Traveling Americans gave the U.S. national team home field advantage in Natal
There was a moment near the end of the United States’ World Cup opener against Ghana in which I really started to believe. The game was tied at one—the Americans had just conceded an equalizer that was no less crushing for the feeling of inevitability that had been building since, I don’t know, Clint Dempsey had scored in the first minute of the game. We weren’t believing. American fans were doing the “how badly does a draw hurt the our chances to advance” calculus in our head. The feelings, like the math, were complicated.
And then Fabian Johnson managed to earn a corner kick by busting his butt to the end line. And then second-half substitute Graham Zusi jogged toward the flag and prepared to whip in a corner kick. And then the American Outlaws and the 20,000 U.S. supporters in the crowd started cheering, none louder than the three sections that were buffeting the area where Zusi was placing the ball.
“The crowd was amazing,” Zusi would say after the match. “It’s obvious that it was predominantly U.S. fans. You could hear them. It’s amazing to play down here so far away from home and have the support we did.”
Zusi’s outswinger found a leaping John Brooks, and the center back’s header slammed the ball into the ground and into the back of the net, giving the U.S. a 2–1 victory and the three points it desperately needed to start off the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The first U-S-A chant I’d heard had occurred nearly three hours earlier, at 6:08 p.m. local time. Two minutes later, a massive cheer went up when Nick Rimando and Brad Guzan, egging on the partisan crowd with a few claps of his huge mitts, ran out to warm up. The ubiquitous (and, yes, overdone) “I Believe” started at 6:11. My point? The Outlaws and their brethren had come in force. Someone told me there were 20,000 Americans in Natal on Monday, and nearly all of them were at the stadium.
“We had heard that there were a ton Americans,” said Tim Howard, who spent the first half with the center of American support at his back. “We were anticipating that. It’s fun for once to have the upper hand in a World Cup match.”
Ghana’s supporters, on the other hand, had a solitary section in the 42,000-person arena. They were organized, with drums and horns. (How they got those in I’ll never know. I had to part ways with my $5 bodega umbrella before they would let me into the stadium.) The Ghanaians danced and sang; their struggles to raise a giant flag during the national anthem did perhaps portend a disorganized team on the field, and that seemed to be the case when Clint Dempsey scored in the first minute. (The people in the stands had figured out the flag situation by the time Andre Ayew tied the match in the 82nd minute.)
The American fans faded a bit during the middle stretches of the match, attempting to rally their team with various numbers from the U.S. Soccer hymnal, but they had trouble gaining traction.
However, as Zusi jogged to the corner, the fans responded. The U.S. supporters didn’t win the game for the Stars and Stripes—that victory belongs to the gutsy, just-enough-to-win performance by the 14 Americans who took the field—but they sure as hell helped.