by Arlo Moore-Bloom

Throw a good party and people will show up. That’s the philosophy for the American Outlaws, at least, an organization that was founded in 2007, boasts 200 chapters worldwide, and came out full force again in this final window of the USA's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

American Outlaws traveled from dozens of their city chapters to — among other things — cheer on the men’s team and provide much-needed traveling support. It’s become a tradition for thousands of Americans — stay at the designated hotel, meet up with old friends, go sightseeing, eat local food, and support their team donning red, white and blue.

The night before the game in Mexico City, hundreds of fans descended on Pinche Gringo BBQ, an American-styled beer and barbecue hall in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood in Mexico City. Owner and operater Dan Defossey, who founded the American Outlaws Mexico City chapter in 2016, is a longtime U.S. men's national team fan who was thrilled to host the Night Before event for the second time. The first time Pinche Gringo hosted in 2017, Defossey’s restaurant had just opened and within hours it had run out of beer — the ultimate party foul. “I actually cried when I opened up the fridge and there was nothing there,” Defossey recalls, chuckling. With more time to prepare this time, the event was a hit.

“I put my heart, blood and soul into making sure it was a good party,” Defossey said. “Rivalries are only great when there’s mutual respect. Mexicans are grateful that Americans come here and feel safe. The Outlaws came down here and saw how beautiful this city is ... to enjoy each other and for people to know we’re a normal city like anywhere else even though it has a bad reputation, it’s special.”

Jakob Uriarte, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who got into soccer via the FIFA video game, mostly follows the U.S. stars who play in Europe. U.S. Soccer was allocated 1,000 tickets from the Mexican soccer federation for its fan section. Those sold out quick so Jakob's dad bought tickets through Ticketmaster and they sat among the Mexican fans at the Azteca.

Like many fellow fans, a big reason for his trip down south was the knowledge this will be the last World Cup qualifier of serious consequence between Concacaf’s biggest rivals for quite a while. Both countries qualify automatically as hosts for the 2026 World Cup, and the expanded field for future World Cups promises to make qualifying less dramatic for the regions' powers.

“It was a great experience being at one of the North America’s soccer cathedrals,” Uriarte said. “But I was surprised the atmosphere didn’t live up to the hype. It felt like the American fans were making their voices heard.”

The 33-year-old Bryce Nelson from Seattle started following the USA 10 years ago and he’s been to almost every game this cycle, in part thanks to his job at Alaska Airlines that helps with travel costs.

Nelson’s best memory of an American Outlaws event was a Night Before event in San Jose, California, when fans urged Landon Donovan and Alexi Lalas to jump off a taco truck into the outstretched arms of American supporters, rock band style.

“American Outlaws is the only way to go for me,” Nelson said. “The people, the parties ... you see familiar faces at games. It's a lot of the same group of people, which makes it awesome."

A phalanx of military-grade police that escorted the entire American brigade into and out of the Estadio Azteca. American fans were told to wait to enter the stadium until their police entourage was ready to escort them to their fenced-off section near the rafters.

“Four years ago it was the same thing,” Defossey said. “There was a line of police protecting the Outlaws just in case. It happens with any team at the Azteca. It’s a little overboard but it ensures nothing happens.”

After the whistle, stadium personnel forced the U.S. fans to wait for over half an hour in their section for the rest of the stadium to empty before being escorted back out through the concrete halls and out of the stadium.

The question that lingered is whether their safety was ever an issue amid a half-capacity crowd that demonstrated no violence to any American players, let alone fans. Perhaps it was simply extra precaution in light of the fan violence in Queretaro a few weeks ago.

“We were with some Mexican fans and it was super friendly,” Uriarte recalled. “One lady wanted a picture with my dad and I since I was wearing an American jersey. Everyone was super friendly. ... I didn’t see any threats of violence.”

After the positive result in Mexico while closing in on a World Cup berth, the mood in Orlando on Sunday took on a more spring break-feel than a hardy Concacaf battle.

The Outlaws partied at the Broken Strings bar in downtown Orlando before commencing The March to Exploria Stadium. For a team that has often struggled in first halves in this cycle, the Outlaws were rewarded with a stellar show in the first 45 minutes as the USA stormed to a 4-0 halftime lead en route to a 5-1 win.

At the postgame press conference, Coach Gregg Berhalter noted the U.S. crowd's influence and forward Paul Arriola said, "We used the energy of the fans."