If you’ve stood in the American Outlaws section for a U.S. Men’s National Team game the last three years, chances are you’ve run into Dale Houdek and Kelly Johnson. After first being introduced through a friend during a friendly in 2014, the couple has been loud and proud behind the MNT at the vast majority of its games ever since.
Already a tried-and-true supporter of the MNT, Dale was headed to his third FIFA World Cup that summer with his buddy Ed Smith, who with his wife Kat thought it would be good to introduce him to Kelly at the U.S. friendly against Mexico at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
“The introduction we had was, ‘Hey come to the game, it’ll be a cool event,’ Dale told ussoccer.com.
With 60 caps already under his belt, he was accustomed to the supporter experience of an MNT game. While a sports fan already, Kelly wasn’t quite as well-versed, but the welcoming atmosphere and magnitude of a USA-Mexico clash quickly got her hooked.
“I was pretty lucky with USA versus Mexico as my first game,” Kelly said. “The atmosphere was amazing, cheering with the American Outlaws and making friends with fans from all over the U.S. I enjoyed it and looked forward to going again.”
Though it was a good first encounter, their professional lives would keep them apart. At the time, Dale worked in human resources for a large financial firm in New York City, while Kelly was stationed in Phoenix working as a flight attendant. They kept up a platonic relationship, staying in contact in the following months and after Dale returned from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, they both went out on a limb for the beginning of the new cycle when the MNT scheduled a friendly against the Czech Republic in Prague.
“We hadn’t really spent that much time together, but we both decided to just do this road trip,” Dale said as he recalled some of the expected nerves around taking that kind of plunge.
“It was a first date, but it was an international trip. I remember being under some stress because we flew into Germany and I had a rental car and we’re headed to one of the cities. I was trying to read signs in German and was really nervous. It was this nervous energy that you would feel on a first date in your hometown, but it’s amplified because we’re in a foreign country. It was pretty cool.”
Touring parts of Germany on their way to Prague, things went well enough between them. Because of the nature of Dale’s job, he did have to get some work done once they arrived in the Czech capital. So while he was up in the room working, Kelly ran into members of the MNT, including then head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, interacting with the group in the days leading up to the game.
“The players took time to say hi and thank us for supporting them all over the world. That really left a great memory about U.S. Soccer and the experience,” Kelly said. “Jurgen asked, ‘You really came all this way for this friendly?’ He couldn’t believe it. I think that experience solidified U.S. Soccer and the energy around it -- you kind of get bitten. It’s addicting.”
Coming away with another positive experience, things became more serious for the couple and Dale was able to move back to his original home of Arizona. Together they’ve attended the vast majority of MNT games (especially those abroad) ever since. Thanks to the fortunate combination of having jobs that give them flexibility with their schedules and the ability to work from anywhere, the pair plans its vacations around U.S. matches, blocking out time based on the FIFA International Match Calendar.
In doing so, they’ve also gained an appreciation of the fact the team’s schedule will take them to places they wouldn’t have otherwise gone.
“We wind up in places that maybe wouldn’t be on our top 10 list of travel destinations,” Dale joked. “We’re huge travel fans. We want to travel the world, and with soccer being such an international game this is a great opportunity. The MNT might be going to countries that are out of the way, or it might be places that we might not have thought of, but we always come away with great experiences.”
Dale and Kelly (pictured left) step off the bus with American Outlaws at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana Cuba on Oct. 7, 2016
The memories are as vast as the experiences are unique. The couple includes among highlights going down to Havana for the USA’s historic friendly against Cuba in October 2016, and earlier that year witnessing how the majority Catholic nation of Guatemala celebrated Easter.
“The ceremonies and parades they had were amazing,” Dale said. “These are things you don’t get to plan for, but you get to incorporate as part of the adventure of traveling for the team. We’re not always sure where we going to go, but we know we’re going to have great travel destinations and you’re able to build sight-seeing around it. It’s a great way to explore the world, but at the same time you’re there watching the sport you love and cheering for the country you love.”
While they enjoy the travel and supporting the team wherever they play, the relationships they’ve built with other U.S. fans are just as big a part of the experience.
“The camaraderie is huge,” Dale said. “We’ll see some people at games more often than we see friends in our own city. When we’re in Phoenix, we’re working a lot, but we go to games and that’s where we see friends from virtually all over the world. You look forward to seeing them and build relationships with them.’
Affectionately known in AO circles as “Kelly and Dale”, along their journey they’ve racked up their own personal milestones. Dale earned his 100th cap during the MNT’s friendly against New Zealand on Oct. 11, 2016, in Washington, D.C. His loyal support was even rewarded that night with a custom jersey by MNT Equipment Manager Jesse Bignami. For her part, Kelly just recently hit 50 caps in October.
And while the commitment of traveling far and wide to support the MNT is done for fun, adventure and experience, part of it is also coping with disappointment, something the couple felt first-hand when they were in attendance for October’s World Cup Qualifying defeat at Trinidad & Tobago.
“Dealing with disappointment is a huge part of being a fan,” Dale said. “We love and support our team win, lose or draw, but there’s all these different emotions you process when you think about missing the World Cup. In the end, I hope we’re in a better place for it and that we look to use these years before Qatar to build, get some youth and establish another competitve team.”
While watching the U.S. in Russia won’t be part of their plans next year, Kelly and Dale have no hesitation about following the MNT as they begin the work towards Qatar. For them, it starts with the USA's upcoming friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Jan. 28 in Carson, Calif.
“It’s the love of the game, the country and the team,” Dale said. “We’re already looking at January Camp and starting to watch the new faces that come in. That’s part of the journey as well. In St. Vincent, we got to experience Christian Pulisic take over a game and drop in some goals. That’s part of it - that’s what you get to see. You can’t pick games here and there. You will miss out on some of those experiences and opportunities if you do that. We’ll definitely be there in January and we’re looking forward to it.”