CINCINNATI – The upcoming World Cup qualification match between the United States and Mexico will be one of the biggest sporting events Todd Smith will have attended. It will be one of the most nerve-wracking, as well.

What You Need To Know

  • Thousands of American Outlaw fans expected in Cincinnati for a USA/Mexico World Cup qualifier Friday night at TQL Stadium

  • The supporters' group has 30,000 members across the country and even a few locations in other places around the globe

  • The organization helps fans get discounts on airfare, food, lodging

  • The Cincinnati chapter of AO is responsible for helping or organize the in-town logistics, such as planning the march and setting up pregame events

Smith is a member of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Outlaws, the supporters' group for the U.S. men's team (USMNT) as well as the women’s team. The organization unites fans by hosting watch parties and setting up arrangements for those traveling to those matches held around the world.

TQL Stadium will host the USA/Mexico World Cup qualifier on Nov. 12, 2021.
TQL Stadium will host the USA/Mexico World Cup qualifier on Nov. 12, 2021.

They're doing so this week in Cincinnati for Friday night's showdown against Mexico at TQL Stadium in the West End. The match is the biggest in North America in the last four years due to its implications for the next World Cup.

Kickoff is set for 9:10 p.m.

“It’s incredible to think that in a few hours, we’re going to have one of the biggest matches of the year played in our own backyard,” said Smith, 40.

The Hebron, Ky., resident is staying in a downtown Cincinnati hotel until Saturday to ensure everything on the fan side of events goes off without a hitch. It will also be fun to take part in some of the festivities, he added.

“It's exciting and surreal at first, but then when it really sinks in, it’s kind of stressful that we have to plan and put on this big event,” Smith joked. “But overall, it's just exciting that we're getting the opportunity to present Cincinnati on a national stage.”

The American Outlaws have 30,000 dues-paying members in chapters across the nation. There are also a couple of international chapters, in London and Mexico City.

A few thousand of those members plan to be in Cincinnati for the match and the festivities leading up to it.

Smith expects about 35% of the 26,000 fans in the stands to be from outside Greater Cincinnati. Not all of them will be Outlaws, Smith said, but they'll make up a decent percentage of the fan base, including the entire supporter section.

For those who don't know where that is, just look for the section with the colorful banners, flags and USMNT scarves. You'll probably hear them before you see them, though.

People are coming to the match from as far as Hawaii.

Axel Valladares and other American Outlaws attend a U.S. national team soccer match (Provided)
Axel Valladares and other American Outlaws attend a U.S. national team soccer match (Provided)

"We've got a few people from Maui coming out for the match," he said. "We've heard about people from California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Florida, Minnesota. I mean, cities like Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Houston, Dallas. You name it, kind of all over the country."

Matt Anderson is one of those fans. The 39-year-old traveled to the Queen City from Lincoln, Neb. He's a lifelong soccer fan and has been an Outlaw for nine years. He's worked as a part-time content creator for the organization during the past 18 months.

“2020 was largely a lost year for U.S. Soccer, so a lot of members were eager to attend as many games as possible once fans were allowed back into stadiums,” Anderson said. “The magnitude of the US-Mexico rivalry is unmatched, though, and we’re excited to descend on Cincinnati again.”

Part of the draw of this contest is the stakes. Both nations are working to secure a spot in the field of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Mexico and the U.S. sit first and second in the standings in CONCACAF, the soccer federation for North and Central American nations as well as those in the Caribbean. Three teams from the federation will earn a World Cup bid.

Friday's match marks the halfway point in the 14-game qualifying tournament.

Because North America is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2026, neither the U.S. nor Mexico will need to qualify for that tournament. FIFA is also expanding the tournament from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026, making it much easier for both countries to make the field in the future.

Cincinnati is in the running to be a host city for that tournament.

“Moving forward, this matchup may not carry the same weight in terms of World Cup qualifying. Because of that, it’s kind of special that this match is taking place in Cincinnati,” Smith said.

The planned march to TQL Stadium on Friday night (provided: Cincinnati chapter of the American Outlaws)
The planned march to TQL Stadium on Friday night (provided: Cincinnati chapter of the American Outlaws)

There've been plenty of heated moments between the two sides over the years, including the first CONCACAF Nations League final this past June in Denver. Intense physical play led to on-field fights between the teams. U.S. player Gio Reyna was hit in the face by an object thrown by a fan.

The U.S. won that match. Anderson was there.

“It was an intense game, as was the Gold Cup final in Las Vegas in August,” he said. “But this one arguably has the most on the line, and should be even more epic.”

AO members have made dozens of these trips over the years, traveling across the globe to follow their national team.

Smith and Anderson have each made nearly two dozen of such trips.

The American Outlaws helps with logistics, negotiating travel packages and coordinating accommodations for all the men’s and women’s matches.

The organization gets special deals on items like airfare, rental car and hotel. For those who need it, AO will also make arrangements for to- and from-game travel and offer food and drink at the game.

Axel Valladares, 42, has been on more than 20 domestic and international trips with AO. The Los Angeles resident said he said he's excited to see the U.S. make it "three in a row" over Mexico. But he's also excited to hang out with friends and visit a new city.

“If you’re a solo traveler, American Outlaws gives you a chance to meet up with other members before and after the game,” he said.

Smith and a team of about 100 supporters from Greater Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus have been busy with planning since the match was announced in late July. A supporter from the Lexington, Ky., chapter helped design an interactive map to help visiting fans get around.

The Cincinnati chapter of the American Outlaws planned several supporter events for members near and far, as well as those who may be considering joining the group. That includes a welcoming event Thursday night at The Pitch, which is the official AO Cincinnati bar.

The group will spend time before the game Friday at Northern Row Brewery and Distillery in Over-the-Rhine.

Julie Calvert, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau, said this match will have millions of dollars in economic impact.

“When you bring in folks into downtown, fill the hotels, it starts to have a ripple effect across the region," Calvert said. "We’re looking for a good, healthy weekend economically.”

Local capos and drummers practice ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico. (Photo: Brendon Yancey)
Local capos and drummers practice ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Mexico. (Photo: Brendon Yancey)

The local American Outlaws duties extend beyond just hospitality. They’re also in charge of everything from planning the pregame march to creating elements for inside the stadium. That includes determining the proper places in the supporter section for the drums fans will hear banging throughout the match in the supporter section.

A team of volunteers spent Wednesday practicing their drumming and chants in a warehouse adjacent to TQL Stadium.

They’ll also organize the capos, a soccer term for the person or persons who lead the section of supporters in cheers, scarf waving and singing. They usually spend the match facing the fans, rather than the field, to help motivate fans.

The volunteer team has spent the last few days finalizing the design and painting what’s called a “tifo,” a banner that's traditionally unveiled on match day. 

“We’ve had a small but passionate army working on this event, in one way or another, over the past few weeks,” Smith said. “I think this match shows Cincinnati is a true soccer town and is ready for even bigger matches in the future. Perhaps a World Cup match in 2026.”

Those who can’t attend the match on Friday can venture to downtown Cincinnati for a series of related events. There will be a watch party hosted at The Banks and the game will be on the big screen outside Great American Ball Park.

The game will also be broadcast on ESPN 2 and on Univision. It will stream globally on TUDN.