Perhaps there was only one thing more surreal than watching the USMNT chase a yellow ball around a snow-covered field in Denver last night, and that was being there in person. Brian and I made the pilgrimage for FourFiveTwo, to what started out as a winnable but crucial, need-three-points-now match against the Ticos, and ended up being an Instant Classic/Stuff of Legends game which many more USMNT fans (including the rest of the FourFiveTwo staff) will claim they witnessed live, compared to the nearly 20,000 who were actually there.
In honor of the hex, here are the six moments of the trip that stand out most for me:
The Airport. Who knew it required wearing a USMNT jersey to board a flight to Denver for a hex match? Thanks to many of the American Outlaws doing just this very thing, we were able to spot each other among the regular travelers (making us the irregular travelers?), which led to high-fiving, figuring out where we were from, fretting a little over the recent sky-is-falling article and the Starting XI, but all in generally high spirits. Here’s the deal: We came from EVERYWHERE. Adams, Mass. South Dakota. Des Moines. Albuquerque. And, fresh off the plane, I’m part of a group of four dudes from Austin splitting a cab with two dudes from Queens, asking them what it’s like to root for the Red Bulls. (Answers: the stadium’s nice, Harrison itself sucks, the Red Bulls name is embarrassing to all except a puzzling segment of dudebro fans of Red Bull the drink, but the guys we shared the cab with like live soccer too much to care.)
The Opening Party. Lalas, Twellman, Darke, and an airport’s worth of American Outlaws converging on the British Bulldog, a soccer-happy pub that had every square inch of space — pretty much literally — packed with drinking soccer fans. (I recently survived SXSW 2013 in Austin, so I know packed.) I got to ask Lalas who the Starting XI was going to be, hoping for some pre-game intel. He wished he knew. He had nothing, but was really cool about it. It was dawning on me very quickly: This was Comicon with jerseys, and Lalas in particular had some serious fanboy fans. One fan had a vintage Lalas ’94 World Cup jersey on; another had on a puffy denim USA jacket with red-and-white-striped sleeves from the same era. Did I say “had on?” Correction: WAS ROCKING.
The Shuttles. The awesome Denver hosts (which included both the AO Denver crew and the C38 folks who support the MLS Rapids didn’t just provide buses to get us around — they provided buses where they handed you beer on the way to your seat, where each of the buses had the same playlist of songs pumping from its speakers. This playlist included “America (Fuck Yeah)” from Team America: World Police, Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters,” Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A,” and what I’m pretty sure was Hulk Hogan’s wrestling theme music. In context, the best mix ever made. ‘MERICA!
HONvMEX. While waiting for shuttles to the game at the Three Lions (a fantastic soccer pub east of downtown), we watched the Friday afternoon Mexico v. Honduras match, played in a Central American nation where it has long stopped being winter. We saw El Tri go up 2-0 at the start of the second half, on a devastating corner kick that found the Little Green Pea’s outstretched toe for his second goal of the game. (One tweeter noted, “This is all Sir Alex’s fault.”) But, in the space of 20 minutes, it went from, “Well, guess we’re all trying for second in the group now” to “Oh, Chicharito’s coming off with a knock” to Honduras’ first goal (piquing new interest in the game for the ‘Mericans) to the craziness of Honduras’ equalizer (foul in the box, Bengston misses the PK but slams home the rebound, the three Honduras fans in the bar lose their minds). Fans over at the AO tailgate at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park did shots in celebration, both teams spent the last few minutes of the match diving for an unimpressed ref, and Lalas tweeted something along the lines of, “This might be a great result … or it might be bad … I really like Ratt.”
The Tailgate. Two dudes who looked like supporting cast members on Duck Dynasty slow roasted a pig, and proudly held the head aloft for someone filming the party when they weren’t dispensing falling-off-the-bone morsels to grateful fans. The snow and wind picked up throughout the tailgate, and those of us who didn’t bring gloves cursed our poor planning. A big group sang the National Anthem accompanied by a lone tuba player with a red tuba. One fan tried to recall the last time he’d done a kegstand, in front of a just-arriving keg of New Belgium Rampant(delivered to us by St. Bernard), as if he was seriously considering revisiting his Kegstand Days of Yore.
The game itself. The American Outlaws were piled into the end of the stadium the USMNT defended in the first half. Snow-covered bleachers, wind at our faces, snow blowing directly at us. No one would sit, which worked out great, because no one could sit without falling into hypothermia. We watched and then quickly started cheering on the Colorado Rapids rookies who were shoveling show off the sidelines all game. (That “Shovel, Shovel” chant the Guardian mentioned that you might have heard on TV — that was our section.) (Also, best new USMNT GIF ever.)
We predictably went crazy when Dempsey scored the game’s lone goal blessedly early in the first half. A number of us went into the bathroom to warm up at halftime, and held a spontaneous pep rally, resplendent with chanting, in said bathroom. We went into full-on WTF indignation when it looked like the game might be called in the 56th minute. We nearly had collective heart failure in the few terrifying seconds between Campbell’s header going in and the offside call that nullified it. We noted that the variety of snow falling straight down on to us late into the game was preferable to the variety of snow that was wind-whipped directly into us at a right angle for the first two-thirds of the game. The guy next to me said, as subbing started late in the match, “Well, you know, our next sub’s going to be Santa Claus, and they’ve got no answer for that.” We saw the U.S. kick long balls into the corner closest to us, which then skidded to stops in actual, no-shit snowdrifts.
And, finally, when the whistle blew after the ten minutes of five minutes of extra time (that’s how it felt, at least), the team came over to our end of the stadium to acknowledge how dedicated (read: unthawable and crazy) we were, and it was basically as good as it gets for a USMNT fan at a qualifier.
And then, we trudged to a bus (joyfully, but the snow made it a trudge — a joyful trudge?), each of us was handed a beer on the way to our seats (Genesee, which tasted like FREEDOM), did a lot of “Three Points!” exulting, and, on the way back to downtown, we heard “Ghostbusters” one more time for good measure. And it was good.