In the wake of a calamitous failure, it’s only natural that fingers get pointed.
And since a competitive U.S. Soccer presidential race is being fought in the months after the men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – the first time there is more than one candidate since 1998 – the recriminations have run rampant, fully weaponized by an eight-person field jostling for the highest office in American soccer.
Recently, and weirdly, the campaign dug up a tiresome talking point, and prompted the re-litigation of a decision that’s been blamed for the crashed campaign to reach an eighth-straight World Cup. The seventh of 10 qualifiers – and the penultimate one on U.S. turf – was held at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Costa Rica beat the Americans 2-0 last September. That loss was followed by a tie in Honduras, a win over Panama in Orlando, and a fateful loss in Trinidad and Tobago.
Red Bull Arena, which traps noise well, turning the 25,000-seater into a cauldron when it’s sold out and the game is tense, was loud that night. The crowd seemed to consist of a majority of U.S. fans to this observer. And a military flyover of combat helicopters dialed up the jingoism from the start. Yet rather than a pair of opportunistic goals from the counter-attacking Costa Ricans, capitalizing on defensive mistakes, and an off-night from the Americans, many blamed the loss on the noise.
And then they blamed it on a supposedly misguided venue selection.
This week, the old trope of the lack of a true home-field advantage for the U.S. national team was trotted out again. And it’s certainly true that in many towns, thanks to America’s glorious diversity, a large swath of fans favors the visiting team. Almost without exception, the partisans for the visitors are over-represented relative to the numbers you usually see traveling to international away games. Because most every U.S. metropolis has a significant community from just about every other nation in the Americas.
This is seen as a problem. And it’s come up again in the presidential race.
Kyle Martino, a very legitimate contender in next months’ election, reiterated the importance of a home-field advantage on Tuesday. And for a few hours, Soccer Twitter melted down.
This is not about anything but winning games. No better place to play Costa Rica than RBA…in a friendly. But when trying to qualify for a World Cup you do absolutely everything in your power to tip the scales in your favor.
— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) January 9, 2018
the USMNT didn’t lose simply because of venue but fact is you must win home qualifiers by putting them where you have the best advantage. Most countries create this with national stadiums. Of course every fan should have an equal right to see their team in the flesh
— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) January 9, 2018
Chiefly, because when you take some time to consider it, the home-field advantage argument is stupid. Where, exactly, would the U.S. play a game where the vast majority of fans could be relied on to support it over its opponent? Unless you went to Alaska or Idaho or someplace equally desolate, you’d be hard-pressed to find a town where you’d get only pro-U.S. fans. And even then, people can get in cars or planes.
There’s a reason the national team doesn’t play in Fargo, North Dakota already. Sure, you’d likely get fewer Costa Rica fans there. But the local people probably aren’t so into soccer there either, making the point moot.
And let’s be frank, there were plenty of Mexican fans in Columbus all those times the U.S. prevailed there – until it didn’t. They didn’t stop the U.S. from winning, just as U.S. fans weren’t the reason the Yanks were so often victorious.
The logic of a national stadium, where the U.S. would feel at home, falls down on the same grounds. Where would such a national stadium go? How would you legislate for a majority of home fans? Some kind of quota system, perhaps? A purity test, maybe?
How does all that sound to you?
If you think there’s some magical place where this issue goes away without building a xenophobic utopia, you’re kidding yourself.
Its predictable, yet somehow still baffling, that people with influence can't see the "logical" conclusion of what they're saying, or the VERY CLEAR message it sends to the people who must become US fans and players in the very near future if anything is to progress.
— Kevin Brown (@FriendlyFAUX) January 9, 2018
But more problematically, there is a subtext to this kind of talk that smacks of intolerance. Martino denies this, and there’s no reason to doubt his good intentions. He’s merely rehashing an old talking point. But to campaign for an overwhelmingly pro-U.S. crowd is, necessarily, to plead for a kind of universal whiteness in the stands that’s simply anathema to the 21st century United States of America.
The so-called home-field advantage issue is a uniquely American problem because America is made up in large part of new Americans with strong connections to their roots. Always has been.
This argument glosses over several actual problems.
For one, none of this would be a factor if the Americans had gotten more than four points from their final four qualifiers and snuck on through to Russia. There was a certain fluky element to their elimination, even though there were, and are, systemic issues a plenty. And this conversation doesn’t happen if a few bounces turn out differently.
And if the crowd was even pro-Costa Rica, which will never be demonstrated or disproved, making this such an irritatingly shelf-stable red herring, it surely would have swayed the other way if only the U.S. had played better.
That tends to silence the opposing fans: score some goals.
And, secondly, the point has been made that if the U.S. program did a better job of converting recent generations of immigrants into fans, this problem would also go away.
Here’s a dumb idea: every single area we try to “avoid” for USMNT games? Get in there, create programming designed to embrace immigrant populations, make them part of the family, & try to turn 1st generation & subsequent fans into US Soccer supporters.
How? Iono, stay tuned.
— Christopher Aaron West. There. My full government. (@ayyy_west) January 9, 2018
The U.S. will never have a true home-team advantage until it becomes its nation’s unequivocal home team, no matter where it plays. And doing so will require time and effort and outreach. There are no shortcuts. Only gains to be made on the field and fans to be won over in the stands.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.