I’ve been writing for World Soccer Talk since May, 2014. As you may know, I mainly handle match previews of US Men’s National Team games, but I also write stories about attendances and TV ratings. This past Tuesday, I was afforded the opportunity of being able to go to Nashville to cover the USA-Mexico game in person for World Soccer Talk. It was a fantastic experience and I certainly hope to be able to do it again in the future.
Here’s a not so brief rundown of the sights and sounds of being on the ground to cover the match.
Several weeks ago I was able to drive up to Nashville to cover the press conference that US Soccer was having to promote this USA-Mexico game. The speakers were USMNT coach Dave Sarachan and the Mayor of Nashville, David Briley. They each said their bit and then opened the floor up for questions. Aside from myself, the only media members there were a local radio guy, a local TV station reporter, an Associated Press reporter and a presenter for Univision. Also present were three or four front office guys from Nashville’s USL team.
I got the opportunity to ask Sarachan a very direct question about Michael Bradley’s inclusion in the team going forward, and was pleasantly surprised to get a very direct answer to that question. After the official press conference was over, Sarachan pulled me aside to confirm that Christian Pulisic would be part of the roster for the two September friendlies (though he was later ruled out with injury). One thing that struck me about Sarachan is that he’s very personable and easy to talk to. We stood there for 15 or 20 minutes just chatting about a variety of things like the 2019 Gold Cup and reminiscing about how miserably hot it was at the Gold Cup in Nashville in 2017. By the time we left, it felt like we’d known each other for 20 years. I don’t know if he would be the right guy for the full-time position of US coach, but as a person, he’s first class.
On matchday, I arrived in the media parking lot at Nissan Stadium at around 3:15PM. Even though the game wasn’t scheduled to start until five hours later, there already were 2,500 to 3,000 Mexican fans in the parking lot tailgating and having a good time — for a friendly.
I wasn’t able to pick up my press pass for the game until 5PM, so I decided to walk across a pedestrian bridge from the stadium into downtown Nashville. After grabbing a bite to eat and drink, it was getting close to 4PM. By this time, a good number of fans were making their way up and down Broadway. And as tends to happen with US and Mexico fans, there were dueling chants all the way up and down the street of, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” or “ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO!” It was loud and boisterous but all in good fun.
As I was walking back across the pedestrian bridge, a group of three kids that looked to be about 18 or 19 asked me if I could take their picture. I set my notebook and what remained of my milkshake on a bench and snapped two or three pics for them.
As I handed the phone back to them and went to pick my stuff up, I found a guy standing on the arm of the bench like he was surfing and had four or five people filming him with their phones. As it turns out, the guy was former USMNT player Jimmy Conrad (who scored his only goal for the US against Mexico in 2007). I introduced myself and we talked as we walked the rest of the way to the other side of the bridge before I had to leave to go stand in line to pick up my credential at media will call.
By the time I got my pass, the revelry was really starting to pick up. I began walking around to try to find the American Outlaws tailgate, but never made it (turns out they were roughly a mile away and I didn’t feel like walking that far). At this point, there were probably 9,000 or 10,000 Mexico fans in the parking lot, and let me tell you something. Mexico fans go hard when it comes to tailgating.
Nashville is a big time college football town. It’s home to Vanderbilt of the SEC. The annual Music City Bowl is played there every December and a number of fans of a variety of college football teams live in the area. In fact, during the press conference that I talked about earlier, Sarachan compared the USA/Mexico rivalry to the Tennessee/Alabama football rivalry. I say all of this because college football fans (and especially SEC fans) like to pride themselves on how awesome their tailgating experiences are. I would put the Mexico fans up against any of them. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I’ve been to my fair share of college football games. One group even had a huge fire pit with a spit that they were roasting several chickens on. There were bands of all sorts: one or two rock band type setups, an actual marching band complete with tubas, trombones and trumpets, and of course a mariachi band. A number of people had tents set up and each tent had its own DJ, complete with multiple speakers blasting out what I assume was Mexican rap music. And while at most football games you see kids throwing a football, just about every kid under the age of 12 was kicking a soccer ball.
I happened upon a tent that said Memphis Tigers on it (I live in the Memphis area) so I stopped in to say hello and introduce myself. It was a divided group: Several folks wore USA and several folks were wearing Mexico. It turns out they were from Jackson, Tennessee (located on I-40 between Memphis and Nashville). I asked them about several things but the thing that stood out to me the most was this: When I asked about their thoughts on the rivalry, one guy said, “It’s a big rivalry for sure and it’s great when it’s super intense out on the field, but it doesn’t have to be that way between the fans. I mean, look at us in this tent. It’s half and half. We’re throwing down and having a great time but it’s not ugly or violent. Just people enjoying themselves.”
At about that time, a full tent of all US fans a few rows over caught my eye, so I bid goodbye to the folks from Jackson and headed that way. I was welcomed with open arms. This crew was from Nashville and they were fantastic. We talked about a variety of things ranging from youth soccer tournaments (I referee a bunch of them and so did one of the guys, so we traded war stories and agreed that the parents at youth games are the absolute worst), to the most recent USA appearance in Nashville (they did not get to make it to the Gold Cup last year, but were glad they hadn’t when they heard how hot it was and how boring the game was) to the players we wanted to see that night (Tim Weah was the favorite amongst those in the tent), to who should be the next US coach (everybody would love Tata Martino, but they all also think it’s going to be Gregg Berhalter.
Somebody said they were worried that they might just give it to Sarachan full-time, but that was rebutted by another person saying that he would be a good hire to coach the U-23 team). The thing that everybody agreed on was the ticket prices were obscenely high for a Tuesday night friendly, which led my referee compatriot to say, “Mexico and us have both gotten a lot of crowds over 40,000 people here so you would think that against each other we could sell the place out but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen because people don’t want to spend $100 for a friendly on a weeknight to watch a team that didn’t go to the World Cup.” Somebody else in the tent floated the idea that maybe sales were low because neither team had a lot of their big names, which led to spirited debate that I was able to extricate myself from.
As I started to make my way to the media entrance, I was walking through the fan zone at the south end of the stadium and several things caught my eye. First was a Tennessee Soccer Association setup that included several tents and a goal for kids to shoot at. And second was an official US Soccer tent with the US Open Cup trophy in it (the line to get a picture was about 50 people deep so I kept walking). As I got close to the media entrance, I was flagged down by a family supporting Mexico, asking me for directions on which gate they needed to go in (they must have seen the pass hanging from around my neck and thought I was a stadium employee). Luckily it was simply what gate they needed to go in, so I told them which way to go and we chatted for a few minutes. It turns out that this family (husband, wife, three boys and one girl) was from Huntsville, Alabama and they got their tickets as soon as they went on sale. I asked them how much they paid and the man said about $100 apiece but that it was worth it because this would probably be the best chance for them to see Mexico play in person. We talked for a few more minutes before I had to go and head to the media entrance.
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