As an American playing in the Premier League, one of the things that continues to blow my mind is the passion of the fans over here. Just this weekend, we got a massive 1-0 win on the road against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, and sure enough, our traveling supporters were singing their hearts out in their corner of the stands. It’s one of the things that makes the Premier League’s atmosphere so incredible. All these people who gave up their weekend to drive 115 miles from Birmingham to London in rented coaches just so they could show their support and try to drown out the chants of 30,000 Tottenham supporters. And by the end, they did. You would have thought we were playing at home.
The Players’ Tribune asked me to come up with the 5 most epic road stadiums I’ve ever played in. As someone who has been lucky enough to play all over the world, it was no easy task. There was only one rule: I couldn’t list our home stadium of Villa Park (shout out to the Holte End).
The first stadium that comes to mind straight away is Azteca in Mexico City. As a U.S. player, it’s intimidating because so many teams before us have gone down there to play Mexico and failed to get a point. It’s like this mythical place that you hear about as a young player, and you’re like, “What could be so crazy about it? No big deal.”
Then you have your first trip to Mexico City, and the intense vibe starts before you even leave the hotel. The locals invariably find out where we’re staying and there always seems to be a crowd waiting for us as we board the bus. We always have a huge police escort. It’s almost like a presidential motorcade to get to the stadium. Driving through the streets, it’s pretty wild. You get a few hand gestures. Maybe a beer or two thrown at the bus windows. There’s an overwhelming feeling like, Okay, it’s the guys on this bus versus an entire country.
When you get to the locker room, the staff wheels in oxygen tanks and it reminds you that you’re about to play 90 minutes at 7,000 feet above sea level. Performing at an elite level at that altitude isn’t easy. No matter how much you train for it, at some point you just can’t catch your second wind, and your mental concentration starts to go out the window.
When you get to the field and look up, it’s just a massive wall of human beings and concrete. It almost feels like the stands are completely vertical. There’s no real “slant” to the upper bowls like there is with modern stadiums. You can’t even see the sky. Plus, there’s nowhere for the air to go, which makes a hot day feel even more suffocating. It’s kind of claustrophobic. You feel enclosed in a giant cauldron with 104,000 people who are very much not there to support you.
At kickoff, the noise is incredible. The stadium’s enclosed walls create an incredible buzz. I’ve heard it described as a beehive. You can’t really hear what’s going on around you. Barking instructions to defenders on set pieces becomes a nightmare because you can hardly hear the guy standing three feet away from you. You have to wave your arms to try to get guys’ attention.
One of the most memorable games I’ve ever played was the 0-0 draw we got there in World Cup Qualifying in 2013. It was only the second time in history that the U.S. went to Azteca and got a point. At the final whistle, I spotted a very, very small pocket of American fans in the corner of the stands and gave them a round of applause. I remember thinking, “Man, those are some very brave Americans right there.”
I’ll never forget my first trip to Anfield. Being an American playing in the English Premier League is so special because you get to experience so much history. Liverpool is as historic as it gets. When the team bus drives up to the stadium, you go through the famous Shankly Gates — these big black iron gates with the club slogan “You’ll Never Walk Alone” carved at the top. You creep through this narrow street at two-miles-per-hour while the bus is escorted by police on horseback, and you see all the fans walking to the stadium in their red and white gear. It feels like something out of another time — like the way it used to be in the 1960s.
When you walk out of the simple locker room and into the tunnel area and prepare to go on the pitch, you walk under the historic painted sign that reminds you just where you are: “This is Anfield.” It’s kind of like Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” sign. As an American, to walk out of that tunnel and hear the fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and holding up their scarves, if you don’t get goosebumps then there’s something wrong with you.
The first time I ever saw the field in a Premier League match was at Anfield. Brad Friedel got a red card in the 65th minute and so I had to come in cold and try to stop a penalty from Steven Gerrard with the famous “KOP End” at my back (this is where the hardcore of the hardcore fans sit). That was the only time in my career where I kind of had an out-of-body experience, and for a split second as I was walking from the sideline to the goal I thought, Wow, this is pretty special.
I’m an ’80s baby, so when I was a kid growing up in Illinois, Manchester United was entering its period of dominance. They were the team you always saw in the Champions League on ESPN, and you always heard about this place called “The Theater of Dreams,” otherwise known as Old Trafford. It sounded magical.
The special thing for me at Old Trafford is the experience of walking out of the tunnel and onto the field. There’s nothing like it in the world. You come out to the pitch by the corner flag where so many legends have made their entrance before you, but the unique thing is that to get onto the pitch, you have to step up this slope. The grass is higher than the rest of the ground around it. It creates a feeling that you’re literally stepping onto a stage in front of 75,000 people. The “Theater of Dreams” thing is actually pretty accurate.
St. James’ Park
This is one of my favorite stadiums from an architectural standpoint. At field level, the way the transparent roof extends over the stands creates a really dramatic atmosphere. There are technically larger stadiums in the Premier League, but St. James’ feels really massive. Newcastle also puts the away fans at the very top, top, top corner of the stadium so you can barely see them.
The passion of the fans in the Northeast of England is crazy. Back in the day, Newcastle was a Champions League team and the fanbase is dying for a return to glory, so there’s a lot of pent-up energy and frustration. It creates a unique kind of tension. I guess you could compare it to the Oakland Raiders in America. Going into Newcastle, you know you’re going to be exposed to some very interesting chants and songs. The supporters are going to tip-toe right up to the line of decency, and maybe over it. The banter is borderline abusive but often hilarious. Thankfully, once you get on the pitch, it’s actually quite hard to make out what the fans are saying, especially at a 50,000-seat stadium like St. James’ Park. At the smaller grounds like Loftus Road, where there’s just a few thousand people sitting five feet behind your goal, it’s a different story. You have to be very focused not to let it distract you.
Off the field, I’ve been told that Newcastle is a very good night out. I’ve never been out (and with a new baby at home, probably never will have the pleasure), but I’ve certainly heard some stories.
Estadio Olímpico, Honduras
This tiny ground gets a special mention strictly for the, uh — let’s call it “passion” of the Honduran fans. We went there for the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers, and you just know going into those hostile environments that you’re not going to get a lot of calls. I remember the game being incredibly physical. Every time there was a violent tackle, we’d jump up on the bench and the ref would stick his hands out. “Play on, play on.” It’s a tough spot to be a referee in environments where you see the riot police standing on the sidelines. The saving grace was that the Estadio Olimpico has a running track around the pitch, which saved our guys on corner kicks. In some places where we play in qualifying, the fans are 10 feet away from you at the corner flag. I’ve seen like 25 cups of beer rain down on our guys when they’re trying to take a corner. God bless the running track.
We ended up pulling out a come-from-behind 3-2 win to lock up our place in South Africa, and as we were coming off the field, the police had set up a huge inflatable tunnel to get us safely into the locker room. The problem was that the tunnel wasn’t long enough, so the crowd was still able to throw stuff at us. The riot police police had to line up across from one another and improvise a tunnel of shields for us to run under. So as we crouched down and ran through, we could hear coins, lighters, and all kinds of random stuff pinging off the shields.
It wasn’t over yet. We finally got into the locker room and we were ready to celebrate. Our staff brought in some beers and champagne, and all of a sudden we heard some banging on the glass-block windows that were high up on the wall. The way the stadium was designed, the fans could look right down into our locker room from street-level. The next thing we knew, people were kicking through the windows and trying to throw stuff down at us. It was pandemonium, but I have to say, it was also a pretty great adrenaline rush.
At the very least, I can say I’ll never forget escaping the stadium that night.