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U.S. Soccer federation got this venue choice right; let’s hope lessons have been learned

Sep 12, 2012, 11:40 AM EDT

Jamaica v United States - World Cup Qualifer Getty Images

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.

(MORE: Highlights of last night’s win)

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.

(MORE: Crew Stadium’s essential place in the big picture)

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.

  1. mkbryant3 - Sep 12, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    Man, I can only dream of what it would be like if Seattle or Portland went to grass. Twould be electric. Plastic grass is so lame and prevents the mother of all qualifier atmospheres that grass would certainly bring to those venues.

    • kuhjon - Sep 12, 2012 at 11:56 AM

      Yeah, would be nice as a northwesterner, just for selfish reasons. But it’s unlikely Jeld-Wen will ever be grass based on the particulars of the site, the sharing agreement with PSU pointyball and Merritt Paulson’s comments on the subject. Seattle fans have lately been talking about a hybrid surface someday (like what some NFL teams use) but that would be several years out as well since they just updated the current turf.

      • corgster - Sep 12, 2012 at 3:15 PM

        Yet FIFA is fine with a World Cup Final being played on the surface. It’s now USSF’s decision.

  2. kuhjon - Sep 12, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    I thought the U23 venue choice was a CONCACAF decision? And there were multiple factors at play (In fact, if I cared enough I’m sure I could dig up a post either here or at the old blog location in which you detail some of those factors) Anyway, not that I disagree with your point.

    • Steve Davis - Sep 12, 2012 at 12:02 PM

      Correct, a CONCACAF decision. (I almost pointed it out, but I knew some wise reader would make this a conversation point.) Here’s the deal: US Soccer had significant influence in directing that choice. So, in effect, it was US Soccer’s choice … even if it was technically the regional fed’s call.

  3. tylerbetts - Sep 12, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    Just remember this simple refrain for success:

    Fly the fans through Port Columbus
    Put the team in Fort Columbus

  4. buckyball77 - Sep 12, 2012 at 12:24 PM

    The bad old days of cash grab qualifiers, with a hostile ex-pat audience from the country playing the USA is not that long in the past

    US soccer until very recently has been run by people who really didn’t see a growing future for soccer in this country. Soccer event promotion was seen as a way to make a comfortable living from the guest workers and first generation Americans who would show up in numbers to root for, say, Honduras or Guatemala, (fill in the home country blank) and against the USA.

    So, it’s not like US Soccer didn’t get it. They didn’t care. A fringe sport with periodic financial payoffs from games in front of hostile ethnic audiences was a nice controllable franchise.

    • Steve Davis - Sep 12, 2012 at 1:17 PM

      I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. What you describe was surely a way to help FUND soccer in the United States at youth, amateur and professional levels. So, while there’s some truth to your theory on a financial basis, I think it’s unfair to tell a lot of people who were volunteers on the decision making bodies that they didn’t “care” about the game. (Not all volunteers, of course … but many.)

      • joeyt360 - Sep 12, 2012 at 4:40 PM

        Yeah, it’s hard to fault lack of investment when there’s just no cashflow with which to invest. Even as recently as the early 2000s (ie when Dan Flynn took over, which seems to have been the turning point for the Fed financially) the bottom line was negative most years, and the Fed had to look at things through the window of a possible return to poverty (especially as MLS was also in no small amount of trouble in that era).

  5. corgster - Sep 12, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    I guess very few have memories of US-Costa Rica in 1997.

    • joeyt360 - Sep 12, 2012 at 4:41 PM

      Yeah, and now that Paulson is widening the field (I think this must have been part of the calculation) it becomes possible to put down grass at least on a temporary basis an play a WCQ there. (In 1997, it was wider by nature, as one of the current stands hadn’t been built yet.)

  6. odojoe - Sep 12, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    Thing is, US Soccer matches need to be played in cities with American populations. For example, playing Mexico is Los Angeles is like an away game.

    • joeyt360 - Sep 12, 2012 at 4:42 PM

      Yeah, but we play FRIENDLIES there, when it’s not such a bad idea to have a tougher environment. We’ve played the QUALIFIERS against Mexico in Columbus for a long time now (three cycles, I think).

  7. east96st - Sep 13, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    There’s no way I could prove it beyond a doubt, but based on the conversations I have had with soccer fans that desperately wanted to be at the game, the fact that people sitting around me bought their tickets from scalpers for hundreds of dollars, and the number of people begging to buy tickets from the moment you drove into the parking lot – I would guess if there was anyway to cram another five thousand seats into Crew Stadium, they would have sold that easily. Maybe, just maybe, as much as another seven to ten thousand.

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