CATONSVILLE, Md. – Word had dropped about Sunday's Gold Cup quarterfinal doubleheader at M&T Bank Stadium selling out just an hour or two before the media availability at the outset of the US national team's Friday afternoon training session.
So naturally, with it widely assumed that local El Salvador fans were snapping up those tickets in greater proportion than their US, Honduran and Costa Rican counterparts, US players were asked about their most prominent memories of past home matches where US supporters were outnumbered.
For Eddie Johnson, it was a match against worldbeaters Brazil in Chicago: “Even American fans probably had Brazilian jerseys on that day.”
At first, DaMarcus Beasley even contended that “every game is an away game for us, home or away,” though when pressed in a television interview by one journalist, he later admitted to recurring thoughts about a muggy occasion in South Florida where an intensely pro-Haitian crowd viscerally willed their team on.
The USMNT aren't kidding themselves. They know about all the factors that strongly suggest fans of Los Cuscatlecos will constitute at least a plurality of the more than 71,000 who will file into the Baltimore Ravens' cavernous home just west of the Inner Harbor on Sunday (4 pm ET, Fox/Univision and LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com). Most of them have already experienced the sensation of a host team being treated like the visitors in their own place.
But any full house will do, it seems.
“It's always good to play in front of a big crowd. Whether that's more Salvadoran fans or more USA fans, for us it doesn't really matter,” Beasley said. “Baltimore has a great following with soccer and we're excited to play in front of our fans, and their people. Hopefully we can give them a good show.”
Many USMNT fans in this region still wince at the memory of a World Cup qualifier against Honduras played at RFK Stadium a little over a decade ago. With hundreds of thousands of the Central American team's expatriate fans living within driving distance of the nation's capital, they were represented in equal or greater part to the game's supposed home support, and Los Catrachos snatched a 3-2 win that complicated the USA's path to Japan/Korea 2002.
It left U.S. Soccer Federation officials determined to avoid such scenarios in important matches, and the Yanks have not lost a home qualifier since.
“If anything, it's going to motivate us,” the newly arrived Johnson said on Friday. “Any time as a professional soccer player you get to play in front of 50,000-plus fans, what more motivation do you need?”
El Salvador's Mid-Atlantic popularity was reflected in the last edition of the Gold Cup, where their fans sold out another quarterfinal doubleheader, this time at RFK Stadium, and shook the historic stadium to its foundations as their squad lost to Panama via an agonizing penalty-kick shootout. The US played in the day's opening game, but RFK didn't fill up until the nightcap.
Then again, Baltimore has shown strong enthusiasm for all sorts of soccer, with international club friendlies like last year's Liverpool-Tottenham game routinely drawing attendances of 40,000 and more.
“It won't be a factor,” insisted Beasley. “Packed house or not, it's good – as footballers we want to play in front of big crowds and under the lights and all that kind of stuff. The crowd won't have any effect.”