Back in August, SB Nation's Steve Davis of Daily Soccer Fix wrote about why World Cup qualifiers 'rock:'
You have to be in the stands, I suppose, when everyone in the stadium, fans of both sides, finally unholster the full arsenal of emotion when the sides first walk onto the pitch. At that moment of dynamic clarity, it all sets in: One of these teams will actually be in the World Cup, the very pinnacle of this sport that we love.
As an avid sports fan and a budding soccer enthusiast, I figured I simply had no excuse to miss the final qualifier against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium on Wednesday night. The US had already qualified for the World Cup in South Africa next year, but Costa Rica needed to win to clinch their own berth and the US still had something to play for, as a win or draw would clinch the top spot in CONCACAF qualifying. Especially given the number of Costa Rica fans that were bound to show up, this had all the makings of one exciting night in the District.
The first thing I noticed as we found our seats was that Steve is absolutely correct. These World Cup qualifiers absolutely rock. There was a palpable energy just waiting in the security line. People had begun singing and chanting on the escalator up from the Metro and were only getting louder as they get closer to the gate. Once inside, it is easy to see that half of the people in the stands have been there since the gates opened and they haven't stopped standing, cheering or drinking since they entered the stadium.
Our seats were in the upper deck so we we were able to take in the entirety of the scene as we walk around to our section. The bottom bowl was completely full with people, mostly US fans, jumping up and down causing the stands to bounce. The upper bowl was less full, but about 90 percent Costa Rican fans and their flags. Seriously, the number of flags at these matches is astounding and the Costa Rica fans do not mess around with their flag waving. Each group of fans had at least three and the waving was just as prevalent and non-stop as the jumping, cheering and drinking. And then the game began.
I could not have asked for a more exciting match. The highlight of the first few minutes of the match came during the ninth minute when every US fan (and even some Costa Rica fans) in the house held up a sign with the number nine on it to honor Charlie Davies. There was not one quiet person in stadium and the US fans set off more than a few smoke bombs. Fact: soccer fans love smoke bombs. Also a fact: DC police are not really fans of the smoke bombs. Either way, the tribute was incredibly powerful and added to the energy inside the stadium.
The US had some chances early, but got sloppy on defense a couple of times in the middle of the first half, and Costa Rica capitalized to take a 2-0 lead. The upper level was going absolutely crazy. There were several people who were having difficulty standing, but that did not stop them from jumping up and down and singing in perfect unison with their fellow countrymen. This was more than a regular sporting event for these people. This was life and they were on their way to South Africa.
From that point on, the US tightened up on defense, and began to put more pressure on the Costa Rican defense. Costa Rica's keeper K. Navas made an awesome save on a Landon Donovan shot and the US missed a couple of great looks at the goal to come up empty before half. The second half more than made up for it.
After more than twenty minutes of little action around the goals, the US really began to put the pressure on again and broke through on a Michael Bradley rebound goal. After Nevas made another fine save on Donovan, Bradley got the rebound and put it in the back of the net. I thought it had been loud when Costa Rica scored. I was wrong.
The stadium was absolutely rocking when Bradley scored. People who say that US soccer fans are not as passionate as other fans could not be more wrong. Finally given something to celebrate, the US fans did just that. The smoke came out again in full force and the lower level was bouncing as even more flags were broken out. The US was back in this.
The excitement was only beginning. Oguchi Onyewu went down not long after the goal with what looked like a serious knee injury, and since the US had already used their subs for the game, that meant they had to play a man down the rest of the way. (It turns out Onyewu will be out for 3-4 months.)
In the 88th minute, Costa Rica was taking too long to make a substitution (taking too long to do anything was something that Costa Rica had been doing since the US scored, which was really annoying) and their coach was thrown out of the match. He was literally escorted from the pitch by the police. We had no idea that any of this was happening. From our seats, we could only see someone from the Costa Rica bench being escorted off the field and the Costa Rica bench going crazy. It was a terrible time for Costa Rica to lose their composure.
Because of Costa Rica's delay tactics, five minutes of stoppage time were added to the end of the game and in the fifth minute of stoppage time, Jonathan Bornstein headed in the equalizer off of a Robbie Rogers corner kick. RFK simply exploded. Anything and everything went flying through the air. Smoke bombs reached a new level and the volume was something I'd only heard once before (World Series game). Incredible.
And as the US bench went almost as crazy as the fans too, the place was absolute bedlam. The Costa Rica fans in our section were completely in shock. (Except the one extremely drunk gentleman who left the game two minutes early and probably woke this morning - or this afternoon - thinking Costa Rica had won.) They had the game won and they were going to South Africa, but they could not hold on. It was clear that the US was the better team, but Costa Rica had apparently done just enough to win the game until the very last minute.
The postgame was filled with more celebration and serious gratitude from the US players for the fans. Carlos Bocanegra spoke to the fans and the team did a victory lap carrying signs honoring Davies. You could feel how much they wanted this for him. It was just a fantastic game and clinched the top spot in CONCACAF for the US.
My first World Cup qualifier will most certainly not be my last. The passion is unrivaled by any other sporting event and it's without a doubt a great way to fall in love with the game of soccer. As this is the last match in this round of qualifying, obviously the next one is years away, but if you have a chance I suggest you also take Steve's advice and see a qualifier live. You won't be disappointed.