There used to be other things to worry about than the U.S. Soccer stadium strategy for World Cup Qualifying.
It’s been nearly four long years since that dreadful night in Couva when the U.S. lost 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago.
No more needs to be said about that night. The result caused the U.S. to miss their first World Cup since 1986.
Those four years have been filled with frustration, anger, despair, hopelessness, and perhaps worst of all, apathy.
There was a year long wait to hire a full-time coach. Eventually, a MLS coach whose brother just so happened to work for U.S. Soccer took the reins.
Aftershock from the loss to Trinidad and Tobago
Dreadful home losses to Jamaica and Venezuela left a sour taste in fans’ mouths.
There was a dispiriting loss to Mexico in a Gold Cup Final. Next, Mexico pounded the Americans to an embarrassing 3-0 scoreline in a friendly. Things only got worse shortly after. A trip north of the border saw the USMNT lose to Canada for the first time since Ronald Reagan walked the White House.
That moment represented the low point for the USMNT during the current World Cup cycle. At that time, USMNT fans struggled to see any positivity for the 2022 World Cup. However, something happened within the collective mentality of the team. Whether it was the confidence that the USMNT stars got from playing in the UEFA Champions League, or Berhalter improving the way he set his teams out to play, the net result was a big change for the U.S. men.
Since then, the USMNT’s performance make them seem practically unbeatable. In fact, the United States is now unbeaten in 18 of their last 19 games. In that span, the Americans picked up two trophies: the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League.
The bulk of those 19 games have come against CONCACAF opposition. Traditionally, this leads to consternation or skepticism from fans and critics alike. Still, it shows that the U.S. finally seems to be asserting itself as the best team in CONCACAF. But, this self-proclaimed domination may be slightly premature. After all, the USMNT lost in the 2019 Gold Cup and failed to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
But, with nine wins in a row and two cup final wins against Mexico, there is once again hope and belief that the U.S. can top the World Cup Qualifying group. Moreover, there is potential to make some noise at Qatar 2022.
Breaking down the U.S. Soccer Stadium Strategy
That hope and belief has translated into ticket sales.
On August 24, U.S. Soccer announced that ticket sales for the first home World Cup Qualifier passed 32,000. This game is set for Sep. 5 against Canada in Nashville.
However, angst among fans persisted. Many fans believed that the ticket sales felt somewhat low, given the current run of form from the U.S. and the holiday weekend. While 32,000 is lower than two of the last three national team appearances in Nashville, it’s still a larger number than the most recent visit to the Music City. Additionally, this number surpasses the attendance at the only other World Cup Qualifier in Nashville (27,959 vs. Trinidad & Tobago in 2009).
READ MORE: Will the US ever win a men’s World Cup?
It should also be noted here that the USMNT has only cracked the 30,000-mark for World Cup Qualifiers one time in each of the last three cycles. In 2009, 55,647 attended a game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Then, 40,847 watched the U.S. host Panama at Lumen Field in Seattle in 2013. Finally, in 2015, Busch Stadium in St. Louis welcomed 43,433.
By and large, it seems that U.S. Soccer seems to prefer playing it’s World Cup Qualifiers in small, soccer-specific stadiums. If this is the strategy employed by U.S. Soccer for World Cup Qualifiers, then it is dumb.
Before looking at this cycle’s hosting sites, let’s review where the home games were in recent years.
2014 World Cup Qualifying locations
|Antigua and Barbuda||Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL||65,856|
|Jamaica||Historic Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH||20,145|
|Guatemala||Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS||18,467|
|Costa Rica||Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO||18,061|
|Panama||Lumen Field, Seattle, WA||68,740|
|Honduras||Rio Tinto Stadium. Sandy, UT||20,213|
|Mexico||Historic Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH||20,145|
|Jamaica||Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS||18,467|
2018 World Cup Qualifying locations
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines||Busch Stadium, St. Louis, MO||45,399|
|Guatemala||Historic Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH||19,968|
|Trinidad and Tobago||TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, FL||67,814|
|Mexico||Historic Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH||19,968|
|Honduras||PayPal Park, San Jose, CA||18,000|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO||18,061|
|Costa Rica||Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ||25,000|
|Panama||Exploria Stadium, Orlando, FL||25,500|
Over the course of the last two World Cup cycles, the USMNT played a total of 16 home qualifiers. Thirteen of those 16 came from stadiums with a capacity under 26,000. Digging even deeper, out of the 13 games in small stadiums, the U.S. played seven games in stadiums with a capacity under 20,000.
It seems strange that the U.S. Soccer stadium strategy revolves around smaller, soccer-specific stadiums. One would think that getting as many butts in seats (at affordable ticket prices) to create a big-time atmosphere would be at the top of the priority list.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes, it makes sense to avoid an NFL-designed stadium. When the opponent is Mexico or El Salvador, smaller stadiums help to ensure home-field advantage.
Still, it feels almost silly to not make more of an effort to get more fans to more of the biggest games on the schedule. However, the higher-ups feel differently. Their only concern is making a large sum of money on each ticket. This is not something they’ve attempted to hide and left it up to the fans to discern either. U.S. Soccer has been very open about their desire to grow their revenue base.
Future hosting sites for the USMNT
This means that the U.S. Soccer stadium strategy deliberately involves small stadiums. Thereby, demand is artificially inflated, and they can charge substantially more per ticket. They are so happy with this arrangement that they released a PowerPoint presentation about it (pictured below).
Yes, that is in fact U.S. Soccer bragging about the average ticket prices being nearly a hundred dollars more expensive. Note that the average ticket price now exceeds four-times what it was in 1998. Also, take into account that inflation went up by 61 percent over those years, lower than the allotted rise in price.
Perhaps this is why letting bankers and lawyers run the federation instead of actual soccer people for the last 25 years wasn’t the best idea.
It may be greedy and dumb but it shows no sign of slowing down. Putting aside the upcoming game against Canada in Nashville, the upcoming qualifiers will all be played in small stadiums:
|Oct. 7||Jamaica||Q2 Stadium, Austin, TX||20,738|
|Oct. 13||Costa Rica||Lower.com Field, Columbus, OH||20,371|
|Nov. 12||Mexico||TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, OH||26,000|
Newest MLS teams acting as hosts
There is another oddity about the recent announcements that fans should not overlook. Three of the four venues are the homes to the newest teams in MLS. Nashville joined the league in 2020, Austin FC joined in 2021 and FC Cincinnati joined in 2019. While the Columbus Crew have been around forever, Lower.com field is a shiny new stadium.
It certainly feels like U.S. Soccer (and Soccer United Marketing) are handing out home World Cup Qualifying games to the new MLS kids on the block. It’s also odd to play a World Cup Qualifier in the same stadium that they just played a Gold Cup semi-final in two months ago. Instead of playing in a different stadium to give fans in other areas of the country a chance to watch the USMNT, going back to Austin yet again seems short-sighted.
U.S. Soccer will of course say that they have no control over the venue selection for the Gold Cup. However, it would not have taken much foresight to see the U.S. potentially playing in the Gold Cups semis in Austin. Moreover, putting a game in that same stadium two months later is still not a bright decision.
There may be a ton of real momentum behind the USMNT right now following a successful summer. Still, U.S. Soccer has done little to help accelerate the growth of the fan base with their venue selection strategy for the home World Cup qualifiers. Playing the bulk of the games in smaller stadiums hurts the ability of more fans to attend games.
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