The U.S. is playing a World Cup qualifier in the New York metropolitan area for the first time, a critical match against Costa Rica on Friday night at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
The Americans have played plenty of matches in and near the Big Apple, mostly in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and exhibition games. Until now, the closest to New York a qualifier has been played was in 1989, a 2-1 win over Guatemala at Veterans Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut.
“This was a pipe dream, this stadium in Harrison,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars when the team was based at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. “For it to be there and to actually be playing games, you know, there’s no crowd like playing in front of your home crowd for me.”
Howard spoke Tuesday during a news conference in Manhattan, joined by coach Bruce Arena, captain Michael Bradley and teenage star midfielder Christian Pulisic.
After the U.S. opened the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, the U.S. Soccer Federation brought back Arena to replace coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The U.S. has recovered and is in third place with eight points, trailing Mexico (14) and Costa Rica (11). Panama (seven), Honduras (five) and Trinidad and Tobago (three) follow.
The top three nations qualify, and the fourth-place team advances to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.
Perhaps no one understands the role fan support can play in an outcome more than Arena, a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame. The U.S. had a 16-year home unbeaten streak in qualifying going into a match against Honduras at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1, 2001. The majority of the sellout crowd of 54,282 backed Honduras, which won 3-2.
“Only in America, I guess, we’re fighting for a home-field advantage,” Arena, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, said at the time.
Costa Rica played a Gold Cup match at Harrison in July, but Arena expects a different crowd.
“We’re playing at home and I don’t care what anyone says. We have a home-field advantage,” Arena said. “My experiences in the short time that I’ve been here back with the U.S. team is that we have great support and I really believe that we’ll have great support on Friday, and hopefully the fact that Costa Rica played here in the Gold Cup is not going be a factor.”
At a venue with a 25,000 capacity that was built for Major League Soccer, the USSF and Red Bulls can control ticket allocation with pre-sales to Red Bulls season-ticket holders and national team regulars.
“We understand the challenges of playing at home versus going on the road in CONCACAF and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that in five or six weeks’ time we’ve punched our ticket to Russia,” Bradley said. “It’s on us to make sure that we can finish the job and allow ourselves the chance to look forward to playing at a World Cup next summer.”
The U.S. plays Honduras at San Pedro Sula on Sept. 5, and then closes the hexagonal against Panama on Oct. 6 at Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad four days later.
“All the work that we’ve put in this year was for these next four games, to make sure that we can find the right ways in the biggest moments when the lights come on brightest to make sure that we get the job done,” Bradley said.
U.S. players also have their minds on teammates and their families affected by Hurricane Harvey.
“I’ve heard DaMarcus (Beasley) speak of it. I haven’t yet had the chance yet to talk with Clint (Dempsey),” Arena said. “Hopefully his family’s safe. I know they’re in east Texas. I know it’s a tough week for them. I know for DaMarcus in particular it’s been very challenging. For him personally, for his friends and family ties to the Houston area. It’s difficult but all we can do is hope that the conditions improve in the Houston area and that everyone is safe.”
Added Bradley: “Some of the images and videos that have come out of Texas have been heartbreaking, and for all of us now as human beings, as fellow Americans, to find the right ways to show support and help that part of the country as they find the right ways to move on from this. That’s very important and obviously in our own very little way playing and representing the country in a really strong and proud way on Friday night is a little part of that.”