SEATTLE, Wash. -- What. A. Day.
The frenetic pace of a major tournament certainly puts players through the physical and emotional ringer, but supporters as well experience the same gamut of feelings. Following the U.S. men's national team as they progress through the 2016 Copa America Centenario is a sure way to build up frequent flier miles -- and that is just during the group stage. Game one in Santa Clara, California, game two mid-way across the country in Chicago, and finally game three in Philadelphia -- in a nation as large as the USA, travel is always going to be an issue.
So when the U.S. earned a place in the knockout round of the Copa, and learned that their quarterfinal match would again require a long cross-continental journey, it was business as usual for the title hopefuls. And in addition to the team, USA supporters also prepared to converge in another corner of the country for another 24-hour whirlwind tour.
4:15 a.m. -- The best worst sound in the world was enough to stir the dead: the early morning alarm clock chirped to life on what would hopefully be an epic day in Seattle. Just days earlier, when Colombia fell to Costa Rica in the last match of Group A, propelling the U.S. to the top of the standings, a flight was booked to the Emerald City to watch Jurgen Klinsmann's men take on the lucky second place survivor of Group B. Would it be Peru or Ecuador -- the two teams that drew earlier in the Copa and would unlikely both join Brazil in securing passage to the quarterfinals -- joining the USA along the Puget Sound? That answer didn't come until the day after, when Peru pulled off a miracle 1-0 win over Brazil, sending the perennial Copa favorites home early for the first time in tournament history and costing head coach Dunga his job. Yes, it was Ecuador that would also trek to Seattle in time for today's first Copa quarterfinal, and Peru will be planning to meet Colombia tomorrow.
5:45 a.m. -- A dozen or so red white and blue clad USA supporters, already in good spirits despite the early hour, boarded the Alaska Airlines flight bound for Seattle. It was a Thursday morning -- a work day for most of the passengers -- and these hearty few were planning to make the most of what was hoped for prior to the tournament's start, but looked in serious doubt after a disappointing 2-0 loss to open the group stage - a place in the Copa America quarterfinals. And, as a bonus for west coast fans, the U.S. had taken first place in the group, sending the Yanks to the Pacific Northwest instead of Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (the sight of the Copa America final) and setting up a rematch with pre-tournament foes Ecuador. The USMNT won that game 1-0, as Darlington Nagbe scored the game-winner -- his first goal in a USA uniform. The memories of that game will certainly be in the minds of the players when they take to the CenturyLink field later today.
6:30 a.m. -- Up, up, and away! As the aircraft began to accelerate down the Mineta San JoseInternational Airport tarmac, the rising sun reflected back off the face of nearby Avaya Stadium. The Earthquakes would be making their own flight later today, traveling to Florida to take on Orlando City SC on Saturday as MLS returns to action after a Copa inspired hiatus. Anibal Godoy and Alberto Quintero will be back in the fold, as Panama was unable to escape the group stage. A dismantling at the feet of Argentina, as Lionel Messi sealed the deal on a comfortable 5-0 win with a hat-trick performance off the bench, ensured the Panamaniacs would not miss another Quakes contest. Good for San Jose, not so much for Los Canaleros supporters.
9:15 -- Sea-Tac is packed. Sure, most people are probably traveling for something other than soccer, but there are a fair number of USA jerseys in the crowd. Not a single Ecuador supporter in sight! It's looking like the USMNT is going to have a big advantage with a pro-USA crowd cheering them on.
10:32 -- Occidental Square is quiet this morning, but preparations are already underway for the big American Outlaws gathering prior to the game. In the heart of the Pioneer Square neighborhood, Occidental Square is the perfect spot to assemble, organize, and march to the match. A few U.S. fans are milling about, including a small cadre of folks enjoying coffee at Caffe Umbria and watching the conclusion of the Euro Championship game between Northern Ireland and Ukraine. Will the Green and White Army celebrate their first major tournament win in over half a century? They currently lead 2-0 and looked poised to take the game.
11:18 -- A small cheer erupted when the final whistle sounded on Northern Ireland's big win. Coupled with England's 2-1 victory earlier in the morning (sorry, Wales), it is a big day at the Euro's for the British entrants. Now, whatever happened to Scotland?
12:09 -- So much talk of Great Britain, and the inevitable craving for some classic English food becomes unavoidable. Fortunately, Seattle has no shortage of eateries in and around downtown, including the go-to spot for Shepherd's Pie, Shawn O'Donnell's. Nothing fancy with this dish: lots of potatoes, ground beef, and a smattering of vegetables. A hearty eat shared with a growing number of USA supporters that are further flooding establishments in and around Occidental Square.
1:20 -- Wait, there's still another Euro match to watch? A quick migration to Fado's, where the big screen TVs are crisp and clean, and the tables are filled with red, white, and blue clothed soccer aficionados, is in order, and the venerable bar delivers. Germany is battling Poland -- on the soccer field -- and the audience is enjoying every minute. And while it might initially appear that the crowd is simply passing time, waiting for the Copa kickoff later in the day, these fans are just getting warmed up for an afternoon of revelry.
2:33 -- The sun is shining, and the growing crowds of American Outlaws representatives from all over the nation gravitates to Fuel -- the official bar of AO ahead of the much anticipated USA vs. Ecuador quarterfinal. The scent is one of excitement mixed with alcohol, as the enthusiasm and suds are flowing freely. Former USMNT goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann is in the house, taking selfies with the crowd while posing with the Budweiser Player of the Match trophy. Looking a bit like an over-sized bottle opener -- not a necessity for the twist-off bottles of Bud and Bud Light that fill the drink buckets at every table -- the trophy is popular, but not the star attraction that former Sounder Hahnemann is. AO Seattle leaders give shout-outs to all the chapters represented at the bar, and raucous applause meets every announcement.
3:46 -- The USA supporters come and go, pouring in and out of every bar in a mile's radius of CenturyLink Field. The stadium is now open for fans, and the early-bird arrivals are starting to take roost in the grand theater. The large fan-zone party just outside is also drawing big crowds, including a smattering of yellow-clad Ecuador fans. This will not be a game where the U.S. has fewer supporters than the visiting team -- nothing like what the USMNT dealt with in the tournament opener against Colombia at Levi's Stadium. Yellow was the color of the day for that match -- it will prove to be much more rare in Seattle.
4:30 -- Two hours to kick-off, and the teams are arriving at CenturyLink and beginning their walk-arounds on the grassy surface that is covering the artificial turf that is the norm for the stadium. The grass looks in very good shape, especially considering that the last Copa group stage game was played on the same surface two days earlier. This is not the patchy green and brown look that was evident from the field at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey -- the site of the Copa America Centenario final. The Emerald City has done well to support an emerald-green field of lush, natural grass.
5:17 -- The American Outlaws, as well as a growing number of onlookers in the Pioneer Square area, are slowly but surely preparing for their traditional march to the match. Always started one hour before kick-off -- a time that seems later than ideal, especially for fans that want to watch the national team warm-up -- the march begins outside Fuel and grows in size as it makes its way down Occidental Avenue. The cheers, the chants, the shouts of support grow louder and prouder with each city block. Bar and restaurant patrons along the route join in the noise, and some leave their spots to go with the flow. The expansivenes of the march is as sure a sign that America is growing as a soccer nation. Kudos to the American Outlaws for making it all happen.
6:02 -- Evening officially begins, and the setting sun casts its shadow across the eastern stands at CenturyLink Field. Players from both sides are finishing their pregame routines and retreating to their respective locker rooms. TV personalities from FOX and Univision play the role of talking heads from their positions high above the south stands. On field personalities are gushing over the upcoming event, recognizing the importance the match has in the growing footprint of soccer in America. The USA, reeling after its tournament opening loss to Colombia are the favorite. Or maybe they are the underdog. The same assessment is given Ecuador, as no one seems certain as to what to expect when the game actually starts. It's the way it should be for a Copa quarterfinal, and no one is lamenting the balanced talent that both sides sport.
6:33 -- And we are off! It's Ecuador to start the first half with the ball, but it soon turns into a 45 minute masterclass from the USMNT. Best half of the tournament so far? That seems to be the consensus from the press box.
For a complete recap of the U.S. men's national team's thrilling 2-1 victory over Ecuador, click here.
8:40 -- The most consumed item at the match was likely beer, but supporters' fingernails probably runs a close second. A 2-0 lead for the Americans was quickly halved by Ecuador, and it was a nervous last 15 minutes as fans anxiously awaited the final whistle. The roar from the crowd when the sweet sound finally arrived was palpable throughout the stadium, and the players showed the expected mixture of elation and relief. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann would describe it as a breakthrough moment for U.S. Soccer, one that has its roots in the Yanks' successful run in the 2014 World Cup. Klinsmann, under extreme scrutiny following his team's 2-0 loss in the Copa opener, was now able to celebrate -- even gloat a little -- at what his players had accomplished. The phrase "playing with house money" was bandied around by numerous observers, especially given that the U.S.'s next opponent in the Copa semifinals is likely to be world number one Argentina. Klinsmann said before the tournament that is was the semifinal round or bust, and he delivered. The USMNT will get to play at least two more games in this Copa -- a loss in the semifinal puts the USA in the consolation third-place match the day before the final.
9:46 -- The last trickle of players pass through the mixed zone, and CenturyLink Field quiets for the first time in hours. The view from the press box is of an empty stadium, but the quotes of players, both winners and those vanquished reverberates through headphones up and down press row.
11:25 -- Finality of the evening is approaching, both in the press box and in the stands, as now the clean-up crew outnumbers all other stadium denizens. Folks are going their own ways -- some for home and some for Houston (the site of the USA vs. Argentina/Venezuela semifinal match on Tuesday).
12:56 -- Even the TSA agents are ready to call it a day, as only one screening lane is still open at SeaTac Airport. Everyone is surprisingly friendly given the late hour -- maybe they are all USMNT fans! -- and one even offers to weary travelers some insider tips on where the best terminal lounging spots are (hint: near the N gates). One last tram stands between the TSA and gates, and that is easily navigated. Hello, comfy chairs!
5:25 -- The good folks at Alaska Airlines know how to deal with terminal sleepers, not speaking too jarringly over the loudspeakers, and everyone boards the plane in as orderly a manner as can be expected at daybreak. Next stop is San Jose airport and the comforts of home. A day-long odyssey to the Emerald City in the beautiful Pacific Northwest comes to an close, and thanks to the U.S. men's national team, it has a happy ending.