AUSTIN (KXAN) — It hasn’t been long since the idea of the U.S. national soccer team playing in Austin was nothing more than a fantasy.
“Even just a few years ago, we were out here at Haymaker just watching the games on TV and none of us were really dreaming about having the national team here in town,” said fan Jesse Easdon.
But a lot can change in just a few years – and now the men’s national team is preparing to play Jamaica in a crucial World Cup qualifying match at Q2 Stadium.
The first-ever World Cup qualifier in Texas kicks off Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and marks the latest step in Austin’s growth as a soccer city.
Both the women’s and men’s national teams played at Austin FC’s Q2 Stadium this summer, but the stakes will be higher for a World Cup qualifier – a must-win match after a rocky start to the U.S. team’s qualifying campaign.
“This is something that’s really important,” said Easdon, the president of the Austin chapter of American Outlaws, the nationwide supporter group for the national teams.
“This gets us into the World Cup. We’re expecting them to get there, to make it into the World Cup and then go further, and do really well at the World Cup,” he said.
Expectations lead to pressure. Disappointing results add to that pressure.
After drawing against El Salvador and Canada in its first two World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. went into halftime 1-0 down to Honduras in its third match. The second half, where they scored four times to win 4-1, may yet prove to be the turning point in this campaign.
The coming week will be pivotal, with three qualifying games in six days, starting with the clash with Jamaica on Thursday.
The squad that has been training in Austin all week is strong. It features players from big European clubs, such as captain Tyler Adams, Weston McKinnie and Sergiño Dest.
They won’t need to worry about a lack of support on Thursday night.
American Outlaws, which has about 730 members in Austin, plan to take over Austin FC’s rowdy supporters’ section with banners, flag and drums.
They will even display a tifo, an enormous piece of art, before kick off. Easdon would not reveal how it looks but promised it would be “breathtaking.”
“It’s definitely going to be a surprise,” he said, “but I can tell you it’s massive. It’s one of the largest ones American Outlaws has ever done.
“The artwork on it is really something amazing, but it’s also a message to the players. We’re telling them we expect big things from them.”
Bolstered by a likely full house, the Outlaws hope to replicate the atmosphere created by Austin FC fans at Q2 Stadium.
“It’s going to be loud,” Easdon said. “That’s the thing everybody always says about the Austin FC games – just like that, it’s going to be extremely loud and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“I think it’s going to be a celebration as well,” he added.
The drumming and singing will be music to the ears of USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, who called on fans to bring the noise in a press conference Wednesday.
“We know Austin is crazy,” he said. “It’s one of the better atmospheres in Major League Soccer and we’re hoping to have a similar type of atmosphere tomorrow night.”
Berhalter, who worked alongside Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff for years at Columbus Crew and the national team, also heaped praise on the facilities in Austin.
“From a training ground standpoint, Austin has been incredible,” he said. “It’s a first-class facility.”
Berhalter may want a carnival atmosphere in the stands, but for fans in Austin, the party starts on Wednesday.
Members of the American Outlaws will host a pre-match party at Haymaker in east Austin on Wednesday evening, where some former U.S. players will stop by.
When the match finally gets underway after days of build-up, Easdon has high hopes.
“I expect the team to win,” he said. “I think this is a game we absolutely have to win.”