WHEN WE LAST SAW OUR HEROES they were on the ropes. The U.S. men’s national team squared off against their archrivals, El Tri in the Rose Bowl. The CONCACAF Gold Cup was on the line. Surrounded by loud and raucous hostiles, the U.S. succumbed to a burgeoning Mexican side, losing 4-2. Mexico was proclaimed el rey of North American soccer and the Yanks had to retreat, reorganize and reinvent themselves.
A month later, manager Bob Bradley was sacked and replaced by former German men’s national team head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann.
Klinsmann was U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati’s white whale. The two flirted with each other for years; stealing glances, subtle smiles, late night phone calls while Bradley was sleeping in the next room.
“I don’t really love Bob,” Gulati whispered into the phone, I’m sure on more than one occasion. “I love you, Jurgy.”
Last night, Gulati and Klinsmann’s marriage was consummated on the pitch.
No, not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Klinsmann managed his first match as the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, facing off against none other than El Tri. It was an oddly placed international friendly for two sides who just faced each other in such a high stakes game. The players insisted before the match this wouldn’t be about getting revenge because there wasn’t any hardware on the line. If not for the coaching shakeup, there probably wouldn’t have been very much attention paid to the half-filled stadium in Philadelphia.
I arrived at Lincoln Financial Field around 4 p.m. and Mexican fans were already out drinking, grilling, having a kick. U.S. fans were scarce, a car here, a car there. Lawn chairs and a few beers. Not that you’d need much more but hardly the full-scale operations Mexican fans were setting up.
I headed across the street to McFadden’s at the Phillies stadium where the supporter group, the American Outlaws, were set to gather. Quiet at first, but after an hour things revved up. Fans filed in, belting out the Outlaw’s patriotic tunes.
Budweiser was flowing like the Delaware River and the small force of red, white and blue clad fans were psyched. People speculated about the lineup, the formation, what would be Mexico’s plan of attack, is Klinsmann the guy to put the U.S. on the soccer map? The more beers poured, the more experts started appearing.
Game time was slowly creeping up. I ventured back to the parking lot to check on the tailgating scene. It was a green one.
While many rowdy U.S. fans confined themselves to the bar, Mexican soccer fans had annexed the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot. The pockets of American patriots were outnumbered, though, many embraced the ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ attitude. Opposing fans engaging in impromptu soccer matches, drinking domestics and imports in perfect harmony. Even sharing some pregame churros. Nothing says “will you be my neighbor?” like fried dough doused in cinnamon.
9:13 p.m. arrived and I took my seat up in the pressbox. The glass over looking the field was thick, muffling the noise of the crowd for most of the game but it sure as hell couldn’t keep out “The Star Spangled Banner.” The anthem roared and reverberated throughout the stadium, courtesy of the Outlaws.
I wondered before the match if I’d be able to contain my cheers and jeers. I’m an animated spectator so I figured it’d be tough to swallow my tongue. Then I realized if someone didn’t cheer for their country, odds are, they’re a communist. Happy to report there weren’t too many communists in the pressbox. People called for red cards, bashed the ref and even gave a small round of applause when the U.S. scored (The Spanish-language media outlets did the same for Mexico).
Klinsmann fielded a formidable squad with a host of newcomers. The new incarnation of American soccer could’ve pulled off a comeback win if not for a no call on take down of Landon Donovan in the box and the blatant foul by Gerardo Torrado on Robbie Rogers. For a first match of the Klinsmann era, I’ll take it. There was no reason to expect explosions or fireworks. Going forward from here, consistency is the key.
Throughout the game, Twitter was abuzz with conversation regarding this squad. A full range of emotions ran wild on the Internet, like there was real, genuine interest in what was going on. After full time hit with the score knotted at 1-1 the chirping of Twitter died down and with NFL preseason starting today, all eyes will be on the gridiron once again.
I walked out of the stadium around 12:30 a.m. and noticed there was noise still being made. Mexican soccer fans were still occuping the parking lot. Still banging balls against cars and out into the street. Still talking about the team’s performance, eager for what’s next.
Given some time hopefully fans can sustain that passion and hopefully Klinsmann injects some excitement and some consistency into U.S. soccer. Because consistency – as we all know and Gulati can personally attest to – was not Bradley’s strong suit.