PARADISE, Nev. — Folarin Balogun's USMNT teammates had tried in vain to prime him. They had told the tales of U.S.-Mexico, of melees and more. As they integrated their newest recruit ahead of Thursday's CONCACAF Nations League semifinal, they used words like "intense" and "crazy." Tim Weah even warned him: "You're probably gonna get some alcohol thrown at you at some point."
He clutched for his leg, writhing in pain. Then he looked up. "And I just saw a swarm of people fighting," he'd later recall.
Thus began 30 minutes of madness, of ugly, combustible, borderline unsafe soccer — or at least something resembling it. By the time Balogun could survey the instant carnage, one red card had already been brandished, and beer was flying. It rained down from the stands throughout a shameful second half that overshadowed a triumphant 3-0 U.S. victory.
The first alcoholic projectiles were aimed at Weston McKennie, who'd charged at Montes and soon found himself surrounded by Mexicans. By the time he emerged, his jersey was torn apart — but the U.S. Soccer crest was intact, and so, as McKennie strode toward the U.S. bench for a replacement top, he looked up at the furious fans, then out across the field, and kissed the crest, again and again, eyes wide, arrogance calculated and glorious, goading more fury.
Then he, too, was shown a red card.
César Montes kicks out at Folarin Balogun and gets a red card. Things escalate and Weston McKennie is sent off too. 😲
10 vs. 10 for the remainder of the match. pic.twitter.com/zkZe8nKDUe
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 16, 2023
From there, the match devolved into a cauldron of danger and chaos, of hate unrestrained and anger uncontrolled. Mexico instigated much of it. The Americans, though, couldn't refrain from getting involved. Gerardo Arteaga and Sergiño Dest were also sent off after an 85th-minute altercation, reducing an 11-v-11 sport to 9-v-9 and a shell of itself.
Weston McKennie 🟥
Sergino Dest 🟥
They will both be unavailable for the Concacaf Nations League Final. 😲 pic.twitter.com/lLtnLh0qYA
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 16, 2023
"It was a mess," U.S. captain Christian Pulisic said postgame. "But I was disappointed in the end. I really wish some of our guys kept their heads a little bit better. It just turned into something that wasn't this beautiful game that we love."
And everything around it was worse, far worse. For 45 minutes, the pro-Mexico crowd was spirited, the atmosphere energizing. As the night wore on, frustration boiled over into mayhem. Several brawls broke out among the 65,000 people in attendance. Many hurled half-full cups at U.S. players, or at nobody in particular when two Mexico attackers missed their team's best chance of the night.
"I definitely felt some beer," Balogun said postgame.
"Yeah, they're always throwing beer," Weah added nonchalantly. "But you get used to it."
What they wouldn't tolerate, though, is the chant that crescendoed as the clock ticked and the seats emptied with the final result beyond doubt. The infamous grito, "p***," an anti-gay slur, first appeared early, then boomed across Allegiant Stadium late on. It prompted at least three warnings, then a temporary suspension of play. Which of course didn't halt it. As U.S. keeper Matt Turner prepared to take goal kicks, knowing the chant was inevitable, he tried helplessly to plead with the fans to stop, or even to the referee to simply end the game.
"You could tell it's coming," Turner later said. "And it's distracting. It goes against everything that we stand for on our side. We've been very vocal and open about the strength of our team being our diversity, the strength of our nation being its diversity. So, to use something so divisive during a game, a spirited game — and maybe the play sort of set the flares off in the stands, but it has no place in the game."
The ref finally complied with common sense, five minutes before he was supposed to blow his final whistle, but CONCACAF said that no, the match had not been abandoned — as protocol for homophobic chanting suggests it should have been. It was simply called off, mercifully and wisely, at the referee's discretion. It ended with heads spinning and proverbial sour tastes in the mouths of almost everyone involved.
"We did enough to show on the field with our play. We deserved to be winning that game. And a dominant performance," Pulisic said. "And now that all this stuff happened, it just takes away from the way we played."
Pulisic was also perplexed. All parties, from players to CONCACAF officials, seemed dumbfounded, lacking answers for why passion almost always escalates to unsavoriness.
"I mean, it's crazy," Pulisic said. "All year around, I'm never a part of games like this. And then I come here."
Weah was asked whether he'd ever been involved in another game so unhinged, and "Yeah," he responded without hesitation. "Mexico! Yeah, every time we play Mexico, there's a fight."
But what about elsewhere, against other opponents?
"Um, not really," Weah said. "Really only Mexico."
Balogun had certainly never experienced anything like it. He had heeded the warnings, but all of them, he said, were "a bit of an understatement." Tackles were vicious. Hatred seemed genuine.
As Balogun took questions in the postgame mixed zone, it was suggested to him that, perhaps, all of this was a bit over the top, and surely there was a part of him that agreed.
But he shrugged. "I mean, the players don't seem surprised by it," he said. "So, I mean, I just gotta kinda follow their reaction. ... It was a nice experience."