NEW YORK CITY — It is the largest metropolitan area in the United States, a symbol of America around the globe and one of the world’s great soccer cities. And yet, amazingly, until this week the U.S. men’s national team has never played a game that matters with its best possible team in the New York City area.
Not in the 104-year history of U.S. Soccer.
Oh, the U.S. has certainly played in the NYC area before: 21 times going back to 1925 (see table below). But none of those games truly mattered. No fewer than 18 of them have been friendlies, and three were knockout games in the dreaded B-team Gold Cup tournaments in 2005 and ’09 in East Rutherford, N.J.
When the U.S. meets Costa Rica in a World Cup 2018 qualifier at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET; ESPN, Univision), the A-team will be on the field in a game that counts: Christian Pulisic, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and the rest. For those of us who call Gotham home, we’ve got three words for you:
It’s about time.
Look, we understand why it has taken this long. The beauty of the Big Apple is its diversity. Every country in the world has a presence here, including the actual United Nations. Why play in front of a hostile crowd in your own country? There’s a reason Columbus, Ohio, has hosted so many big USMNT games over the years, and it’s not the amenities at Mapfre Stadium.
But come on. Other U.S. cities have significant immigrant populations, and that hasn’t kept them from hosting games. If we consider USMNT games that truly matter—in other words, non-friendlies with a U.S. A-squad that aren’t a third-place game or a qualifier in which the U.S. had already clinched a World Cup berth—39 U.S. cities in 27 metropolitan areas have hosted USMNT games that truly matter over the years:
Commerce City, Colo.; San Jose, Calif.; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Fla.; Houston; Seattle; Philadelphia; Chicago; Santa Clara, Calif.; St. Louis; Atlanta; Baltimore; Kansas City, Kan.; Foxboro, Mass.; Frisco, Tex.; Sandy, Utah; Tampa, Fla.; Pasadena, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Nashville, Tenn.; Bridgeview, Ill.; Carson, Calif.; East Hartford, Conn.; Salt Lake City; Birmingham, Ala.; Miami; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; Pontiac, Mich.; Dallas; Los Angeles; New Britain, Conn.; Torrance, Calif.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; San Diego; Long Beach, Calif.
On Friday, you can add the New York City area to that list—and in October you can add Orlando, which is hosting the USA-Panama World Cup qualifier in its brand new soccer stadium. Once that happens, the only MLS market yet to host a USMNT game that truly matters will be Minneapolis-St. Paul, and you can be certain that will change soon after Allianz Field opens in 2019. (Who's up for a March 2021 qualifier in the snow against Mexico?)
Other U.S. metro areas that have yet to host a truly meaningful USMNT game are: Phoenix; Charlotte, N.C.; San Antonio; Pittsburgh; Sacramento, Calif.; Cincinnati; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; and Cleveland.
Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president, said a number of factors came into play when the federation decided to finally host a World Cup qualifier in the NYC area.
“We wanted to play qualifying games in venues where would have a pro-U.S. crowd,” Gulati told SI.com on Monday, “and generally that meant playing in smaller stadiums, which points to MLS stadiums when you combine it with the fact that you want a top-level venue and a top-level field surface.
“Point two is we wanted to be on the East Coast with the short window between now and Friday,” Gulati continued. “We’ve got players even coming in today. So that makes the travel shorter: They don’t have to change planes for most of them, and it makes the trip much easier. And three, we haven’t played here in a long time in a competitive game, and given the ability through Red Bull [New York] season-ticket holders and our own lists and presale, we think we’ll have a very pro-U.S. crowd. Will it be 100%? The answer is no.”
2015 (Harrison, N.J.)
2014 (Harrison, N.J.)
2011 (Harrison, N.J.)
2011 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
2010 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
2009 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Gold Cup final (B Team)
2008 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
2005 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Draw 0-0 (Won 3-1 on PKs)
Gold Cup final (B Team)
2005 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Gold Cup semifinal (B Team)
2002 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
2000 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
1989 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
1984 (Long Island, N.Y.)
1984 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
1979 (East Rutherford, N.J.)
1968 (New York, N.Y.)
1964 (New York, N.Y.)
1953 (New York, N.Y.)
1949 (Randall's Island, N.Y.)
1926 (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
1925 (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
U.S. coach Bruce Arena may be a local as a Long Island native, but he wasn’t exactly celebrating the decision to stage Friday’s game here when asked about it on Monday. Arena’s initial response: “It was done without my input. It was already established.”
Prodded to elaborate on what he expects from the stadium environment, Arena said, “We’re going to find out on Friday. My sense is we’re going to have good support. When we played Honduras in San Jose [in March], there was concern there would be a big Honduran population attending the game, and that wasn’t the case [in a 6-0 U.S. victory]. I think we had a favorable crowd in Denver [for the U.S.’s 2-0 win in June against Trinidad and Tobago]. I would anticipate it’s going to be favorable for us. We’re well aware of the fact there are many Costa Ricans in the greater New York area. But that’s all part of the exercise.”
The U.S. fan base has also changed in recent years. Simply put, it’s a lot bigger. Nearly 4,000 of the stadium’s 25,189 tickets were issued to the American Outlaws, the biggest U.S. supporters group, which will have members flying in from around the country for the game. To try to ensure a pro-U.S. crowd on Friday, U.S. Soccer also held a ticket presale with several groups: U.S. Soccer members (a paid program that includes presale access as a benefit); season ticket holders for the New York Red Bulls, NYCFC and the New York Cosmos; U.S. Soccer sponsors; state association members in the immediate New York and New Jersey areas; and individuals on U.S. Soccer social media accounts.
According to a U.S. Soccer spokesperson, the “vast majority” of the tickets were sold in the presale before the tickets went on sale publicly. As of Tuesday morning, 24,500 tickets had been sold, with most of the remaining seats having obstructed views.
Does that mean there will be Costa Rica fans will be in the stadium? Yes. You can’t stop people from buying tickets on the resale and public markets. But the majority of fans will likely be cheering for the Stars & Stripes.
From a historical perspective, Friday won’t mark the first time a U.S. national team has played a game that truly matters in the NYC area. The U.S. women beat Denmark 3-0 at a sold-out Giants Stadium in the first game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. But Friday will be a first for the USMNT—unless you’re Bruce Arena.
“I’m from New York, so we don’t accept New Jersey as being in New York,” Arena cracked to a round of laughter on Monday.