Gold Cup brings out boisterous soccer crowd to M&T Bank Stadium

July 21, 2013|Peter Schmuck

The atmosphere was electric, and not just because of the thunderheads that hung ominously over M&T Bank Stadium as Sunday's Gold Cup quarterfinal match between the U.S. National team and El Salvador got underway.

If you didn't know better, you might have thought you were in Central America, since the blue-clad fans who came to root for El Salvador in the first game of the soccer doubleheader and the similarly-dressed fans there to cheer on Honduras in the nightcap against Costa Rica heavily outnumbered their "USA … USA"-chanting counterparts.

"It's like a foreign country," said Michael Zito of Baltimore. "It's exciting."

The scene outside the stadium was almost as entertaining as the game, which was dominated by the heavily favored U.S. team. Salvadoran fans marched through the Camden Yards parking lots before kickoff displaying their national flags and colors and drawing support from the Honduran fans who were hoping to see the U.S. team ousted and an El Salvador/Honduras showdown in the semifinals.

Of course, this wasn't the first time the home crowd was in the minority at Camden Yards. Orioles fans routinely were outshouted by Yankees and Red Sox fans during their string of 14 straight losing seasons.

In this case, however, the roles were reversed, since the U.S. team was considered the powerhouse going into the game and El Salvador was trying to play David to the red, white and blue Goliath.

The Ravens fans who normally populate M&T are considered some of the most raucous in the National Football League, but they generally spend the hours before kickoff sipping beer and grilling various goodies. They save the noise for the stands, but the fans on all sides of Sunday's international soccer showcase were in full throat well before it was time to brave the security lines and settle into their seats.

Outside Gate D, a Salvadoran fan moved through the crowd banging a huge base drum to fire up his countrymen, who were engaged in a friendly shout-off with a large group of U.S. fans. In the middle of it all, a female fan in a blue jersey was meticulously painting blue and white lines on the face of a friend before heading inside.

"It's totally different," said Jeff Clifton of Catonsville. "We grew up playing soccer in high school and college and this is what you watch on TV in Europe and Latin America. It'll be interesting. I hope there's no problem after we win."

Nothing serious, at least. There was a minor disturbance in the lower deck late in the second half and — when the game got out of hand — the fans in the upper deck peppered a large section of U.S. fans behind the west goal with plastic bottles and debris.

The demographic makeup of the crowd was not a surprise, since the Salvadoran and Honduran fans had scooped up at least half of the available tickets early enough for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to get questions about the reverse home-field advantage during his media conference Saturday afternoon. He didn't seem very concerned about it, and obviously with good reason, but did say Sunday that it was a unique experience.

"It is a strange feeling when you come into a stadium and there are four different nations competing in a doubleheader," he said. "The two other fans groups — Honduras and Costa Rica — they have to wait. They are all pumped up for their game. The U.S. fans and El Salvadoreans, they have to wait for their game. You mix them all. For me as a European, it's very unusual to be honest."

El Salvador's coach, Augustin Castillo, expressed appreciation for the terrific support so far from home, but had to wonder whether it helped or hurt his young team.

"Not only surprised but very thankful," he said through an interpreter. "But when people support you, it is a two-edged sword. Sometimes it helps you, but sometimes it also puts pressure on you."

The dark clouds that threatened to drench the field did open up for a short time in the second period, but the grass field that was laid over the Ravens' Field Turf was still in very good shape when the teams from Honduras and Costa Rica met in the second game.

The four-sided international flavor made for an interesting feel inside the stadium and the event was certainly a big success at the box office. If there is room for improvement before the next time the Ravens and Camden Yards host a big soccer event, it would be in traffic management. The area around the stadium was gridlocked throughout the early afternoon and many fans were forced to wait in traffic an hour or more to navigate the last few blocks to get into the parking lots.

It was inconvenient, but it wasn't a dealbreaker. The Ravens have hosted three soccer "friendlies" over the past four years and likely will look to repeat the Gold Cup experience in the future, since the reviews have all been good.

"I think the venue overall is absolutely beautiful," Klinsmann said. "The city itself ... we had five days here and thankfully five days here. It's just a beautiful city."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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