Brilliant with the ball at his feet. With a microphone in your face? Not really.
by Christian Pulisic precise control and skillful passing scoring the USMNT’s first goal in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Morocco was the culmination of a great night for Gregg Berhalter’s side. But the striker ensured the headlines wouldn’t just focus on the action when he criticized attendance below capacity in a post-match interview with ESPN.
Pulisic isn’t usually one of the team’s most effervescent media speakers, but when asked about returning to play in the United States for the first time since March, the Chelsea striker said: “It was good. To be honest, for some reason I’m not very happy with the number of Americans here, but it works, if I’m being completely honest.
The expected crowd at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati was 19,512, including many Moroccan fans, in a hall that holds 26,000.
Pulisic’s comment was worded indelicately, although he added: “Thank you to those who came and the support is always great from them.” And no player should expect to be the most eloquent during the obligatory instant-reaction interview, when adrenaline is flowing, sweat is glistening and they are talking between sips of Gatorade. If asked more than two questions, most players’ eyes turn to a way out as if entering a hostage situation.
The 23-year-old is right to set high standards and want his country to attract the level of support enjoyed by major footballing nations. A crowd of less than 20,000 fans is feeling poor so soon after the Qatar 2022 qualifying sugar rush and with the tournament on the horizon. But it’s the United States Soccer Federation that deserves scrutiny, not the people of Southwestern Ohio.
It’s safe to say that Pulisic, who joined Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund for a transfer fee of $73m in 2019, needn’t worry about rising food prices and essence. Especially in this economic climate – and given trends in football in general, with fan appetite for unglamorous international friendlies waning as club play dominates – it is unrealistic to expect sales of routine when the outcome doesn’t matter and tickets are expensive. And a midweek kickoff when kids three and older are charged as adults won’t appeal to families.
Cincinnati is only the 29th largest urban area in the United States. The median household income is around $66,500, close to the US average. But ticket prices were at least $60 before fees – and many areas of the stadium were much more expensive.
We’ve previously written about the USSF’s policy of charging sky-high amounts for games while choosing to play in MLS stadiums with capacities in the 20,000-25,000 range rather than NFL venues that seat 60 000 seats or more. Location choices allow the team to appear in front of packed houses in football-specific locations. The pricing strategy allows the federation to increase its revenue – which it can invest in sports or legal fees – even if attendance stagnates.
For the 2002 World Cup qualifying cycle, the average crowd at United States home games was 31,158. Twenty years later, with football now much more popular, it was 24,845. This is also below Canada’s average attendance in the 2021-22 Concacaf Octagon, although the US population is close to nine times greater.
In the days of Brian McBride and Cobi Jones, a ticket cost around $28 on average, according to USSF figures reported by Brian Straus of SI. If the price of a seat had increased in line with inflation, the average cost today would be around $46. But even for the doomed 2018 cycle, the average price had already climbed to $97. And ultra-expensive “premium” seating is increasingly crowding stadiums like Lamborghinis at the valet stand of a five-star hotel.
The USMNT’s next game, Sunday’s friendly against Uruguay at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, is not far from sold out, despite the venue holding just 18,500. Seating choice is still available at Q2 Stadium in Austin for the Concacaf Nations League game against Grenada on June 10, even though it is the last home game for the United States before the tournament in Qatar. Seats cost more than $45 on Ticketmaster as of Thursday afternoon, with those near the dugout for the clash with opponents ranked 170th in the world costing between $120 and $590.
Better value was on offer when Italy met Argentina at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday in a clash between the European and South American champions. Standard tickets were £25-55 ($31-$69), with the most expensive club-level seat selling for £99 ($125). The Finalissima was a sale of 87,112.
“I understand what [Pulisic] said, but I think putting the onus on the fans is misplaced,” says Zach Blandford, secretary of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Outlaws supporters group. He paid $75 for his spot behind goal and felt the atmosphere was exuberant.
Berhalter’s team frequently visits Ohio. They met Mexico in Cincinnati (sold out) last November, while there were two games recently in Columbus, a hundred miles away. The USWNT beat Paraguay 8-0 in a friendly match at TQL last September in front of 22,515 players.
“I don’t think people are more excited to see the team. Everyone I talk to here is always so excited every time the team arrives,” says Blandford. “A lot of people I know who are part of our group of supporters who show up to our watch parties have been kicked out of the game. I think it’s a pity. I think trying to squeeze every penny out of those friendlies and then having comments like that about the fans is tough, I don’t think that’s fair. I think we have big fans here.
With Berhalter forming a young, dynamic and improving team as the United States returns to the world stage for the first time since 2014, every empty seat is a missed opportunity to start or cement a relationship.
“On the way to the game I was riding in a Lyft and taking my driver who is a big football fan and never got to go to the stadium and I was able to get him a free ticket through AO Cincy,” Blandford said. “I’m watching in the row and he’s playing drums at halftime with us in the stands and that’s a super cool thing, isn’t it? That’s what happens when you make these games accessible to people who cannot always go there, you create new fans, you create new memories.