What would it mean to US Men’s National Team to have an atmosphere at home like Wembley or Azteca or even Saprissa?
For the USMNT, playing on American soil doesn’t mean a stadium full of supporters. All too frequently it means that the crowds will be just less hostile than if the game was played on the home turf of their opponent. Although not surprising, it is a shame. The reasons for the home field disadvantage are many and well known, so I won’t go into those. The more important question is what can be done?
One could take the “rising tide lifts all boats” approach and assume that as soccer continues to gain momentum in the US more American fans will flood the stadiums on game day for the USMNT. However, the tide is rising steadily, but not fast. Another approach could be to creatively “direct” to whom tickets go by requiring multiple game purchases (like some NFL teams do). That wouldn’t work as US Soccer would take a hit politically as well as in wallet as attendance could potentially plummet.
I like an all-together different approach—stop moving games around. Develop the fan base in one city and designate the two stadiums in that city (the 70,000+ NFL stadium and the 18,000+ MLS stadium) as US Soccer National Stadiums. I know many of the soccer super-powers move the game around (including Brazil, Germany, Spain and Italy) but soccer is the national sport in those countries and geographically they aren’t nearly as vast as the US.
With the competing professional sports, inferior CONCACAF competition and games constantly on the move, US fans aren’t inclined to follow the team around the country. Since the beginning of 2006 the USMNT has played games in 19 cities —San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Cary (NC), Nashville, Cleveland, E. Hartford, Phoenix, Tampa, San Jose, Boston, Chicago (2 locations), Houston, NYC, Washington (DC), Columbus, Seattle and Salt Lake City (9/5). (Yes, some are Gold Cup sites.)
What are they, the circus?
This disjointedness seems to be part of the plan as US Soccer is based in Chicago, the National Training Center is near Los Angeles (Carson) and another developmental center is near Dallas (Frisco) attached to soccer-only stadiums, Home Depot Center and Pizza Hut Park, respectively. It is good for US Soccer to encourage the opening of soccer-only stadiums around the country as growth opportunities (see: Facility Development Initiatives [Edit: This link is broken following the redesign of ussoccer.com on 8/5] ), but that doesn’t mean that the USMNT has to play in them.
The growth of soccer in the US will come via the success of the national team, television and (hopefully) a better quality MLS product. Having the USMNT come to your town may generate some buzz, but is not a great strategy, especially if it is to the detriment of the support of the team on the field.
So pick a city, make a ten-year commitment, market the hell out of the squad and coordinate the various supporter groups (Sam’s Army, American Outlaws, US Soccer SC). Then when it comes time for friendlies, qualifiers and cups, put the game in the NFL stadium for big draws and the MLS stadium for smaller ones.
Perhaps the hardest thing is deciding who gets the honor—not due to the right demographics and interest, but unfortunately due to the money and politics. Let’s assume politics aren’t in play and start with the above list. (Let’s also assume winter weather is not a factor as only two games are typically played in January and February.)
San Diego, San Francisco, Cary (NC), Nashville, Cleveland, Tampa, San Jose, Houston, Washington (DC), Seattle, Columbus, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles don’t meet the stadium requirements of having both a soccer-only stadium and a state-of-the-art NFL stadium. (Before someone comments about the Rose Bowl, I’d like them to sit on those aluminum seats in 90-degree weather…it’s not a state-of-the-art stadium.)
Questionable support based on MLS / national team attendance (save games versus Mexico) would knockout Boston and Dallas. And I am going eliminate Seattle due to its (far) location and weather. [Edit: Seattle doesn't have a soccer-only stadium and won't anytime soon.]
That leaves us with Denver, New York, Houston and Chicago.
I have lived in New York and Denver so I can make their cases:
New York has the largest metropolitan area in the country and will have two brand new stadiums by fall of 2010. The issue with NY is that saturation of sports with 9 pro sports teams in the metro area. There is a big international population which is good for overall attendance, but I question the American support.
Denver is a relatively small metropolitan area, but a rabid sports town along with stronger soccer programs. It would also be a great destination for visiting fans and its stadiums are relatively new and located near downtown. The altitude could also be a positive as well.
Houston and Chicago I am going to need some help on, but I’ll start their cases:
Houston will soon begin construction of a downtown soccer-only facility and has shown strong support for its successful MLS team.
Chicago is the home of US Soccer, but has a smaller, “large stadium” (Soldier Fields max capacity is 60,000) and of the fourhas the most questionable weather.
I think one city is the way to go, but the case could be made for a rotation of two or three; certainly not more than that. If it’s three, pick east coast, middle and west coast locations (with LA re-entering the fray.)
As the USMNT grows in stature it deserves to have a true home field advantage based on the vociferous support of a pro-American crowd. Grow the sport by wins and television, not by 9,000 people at a time watching a game versus Sweden in a half-empty stadium.
(What do you think?…comment below and vote on the poll to the right.)