mexican national team plays roughly three times as many games in the U.S. as it does on home soil, in part to attract those fanatics. When U.S. Soccer schedules friendlies against Mexico — when revenue is the primary concern — it tries to attract them too.
But when it schedules qualifiers, it tries to avoid them. It knows that the Mexican American population is concentrated in certain regions and hubs. And it surely knows, for example, that no major hub is within a four-hour drive of Cincinnati.
In fact, only one, Chicago, is within seven hours. Just 4.4% of Ohioans identify as Hispanic, and only 1.8% claim Mexican heritage — both bottom-10 marks among U.S. states. Of the 17 states with MLS teams, Ohio’s Latino population share ranks last. And of the 22 U.S. metropolitan areas with MLS teams, Columbus and Cincinnati rank second-to-last and last.
Not coincidentally, Columbus and Cincinnati were the two finalists to host the qualifier against Mexico, Hopfinger said. Dozens of cities bid in total. “Minnesota put in a real strong effort,” she said. “And there's probably others in the Midwest. ... We talked to Kansas City.” But in the end, only two were seriously considered.
Other factors also bolstered Cincinnati’s candidacy. A fresh 26,000-seat stadium and eager fan base were two major ones. That fan base made Hopfinger “feel comfortable about tickets being taken and used by those supporters,” rather than seeping onto the secondary market — where pickings have been extremely slim. Tickets are going for over 200% of their already-high face values. “So we feel really confident in not only how we priced it, but also in that ticket holders are actually utilizing their tickets,” Hopfinger said.
Demographics, though, have been and will remain part of the calculus. Hopfinger mentioned “understanding Census data and things like that.”
“And I don't think that's the final determination,” she clarified. “But it is a conversation that we have.”
With tickets almost certainly in USMNT-supporting hands, Aaron Gonzalez and the American Outlaws go to work. Gonzalez is U.S. Soccer’s head of event production. AO is the largest nationwide U.S. fan group, with some 30,000 members across all 50 states. Together, they create a spectacle that is equal parts organic and carefully orchestrated.
They began the orchestration before Friday’s location was even announced. The moment it was, in late July, AO leaders contacted their Cincinnati chapter. Over the coming months, drummers and “capos” — chant coordinators — got involved. They dreamt up and painted a “tifo,” a massive banner that they’ll raise minutes before kickoff.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, planned a party unlike any he’d planned before. “We've circled this date for a long time,” he said. Fans will arrive here on Friday to find a high-tech LED wristband in their seat. After warmups, lights will dim, the wristbands will brighten and flash, covering the stands in red, white and blue. A “manifesto video” will play. Eight laps of pyrotechnics will illuminate the field as players emerge from the tunnel. The U.S. starting lineup will be introduced via call and response. A PA announcer will boom first names; thousands of fans will scream surnames on cue. Then a noise meter, an in-stadium host and a countdown will prompt them as 9:10 p.m. nears.
Gonzalez has scripted much of this on his own, or with input from colleagues. But in one case, input came from the head coach. At previous games, Gonzalez and AO had coordinated a slow-clap chant right at kickoff. Many outsiders felt that it deadened the raucous atmosphere building toward the game; that it was an awkward departure from the roar that typically greets an opening whistle. Berhalter apparently felt similarly. He met with Gonzalez. They decided that the clap — similar to Iceland’s "Viking clap," but accompanied by “U-S-A" — should instead welcome players to the field several minutes earlier. Their new goal for the moments before and after kickoff, Gonzalez said, is to “try to create chaos, this noisy atmosphere, this awesome sound.”
And then, for 90 minutes, 26,000 fans will try to sustain it. AO and other organized supporters groups will try to simplify their chants and get the entire stadium involved. Because they know, as USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta said Tuesday, that “being at home, in a pro-U.S. crowd, is definitely huge.”
They also know that this opportunity, to fill the ears of Mexican players with “U-S-A” chants, is rare. So they’re going to make the most of it.
And even if they aren’t 20,000-strong; even if Mexican fans find their way in and claim some 20 or 25% of seats, “you'll be able to feel that it's 100% American,” Gonzalez said. “That's our goal.”