As we bask in the comforting afterglow of World Cup qualifying crisis averted, let’s seize the relevant opportunity to re-visit an old debate:
It’s about where to stage these important matches.
Let’s not overthink these things here. Playing in Columbus, an appropriate sized venue where the charged atmosphere provided a legitimate leg up for the United States of America’s soccer team, was a factor last night. Period.
U.S. Soccer got this one right. But if we are going to give the fed a “check-plus” here, we also have to revisit the “X” marks past. Like the poor choice to direct the Olympic qualifying tournament to a big stadium in Tennessee. And the choice to host Jurgen Klinsmann’s initial World Cup qualifier at a massive, soulless facility in Tampa.
Wrong. And wrong.
We’ll get back to that. First, listen to what a couple of U.S. players said about last night’s red swarm of passionate U.S. Soccer supporters in Ohio. First from Tim Howard, courtesy of U.S. Soccer:
It was awesome. This is probably one of the best home-field advantages we have in America. I don’t know what it is about Columbus. Everyone was standing, there were thousands of people with flags. It was really an electric, pro-American atmosphere and that’s such an awesome thing.”
U.S. right back Steve Cherundolo told the Washington Post’s Steven Goff that U.S. Soccer “should put thought into playing more games here or venues that are similar,” referring to the relative wealth of 20,000-25,0000 seat facilities now available. These are soccer stadiums, built for the game by people who believe in the game.
Even if you throw the “atmosphere as competitive edge” argument out the window, MLS organizations that have worked so hard to develop these grounds and the markets deserve the games. Big-draw friendlies beyond these World Cup qualifiers and other important, competitive events? Sure, hold ‘em in the massive NFL grounds and make a ton of cash. I have no problem with that.
But matches that matter should never again become attempted cash grabs. Besides, that plan doesn’t really work!
That June qualifier in Tampa attracted 23,971, almost exactly the same as last night’s match in Columbus (23,881). Those under-23 group play matches in Tennessee, where the United States blew it and failed to qualify for the London Olympics? The best attendance among three matches came in at 10,578, which might have been OK in a smaller venue but looked ridiculous (and, more to the point, did little to provide an energetic atmosphere) inside a cavernous NFL ground.
So the idea of putting these matches in places where bigger paydays are forthcoming is half-baked at best, unintentionally destructive to competitive initiatives at worst.
The next U.S. World Cup qualifier at home, in October against Guatemala – it may well be for a spot in final round qualifying – is at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City.
U.S. Soccer gets a check-plus for that one, too; that place will rock. So, hopefully, lessons have been learned.