The start of Sunday's World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Mexico was still two hours away, but from his vantage point on the tarmac of Lot B at Foxboro Stadium, Chris Spacone, a 34-year-old aircraft mechanic from Buffalo, could already declare a victory of sorts. "Look at this," he said, gazing through the haze of hibachi smoke at the multitude of cheering, singing, red-clad members of Sam's Army, the two-year-old fan club of the U.S. soccer team that Spacone helps run. "This far exceeds our expectations." Most significant was the fact that the Army's off-key singing of numbers like When the Yanks Go Marching In drowned out the salsa blasting from the boom boxes of Mexico rooters nearby.
Such are the sweet sights and sounds of the home field advantage, which the U.S. team has seldom fully experienced, especially against Mexico, its main rival and the leader among the six teams still vying for the three 1998 World Cup spots allotted to the CONCACAF ( Caribbean and North and Central America) region. When the two teams met in a "friendly" in Pasadena last June, 90,000 people filled the Rose Bowl, but most were Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who rooted loudly for the visitors. "It's frustrating playing a home game that feels like it's away," says U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "Like everybody else, we want to play in front of fans who appreciate us."
In an attempt to make the U.S. team feel more at home, Spacone, his 30-year-old brother, Mark, a teacher, and their 29-year-old friend John Wright, a member of the Air Force, founded Sam's Army after the 1994 World Cup. Through word of mouth, the Internet and a fanzine, its membership has grown to 4,000. The 860 Sammers at Foxboro—all of whom stood for the entire game and most of whom were hoarse by its end—represented the Army's biggest game-day brigade yet. "People don't understand how important Sam's Army is to us," says midfielder John Harkes. "They give us what we're always looking for—a big lift."
The U.S. Soccer Federation is trying to provide that as well. It was willing to put this match in a smaller stadium and make do with at least $1 million less at the gate to keep the game far from the Mexican border. The sellout crowd of 57,877, a majority of whom rooted for the home team, was the largest to watch a qualifier in the U.S., and the throng saw a flukey thriller. Sam's Army had barely finished serenading Keller with its Ballad of Davey Crockett-inspired ditty—"Kasey, Kasey Keller, King of the U.S. goal"—when, less than a minute into the game, Mexico's Carlos Hermosillo headed a Keller clearance kick into the U.S. net. Aside from the tireless whistling, drumbeating and periodic singing of Sam's Army, the pro U.S. contingent didn't make much noise until the 35th minute, when defender Eddie Pope finished a free kick to make the score 1-1. "Typical," said the Spacones' father, Vince, a native of Italy and the man responsible for his sons' soccer jones. "Unless someone scores, U.S. fans just sit there. You must stand, you must cheer, you must sing! But fans here are learning."
Indeed, the crowd got downright raucous when Mexico's Luis Hernandez was red-carded in the 69th minute with the U.S trailing 2-1. And it was nearly apoplectic when his teammate Nicolas Ramirez nodded the ball into his own net in the 74th minute to give the U.S. the equalizer. The 2-2 draw gave both teams a point in the CONCACAF standings; with six matches to play, the U.S. trails first-place Mexico 8-5 and leads third-place Costa Rica by one point.
Though he didn't get the win and three points, U.S. coach Steve Sampson saw at least two signs that his team would be making the trip to France in 1998: players who performed with confidence and a multitude that roared. "It made a difference having a pro-American crowd," he said. "Crowd support is equal to at least one goal a game. Today you could finally see something that could grow here."