If you watched the U.S. men’s national team friendly on TV on Tuesday, you might have been under the impression that a good-sized crowd had attended the match against New Zealand at RFK Stadium. After all, the east-side lower bowl, which serves as the backdrop for the primary camera angle, was almost full of bouncing, tifo-raising spectators.
The other side of the stadium, however. was almost empty. To avoid bad TV optics, organizers did not sell tickets in the premier sideline sections behind the team benches. Instead, everyone was compressed into the the camera-friendly far side, in a corner on the near side or on the mezzanine.
Announced attendance was 9,012, the smallest gathering in a 25-year span of U.S. men’s appearances at RFK. The previous low was 10,216 for Saudi Arabia’s visit in 1995. Before Tuesday, the average crowd for a U.S. match in Washington was 32,186.
The U.S. men have played more games at RFK than any other venue in their history (24), and for good reasons: It’s the nation’s capital with a large-but-not-too-large stadium featuring an enclosed design to contain sound and a quality grass surface. Yes, RFK is a dump, but a lovable and historic dump with old-school features and feel. It’s got soul, man.
The D.C. region also boasts one of the most diverse and sophisticated soccer audiences in the country. Local TV ratings for the Premier League, World Cup and Women’s World Cup back that up.
This match, however, was an impossible sell from the start. Aside from the unheralded opponent, the friendly fell on a Tuesday night, which also happened to be the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday. Washington’s notorious rush hour (on the roads and rails) probably scared off other potential customers.
Any hopes for a late surge at the box office were dashed by Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to release most of his marquee players, including teenage sensation Christian Pulisic, after Friday’s friendly in Cuba. Marketing was scarce.
In defense of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the original plan was to bring in Ghana, an African power that has clashed with the United States in each of the past three World Cups. A matchup with the Black Stars would have helped push ticket sales to perhaps 20,000. But in support of clubs concerned about travel fatigue affecting their players, FIFA does not allow federations to schedule matches continents apart during a short official window.
An appeal to soccer’s international governing body was rejected. Ghana ended up playing a friendly against South Africa on Tuesday in Durban after a World Cup home qualifier a few days earlier against Uganda.
The USSF wasn’t left with many options. European, South American, African and Asian countries were playing qualifiers. New Zealand was already scheduled to play in the United States, last Saturday against Mexico in Nashville. So it only made sense for the All Whites to stick around and play the Americans.
Mexico, meantime, played its second match in the FIFA window against Panama on Tuesday at Toyota Park in suburban Chicago. (CONCACAF teams completed the semifinal round of World Cup qualifiers in the September window and will start the final round next month.)
Attendance has been a problem for U.S. men’s friendlies for a year now. While World Cup qualifiers, the CONCACAF Cup and Copa America Centenario drew mostly robust crowds, the inconsequential matches have bombed: six consecutive home turnouts of fewer than 10,000, all at MLS venues (RFK, StubHub Center in the Los Angeles area twice, Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and Toyota Stadium in suburban Dallas).
None of the opponents were particularly appetizing (New Zealand, Bolivia, Ecuador, Canada, Iceland well before Euros and Costa Rica). The public wasn’t falling for it. Why pay good money for friendlies against such foes? Ticket rates have been a source of anger among fans for years, although the RFK game was more reasonably priced than some others. As of last week, sales were struggling to reach 7,000. They hit 8,000 on Monday and, despite indications early Tuesday that they had crossed the 10,000 threshold, the actual turnout was barely above 9,000.
Meantime, D.C. United is expecting between 20,000 and 25,000 this Sunday for the regular season home finale against New York City FC.
In 2015, a U.S. B squad in winter camp played in front of 20,271 against Panama at StubHub Center. A Mexico friendly in San Antonio in April was sold out. A Gold Cup tuneup against Guatemala in Nashville attracted 44,835. Four days apart in September, friendlies against Peru in Washington and Brazil in Foxborough, Mass., drew 28,896 and 29,308, respectively. (The Brazil turnout was disappointing, but then again, Brazil is not the automatic draw it once was.)
Despite world champion status, the U.S. women’s team isn’t immune to fickle fandom. After predictably large crowds for the World Cup victory tour in late 2015, numbers have cooled this year. The Olympic qualifying tournament at two Texas venues — run by CONCACAF, not the USSF — was not well attended. Three matches in the SheBelieves Cup against elite teams did average 17,000.
The build-up to the Olympics began well — sellouts at MLS stadiums in the Philadelphia and Denver areas, and good numbers in Cleveland and Chicago — but slumped to 12,635 in Kansas City for the send-off match.
After quarterfinal failure in Brazil, women’s friendlies have attracted 10,490 in Columbus and 15,652 in Atlanta. Over the next six weeks, the Americans will visit Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, San Jose and Carson, Calif.
MEN’S HOME FRIENDLIES
(since 2014 World Cup)
Oct. 10: Ecuador in East Hartford, Conn. (36,265)
Oct. 14: Honduras in Boca Raton, Fla. (14,805)
Feb. 8: Panama in Carson, Calif. (20,271)
April 15: Mexico in San Antonio (64,369 — sellout)
July 3: Guatemala in Nashville (44,835)
Sept. 4: Peru in Washington (28,896)
Sept. 8: Brazil in Foxborough, Mass. (29,308)
Oct. 13: Costa Rica in Harrison, N.J. (9,214)
Jan. 31: Iceland in Carson, Calif. (8,803)
Feb. 5: Canada in Carson, Calif. (9,274)
May 25: Ecuador in Frisco, Tex. (9,893)
May 28: Bolivia in Kansas City (8,894)
Oct. 11: New Zealand in Washington (9,012)
WOMEN’S HOME FRIENDLIES
(since 2015 World Cup)
Aug. 16: Costa Rica in Pittsburgh (44,028)
Aug. 19: Costa Rica in Chattanooga (20,535 — sellout)
Sept. 17: Haiti in Detroit (34,538)
Sept. 20: Haiti in Birmingham (35,735)
Oct. 21: Brazil in Seattle (23,693)
Oct. 25: Brazil in Orlando (32,869)
Dec. 10: Trinidad and Tobago in San Antonio (10,690)
Dec. 13: China in Glendale, Ariz. (19,066)
Dec. 16: China in New Orleans (32,950)
Jan. 23: Ireland in San Diego (23,309)
April 6: Colombia in East Hartford, Conn. (21,792)
April 10: Colombia in Chester, Pa. (17,275 — sellout)
June 2: Japan in Commerce City, Colo. (18,572 — sellout)
June 5: Japan in Cleveland (23,535)
July 9: South Africa in Chicago (19,272)
July 22: Costa Rica in Kansas City (12,635)
Sept. 15: Thailand in Columbus (10,490)
Sept. 18: Netherlands in Atlanta (15,652)
Oct. 19: Switzerland in Sandy, Utah
Oct. 23: Switzerland in Minneapolis
Nov. 10: Romania in San Jose
Nov. 13: Romania in Carson, Calif.