CINCINNATI – In choosing new TQL Stadium for Friday night's World Cup qualifier against Mexico, the U.S. Soccer Federation selected a city with a 3% Hispanic population in a state that ranks 42nd among the 50 in that demographic.
“When you’re talking about a World Cup qualifier, it’s really important to have a pro-U.S. crowd, and whether that’s Latinos in the stands or not, we want a pro-U.S. crowd," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. "And it's not always easy to ensure it. I think we learned from mistakes in the past.”
Berhalter, a U.S. defender from 1994-2006, recalled playing against Honduras and Guatemala at Washington's RFK Stadium when the visitors had majority support. In 2017, partisans were mixed for the U.S. and Costa Rica at a World Cup qualifier at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, won by the Ticos 2-0 and contributing to the Americans' failure to reach the World Cup.
Ninth-ranked Mexico leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 14 points and the No. 13 U.S. is second with 11 points heading into Friday's game, which marks the halfway point of qualifying.
With Berhalter as coach, the U.S. has drawn three overwhelmingly pro-American crowds. It opened in an NFL venue in September, Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, and drew 43,028 for a 1-1 draw against Canada.
The next three home matches were set for new Major League Soccer homes, where smaller ticket allotments facilitate targeted distribution to season-ticket holders and supporters. A 2-0 win over Jamaica drew 20,500 last month to Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, and a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica was seen by 20,165 at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio. The match against Mexico is in 26,000-capacity venue that opened in May.
“We want the stadium to be loud, and we want the atmosphere to be hectic,” Berhalter said.
Used to frenetic fans at their club matches in Europe and the U.S., America players appreciate fervid backing.
“The fan bases help us so much. They give us sometimes that extra motivation, that extra push that we need in the toughest part of the game,” said midfielder Tyler Adams, among the American leaders. “Relying on the crowd for energy sometimes is something that you need.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation said president Cindy Parlow Cone and chief executive officer Will Wilson were in meetings Thursday and were not available for comment on site selection.
Columbus' old Crew Stadium was the site of the previous five U.S.-Mexico qualifiers from 2001-17. The first four were the string of “Dos a Cero” U.S. wins followed by a 2-1 defeat in November 2016 that began the American downfall.
“For us, it's just about understanding what competition we’re in and trying to get a crowd that’s going to push us and get behind us and really helps this team be successful," Berhalter said. "It’s not about what nationality you are or what demographic you're in.”
The U.S. has played Mexico twice this year, winning 3-2 in the CONCACAF Nations League final at Denver in June on Christian Pulisic’s 114th-minute penalty kick. With a roster of mostly backups, the Americans defeated El Tri 1-0 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Las Vegas on Aug. 1 behind Miles Robinson’s 117th minute goal.
“I don’t take losses as something personal,” Mexico coach Tata Martino said. “When you start handling this as something personal, you start making bad decisions. It’s a huge game, I know its importance and it happens to be in the qualifiers.”
Berhalter recalled games against Mexico in which U.S. supporters were far outnumbered.
“When you play in front of filled-up stadiums at your home and it's 95% Mexican fans, you learn really quickly what this rivalry is about. When you see the passion on the field, how both teams compete against each other, you know what the rivalry is about,” Berhalter said.
“When you hear things coming out from their camp that we want to be them, we're looking at some mirror that's Mexico and we want to see ourselves or something like that, it shows that we have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico. And the two victories in the summer I guess didn't do a lot to get that and we're going to have to do it tomorrow with our play on the field," he said.
Pulisic, returning from a sprained left ankle that has limited him to two late-game appearances in the past two months, won't start Friday but likely will come off the bench, Berhalter said.
Zack Steffen, who rarely plays for Manchester City, will start his second straight qualifier in goal over Matt Turner, the regular for the New England Revolution.
Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old striker who chose the U.S. over Mexico, is expected to start.
“We hope in the future guys like Ricardo Pepi will help us get more Latino fans,” Berhalter said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Mexico has played 14 of its 26 games in the U.S., including a friendly series in which it partners with Soccer United Marketing, a commercial affiliate of MLS.
When the rivals met at Denver's Empower Field and drew 37,648, the match was stopped for about three minutes in second-half stoppage time because of discriminatory fan chants. American attacker Gio Reyna was hit on the face by a thrown object following Pulisic’s goal.
Berhalter thought back to what he felt was a “hostile” environment for the U.S.'s opening qualifier in September at San Salvador's Estadio Cuscatlán.
“That brings their team to life," he said. “And we're hoping for the same type of response from the crowd and then the reaction from the team, because we know how a good crowd can push the team.”
AP Sports Writer Eric Nunez contributed to this report.
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