It was 1:52 on Sunday morning when 15 latter-day Paul Reveres heard their final marching orders in room 1227 of the Arlington, Va., Doubletree Hotel. "Let's go!" a bespectacled 35-year-old man yelled. "Half to the right, half to the left! Let's go!" Just 12 hours before the crucial U.S.- Guatemala World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium, the men and women of Project Mayhem set out on their mission: Wake up the 20 Guatemalan players sleeping one floor below by making as much noise as humanly possible.
Mayhem, it turned out, was the operative word for what happened over the next five minutes. The revelers descended the stairs. Three of the Guatemalan team's security guards closed in. They got rough. An overzealous one (rumored to be a former Mossad agent) fired a taser—and missed. As the guards herded the crew aboard an elevator, one rebel shouted, "Blast it!" Finally, triumphantly, an air horn pierced the night. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! mother-f——s!" a member of Team Mayhem shouted as the doors closed.
Police officers escorted participants from the premises (no arrests were made), and though it was unclear whether a single Guatemalan player lost any shut-eye, Project Mayhem's leaders will be able to look back on the U.S.'s 1-0 win with pride. For years American teams visiting Central America have been bombarded with batteries, coins, even plastic bags full of urine. When Guatemala hosted the U.S. for a World Cup qualifier in July, a radio station announced where the Americans were staying; fans blared music outside the hotel all night before the game, a 1-1 draw.
Last week, for the first time, U.S. fans returned the favor, using the Internet to organize a dirty tricks campaign worthy of the nation's capital. Yes, that was a handful of rabid Yanks who welcomed the Guatemalans at Reagan National Airport with derisive chants and flags bearing the Revolutionary War-era slogan DON'T TREAD ON ME. Yes, that was deejay Elliot Segal on WWDC urging listeners to "go to the Doubletree and piss on a Guatemalan soccer player." (Thankfully, the hotel lobby remained a micturition-free zone.) And yes, that was a tiny middle-aged woman who pulled alongside the Guatemalan team bus at practice, honking her horn and maniacally waving the Stars and Stripes.
What's more, after trying for years to cultivate support among this country's Hispanic soccer fans, only to endure pro-Mexican crowds in Los Angeles or pro-Guatemalan throngs in Washington, U.S. organizers finally gave up and used their own guerrilla tactics to isolate the enemy. D.C. United, which bought the rights to market the U.S.-United doubleheader, shrewdly held back all 23,000 tickets for RFK's lower bowl, giving 7,500 of them to United season-ticket holders and sending applications for the rest to more than 100,000 households tied to area soccer associations. Guatemalan fans not in those two groups were stuck in the nosebleed seats. "You can't control who buys tickets necessarily," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who helped organize the chicanery, "but you can control how the seats are allocated."
The plan seemed preposterous—draw a pro-U.S. sellout crowd of 51,996 on the same day that the Washington Redskins opened their season 15 miles away in front of 80,657 fans—and yet somehow it worked. Wearing blood-red shirts, Yankee-backers filled RFK's lower tier and generated what may have been the loudest noise ever in support of the U.S. men. "For a long time Sam's Army has been out there for us." said forward Brian McBride afterward, referring to the small but loyal U.S. fan group. "But today when we walked out on the field, the lower bowl looked like everyone was in Sam's Army. That was pretty cool."
By scoring the winning goal midway through an increasingly tense second half, McBride served further notice that his new partnership with forward Joe-Max Moore is here to stay. In their two games together, the hard-working pair has combined to score four goals and revitalize the U.S. attack. "They're a combination you have to deal with for 90 minutes," Arena says. "They don't put on the brakes, they create a lot of chances, and they put themselves in the right positions on the field."
Once in last place in their four-team group, the Americans now need only one win in their remaining two matches to be among the six teams that advance to the final round of regional qualifying next year. Sunday's victory was just a sign of the changing times, as Guatemalan midfielder Mart�n Mach�n found out in the wee hours before the game. "I woke up to go to the bathroom at three in the morning, and there were a couple of guys in the hallway yelling, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!,' " he said, shaking his head. "That's never happened to us here before."
If Project Mayhem has anything to say about it, it won't be the last time, either.