The men’s national team has played World Cup qualifiers in blinding blizzards and stifling humidity. It has played on tiny junior college fields and in massive NFL stadiums. And it has played in 26 cities, 17 states and the District of Columbia.
But Friday it will do something it has never done when it meets Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in the first qualifier the U.S. has ever played in the New York metropolitan area (ESPN, Univision, 3:55 p.m. PDT).
“This is New Jersey, by the way,” Bruce Arena, the team’s Brooklyn-born coach, reminded listeners Thursday in an effort to dismiss the history. “The New York guys never accept the fact that New Jersey’s New York.”
True. But from here you can see New York, the nation’s largest population center and one in which more than 37% of the residents were born in another country. With home-field advantage so important in World Cup qualifiers, that diversity has kept U.S. Soccer away.
Not any more. Arena says the national team’s fan base has become so large and vocal, the U.S. can now claim its biggest city as friendly territory.
“We’re playing at home and I don’t care what anyone says, we have a home-field advantage,” he said. “We have great support.”
That theory will be tested Friday since more Costa Ricans live in the New York-Newark area than anywhere else in the country. And apparently many of them are soccer fans since the Ticos sold out Red Bull’s 25,000-plus seats for a Gold Cup game just seven weeks ago.
U.S. Soccer has tried to control the crowd for Friday’s game through private pre-sales to season-ticket holders and the American Outlaws, the national team’s largest supporter group. Organizers have also limited the impact of the resale market by distributing tickets by smartphone.
“There’s such a diverse melting pot of people here, whatever teams come here they’re going to have fans. It’s just the reality of the situation,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, who played six MLS seasons at Red Bull Arena. “But now that U.S. Soccer has established itself you always expect, no matter where you are in the U.S., that American soccer fans are going to turn out in numbers.”
McCarty said that support could be crucial since Friday’s game is a must-win affair for the U.S., which leads Panama by a point for CONCACAF’s third and final invitation to next summer’s World Cup with four qualifiers remaining. That means the Americans, who were humiliated by Costa Rica 4-0 on the road last November, can’t afford to leave any more points on the table — especially since they have only one home game left after Friday.
“Home-field advantage is huge,” said Arena, unbeaten in 14 games since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. coach following the debacle in Costa Rica. “In our competition, where it’s only 10 games and the conditions are very challenging on the road, it’s critical that you earn three points at home.
“If you don’t do that, it’s not likely that you can qualify for a World Cup.”
But Costa Rica, which reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup, won’t pose the only challenge Friday. A thin backline could also hamper the U.S.
Although the Americans have dangerous attacking options in Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris and are solid in the midfield with Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic, injuries have robbed Arena of two of his best defenders in center back John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin.
“Injuries are part of the game,” the coach said. “We’ve been through a number of games this year with players missing yet we survived. Whatever players we chose will step up and get the job done.”
Speaking of injuries, when the U.S. beat Costa Rica in a Gold Cup semifinal earlier this summer the Central Americans were missing six players. And though they are healthier this time, the Ticos are still without winger Joel Campbell, who scored twice against the U.S. last fall.
That will put extra pressure on playmaking midfielder Bryan Ruiz and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Real Madrid’s starting keeper in the last two Champions League finals. However neither player should expect any help from the crowd, said ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.
“Deep down everyone in U.S. Soccer is saying let’s see what we get,” said Twellman, a former MLS scoring leader and MVP. “I think they get a pro-U.S. crowd but it’s been the biggest story line for me since the game was announced.
“You still have to make sure World Cup qualifiers are played where you have an advantage.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11