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What a Non-Competitive Soccer Game Can Tell Us About America

When the U.S. and Mexico play on American soil, who the home team is depends on the purpose of the game: making money or getting a win.
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U.S.–Mexico at the University of Phoenix Stadium. (Photo: Noah Davis)

U.S.–Mexico at the University of Phoenix Stadium. (Photo: Noah Davis)

GLENDALE, ARIZONA — The one-word chant comes every time Nick Rimando takes a goal kick. The United States national team keeper takes a few quick steps and puts his day-glo Nike cleat through the Nike ball, sending it 60, 70, sometimes even 80 yards into the warm Arizona night. As it curls through the air, the crowd at the University of Phoenix Stadium screams a single, four-letter phrase: "Puto!"

I won't translate. Suffice it to say that this is not the nicest thing to yell at a goalie, especially when he’s playing for the home team. But last week, while the Americans were listed as the hosts, their arch-rivals from down south had the support of the crowd. El Tri, as the Mexicans are known, almost always do when the two sides play in games that don't matter. International teams contest two types of matches: games in competitive tournaments (think a World Cup qualifier or the Gold Cup, which is the regional championships) and friendlies (or exhibitions). The goal of one is to win; the other, to make money.

People in the United States have purchased nearly four times as many tickets to the World Cup as citizens of any country other than Brazil.

Last week's game was one of the latter, hence its location in Arizona. Nearly 60,000 people filled UoP Stadium to watch what would finish as a 2-2 draw. That's a lot of people paying a lot of money for a lot of tickets. Compare that with the 24,584 fans who filled Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio for a 2-0 U.S. victory over Mexico in September. That win qualified the Americans for the 2014 World Cup and significantly hurt El Tri's chances. (Ironically, the U.S. would help Mexico reach Brazil in the end.) It was also the only time in recent memory—perhaps ever—that there was a pro-U.S. crowd at a U.S.-Mexico game. Crew Stadium was loud, boisterous, and more than 50 percent Stars and Stripes.

“I think it really got into Mexico’s heads,” defender Omar Gonzalez said after the game, according to a story that also mentioned how the U.S. Soccer Federation passed up $3 million in gate revenue, compared to what it would have taken in were the game held in the 104,000-seat Ohio Stadium at the Ohio State University. Their thinking: It’s easier to maintain a numerical advantage when you have fewer seats to fill.

I covered the game in September and the one last week. The difference was very real, if not surprising. In Columbus, the pro-American crowd was loud early, got louder when Eddie Johnson scored in the 49th minute, and exploded into raucous celebration after Landon Donovan put the cap on yet another dos a cero victory for the U.S. The Mexican fans, of whom there were many, didn't stand a chance. (In other words, nary an audible “puto.”) In Glendale, the 75/25 Mexican-to-American split was loud before kickoff, quiet after the U.S. tallied two goals in the first half, then revived in a very real way as El Tri battled back with two of its own scores in the second half.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is not those two games but a comparison between the present and the past. More than four years ago, I watched the U.S. defeat Mexico in Columbus during a World Cup qualification match. The Americans had strong support—its best ever—but Mexico's red, green, and white still dominated the stands. The U.S. players talked not about having majority U.S. support but still playing in an electric environment. They might have been outmanned, but they fed off the energy of the crowd nonetheless.

The 2014 World Cup qualification cycle demonstrated how much American support has grown in four years and how it continues to do so. The American Outlaws, stars of their own Maxim feature, are a united force with 100 chapters spread out across the country from Northern Vermont to San Diego. The U.S. still can't fill a stadium the size of the Orange Bowl or the University of Phoenix with a pro-American crowd, but that day is getting closer and closer.

We'll see this in Brazil, too. People in the United States have purchased nearly four times as many tickets to the World Cup as citizens of any country other than Brazil. An important point here: This does not mean that people have purchased 154,000-plus tickets to U.S. games, merely that Americans have bought that many tickets. Presumably, there are a lot of fans rooting for other nations who live in the U.S. A nation of immigrants and all that jazz. Still, the total number of tickets is nearly twice the number that Americans purchased in 2010, and many of those fans will be going to watch Jurgen Klinsmann's squad play. If you listen closely enough to the ESPN broadcast, you might be able to hear some four-letter words yelled in English.