Christian Pulisic scored his first US goal since the infamous 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago nearly 18 months ago but this was another ill-fated night for the new Chelsea signing, who left early with a right quad injury.
The attacking midfielder became the most expensive American player in history when Chelsea spent $73m in January to buy him from Borussia Dortmund, who will keep him on loan until the summer. He infused this friendly with an early caffeine hit on Tuesday night via a confident one-on-one finish in the fourth minute as the first serious test for the new US head coach, Gregg Berhalter, began perfectly for the home side before ending 1-1.
Aged 20 years and 189 days, Pulisic became the youngest American to reach the milestone of 10 international goals, surpassing by 148 days the mark set by Jozy Altidore in 2010. But he limped off 10 minutes before the break with a thigh problem and was sent for an MRI scan, Berhalter said after the game.
It would be nice, if cliched, to report that even a curtailed Pulisic appearance was worth the price of admission, but value for money is an open question. In June 2016, as Jürgen Klinsmann led the US into the semi-finals of the Copa America Centenario (and a 4-0 loss to Argentina in front of nearly 71,000 in Houston’s NRG Stadium), it was natural to wonder how deep the team might go in Russia.
Since, the failure to reach a World Cup for the first time since 1986, a year of stasis under an interim head coach and a youth-centric rebuild has not inspired a reckoning over ticket prices. Tuesday’s crowd of 18,033 in a venue with an on-the-night capacity of 21,500 now seems a respectable figure for a programme with a pricing strategy reminiscent of a luxury brand pitching itself to high-end consumers.
It was reported that the average attendance for US World Cup qualifiers declined from 31,158 in the 2002 cycle to 22,636 for 2018, yet total revenue soared from about $7m to more than $17.5m as the average ticket price leapt from $28.05 to $97.06.
Of course, the more money the federation makes, the more it can reinvest in a variety of initiatives to grow the game, but Tuesday’s asking prices hardly seemed designed to tempt families or casual fans. Online prices ranged from $42.85 to $320.20 including fees, with a $600 “ultimate fan ticket” available that offered limited behind-the-scenes access.
A US Soccer spokesperson said: “Prices are set for every game based on a number of different market factors, including projected supply and demand, quality and type of event, the teams participating and other considerations.” A follow-up question asking why US Soccer does not offer discounted tickets was not answered.
If you’re old enough to ride a tricycle, you’re old enough to be charged full price. There were no reductions for young people or seniors in Houston, though children aged two and under could enter for free if they sat on an adult’s lap. This, in fairness, is no departure from the other main US sports and MLS, where families and bargain-hunters have to settle for special offers that come with strings attached, such as sitting in certain sections for games against less enticing opponents.
A trawl through MLS clubs’ websites suggests a near-total absence of routine youth or senior discounts for individual games, with even the league-standard free entry for lap infants rarely explicitly stated outside ticket policies and general FAQs.
If the likes of the NFL and NBA are charging high prices from a position of strength thanks to high demand, the scene is far patchier in American soccer, where last season, 13 MLS teams – more than half the league – saw average attendances dip year-on-year.
There is greater focus on filling stadiums in European countries where lucrative broadcast deals make matchday revenue less critical. On Monday, when France hosted Iceland, tickets ranged from the equivalent of $28 to $122 – this for a Euro 2020 qualifier featuring the world champions in Paris, the planet’s joint-most expensive city according to a recent study.
Even clubs in soccer’s global benchmark for rapaciousness, the English Premier League, habitually offer heavily discounted seats until the age of 22 and to over-60s or over-65s. Still, given the attendance of 9,040 in Glendale, Arizona, for Berhalter’s first game in January, and 17,442 for last week’s win over Ecuador in Orlando, the US is trending upwards. Nor does a team with Pulisic need a sell-out atmosphere to generate buzz.