From June 3 to June 15, I traveled across North America to see 4 soccer games in Kansas City, Denver, Mexico City and back to Kansas City. There is nothing like watching soccer from the stands. TV doesn’t even come close. And USA World Cup qualifying games are some of the best soccer games you can ever lay your eyes on, so why not go see two?!?!
At 5:30am on Saturday I hopped in a van with 6 long-time travel partners to head down I-35 South for an afternoon game featuring Minnesota United away to Sporting Kansas City. It was well worth the early departure time so we could eat some of the best barbeque in the world before the game at Joe’s Kansas City Barbeque. I never ever pass up a chance for Joe’s.
It’s always a joy to go to SKC’s beautiful stadium in rural Kansas too. Almost every other team in the country is jealous of this gem of a field. And I have been lucky enough to have seen a game there over 20 times now.
A month prior United had beaten KC 2-0 at home so you know the thin-skinned crew from Sporting would be out for revenge. Sure enough, SKC coach Peter Vermes was screaming at the refs and whining from the start, midfielder Roger Espinoza was up to his usual dirty tricks, while attackers Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber joined their coach on the MLS Whiners Best 11.
But that was the only thing KC should regret from that game. The rest of their performance was really impressive, especially in defense. And a 3-0 win for them was fully justified.
Early in the game Minnesota’s Miguel Ibarra went down with a calf injury and coach Adrian Heath chose to use the opportunity to make a defensive substitution inserting Rasmus Schuller. Disaster. In the early season games when Minn was getting blown out they used this same 4-3-3 system and paid dearly for it. Why would results be any different now?
Post-game Heath complained about his players, saying they were out-smarted and out-hustled, and lacking in desire. Fair enough, but he forgot to mention that they were also out coached. Share the blame coach, you earned it as much as the players did.
On Wednesday my friend Charlie and I boarded an airplane bound for Denver and the first of two USA Men’s World Cup qualifying matches.
The game on Thursday was against Trinidad & Tobago and could have been called a must-win without actually being one. Nothing short of 3 points was acceptable.
After arriving on Wednesday we walked the city streets heading to a restaurant when we came across the whole USA team getting on their bus to head out to a practice session. We stopped and talked to a few of the players. Charlie got a photo with phenom Christian Pulisic; I got a photo with evergreen veteran DaMarcus Beasley.
On game day we picked up Charlie’s son, Ian, and then rode from a downtown Denver pub out to the stadium in a classic yellow school bus. On the way into the stadium we ran into US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, so we stopped and chatted with him for a few minutes, always a very nice guy to talk with.
The first half of the game was a slow slog that saw the USA miss on 8 quality scoring chances while T&T put their only good chance dangerously off the cross bar.
Pulisic then proceeded to put on a show for us in the 2nd half. He was everywhere in the attack, leaving the Soca Warriors a full step behind him at all times. They couldn’t even catch him to commit a foul. The young master scored both USA goals in what turned out to be an easy 2-0 win.
Mission accomplished! Three points!
The next morning we began our trip to the biggest game of the four: USA away to Mexico in Mexico City for a World Cup qualifying match at the fabled Estadio Azteca, a dream trip for any US soccer fan.
Mexico City is a place of dazzling beauty and home to over 25 million people. It’s hard to imagine how big and vibrant this place really is until you hit the streets for yourself. As soon as we arrived we began our quest for tacos and tortas and tostadas, and then more tacos, and a couple more tacos before leaving! Heavenly. We journeyed all over CDMX on our two days off, Saturday and Monday, but Sunday was the only day that actually mattered – the day of the game.
We got a bus ride to and from the game in a caravan of about a dozen busses of USA fans accompanied by a full police escort that cleared all the roads in front of us. What a way to travel. Our seats in the stadium were on the end-line and in the top deck of the 85,000 capacity venue. Meaning it felt like we were looking straight down at the field.
The USA coach Bruce Arena threw a twist into the game before it even started by changing over half his first 11 from the previous game. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. He also lined them up in what was essentially a 5-4-1, with an obvious bias toward the defense.
As the game began the USA pulled another fast one and pressed Mexico way up the field, giving them a taste of their own usual home strategy. Mexico seemed to be expecting the USA to sit back and absorb pressure. And boy, oh boy, did it work! In just the 6th minute the USA pair of Kellyn Acosta and Michael Bradley pinched the center of the midfield and Bradley picked off a soft pass. He picked his head up and spotted El Tri goalkeeper Memo Ochoa way out of his goal and sent a 45-yard shot arcing perfectly over everyone’s head, exploding into the back of the net. Glorious.
We celebrated in a big way, so much so that I could not catch my breath for several minutes at that high altitude and had to sit down until my lungs readjusted.
Mexico tied the game before halftime on a strong counter attack, but the USA defense held strong the rest of the way, even allowing Bradley and Pulisic both a great chance at goal to try and steal the win.
The game ended in the pouring rain and a 1-1 score that gave the USA another 1 point toward qualification. They completed Round 6 (of 10) in 3rd place and looking good.
Again the police escort took us home while our driver cranked up the Metallica, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and other heavy metal treats.
My best trip to Mexico yet.
After arriving home late Tuesday I got up early the next morning for another 6 1/2 hour drive back to Kansas City, this time for Minnesota United to play the same opponent SKC in the single elimination US Open Cup tournament.
There would be four of us on the trip this time, with no one overlapping from the last ride south.
We naturally made time for Joe’s KC BBQ once more, fantastic, and then headed to the game.
I can’t say we went with high hopes for a Minnesota win but anything can happen in a win-or-you’re-out tournament.
But it was worse than expected for our heroes. Actually, when Minnesota announced their starting lineup it looked like they had decided to just throw away the game.
And the players reacted in kind. At half time I remarked that no United players had performed like they belonged on a MLS team roster. Seriously, it was that bad.
To try for a positive spin on the matter, Colin Martin and Bashkim Kadrii were the best of bunch.
Sporting Kansas City on the other hand put out their best players and showed that they enter the tournament every year looking to win it. And with a 4-0 win on this night they looked like serious contenders.
In the 2nd half Jerome Thiessen and Ibson came on as subs for the Loons and showed that they have quality.
The worst news for Minn was that young centerback Joe Greenspan had a bad collision and suffered a scary concussion. They put him in a neck brace, and called on an ambulance to take him to a hospital. They say he is going to be OK.
One final point of interest from this game was seeing Patrick McLain get his first minutes for Minnesota in the goal, starting ahead of European veteran John Alvbage which could signal that the Swede is about to be shipped back to Europe come July 1.
In the end it’s easy to conclude that going to Kansas City twice was fool’s gold covered in sewage, while the World Cup qualifiers were nearly the pinnacle of American soccer fan travel. The ultimate highs and lows of sports fandom. And whatever you do, never pass up on a trip to Mexico City.