Columbus and Kansas City will almost certainly make the final list, but U.S. Soccer faces a difficult task to whittle down a large group of host contenders down to the final five.
It sounds easy enough to pick five home venues from a country with plenty of suitable venues, but it isn't an easy brief with a World Cup place at stake. Several factors – geography, local demographics, schedule considerations, supporter base, venue availability – enter the mix.
Throw in the additional considerations prompted by hosting the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, and it turns into a mess. Gulati, as one might expect, probably doesn't couch it in that particular manner. He sees a grand opportunity for the federation to select from a large group of viable candidates in order to comprise the home slate.
“I don't think there'd be any surprise that we've gone and been very successful in a number of places,” Gulati told FOX Soccer's Goals on Sunday recently. “We've done well in Columbus. Kansas City's got an extraordinary venue. We've played in Salt Lake and done well. Denver's been a good venue for us. We've played in Philadelphia.”
All of those cities share one common bond particular relevant to this discussion: they possess an intimate, soccer-specific stadium in the city proper or somewhere in the suburbs. That link isn't a coincidence. Gulati said he expects to play most of the Hexagonal home matches in familiar MLS destinations.
“Because of the development of MLS venues, we're now in a situation where we can go into stadiums that are the perfect size for us, ensure that we're going to have a home crowd with a perfect playing surface and all of the amenities fans would want,” Gulati said. “I think you'll see us play at a number of MLS venues. It won't be exclusively that, but you'll see mostly MLS venues.”
With that advice in tow, the Friday Five attempted to sketch out a possible road map for the Hexagonal:
1. Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan. (March 22 v. Costa Rica)
Consider this particular assignment as a sign of the importance of the opening home match. Only three points will suffice with this match squeezed between visits to Honduras (Feb. 6 in San Pedro Sula) and Mexico (March 26). U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann might opt to play this game at altitude in either Denver or Sandy, Utah, to prepare for a likely trip to Azteca. If he doesn't, then the Americans should choose one of their two best home venues to ensure the home schedule starts off properly.
2. Mystery City (June 11 v. Panama)
U.S. Soccer likes to throw a random, off-the-beaten path city into the mix for a Hexagonal game. Birmingham, Ala. hosted a 2-0 victory over Guatemala in 2005. Nashville, Tenn. witnessed a 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. The federation doesn't have to follow that same path this time around with the options at its disposal and the Gold Cup in play this year. Those factors didn't alter the calculus the last two cycles, though. Several Southern cities could enter the fray once again given their relative proximity to the previous encounter in Jamaica (June 7). Any soccer-specific stadium not listed among the final four would make sense here as well.
3. CenturyLink Field, Seattle (June 18 v. Honduras)
The temporary grass surface would pose a problem from a competitive standpoint. The prospect of playing Gold Cup matches here might make more sense from a host of angles. But isn't it well past time for a qualifier in the Emerald City? If the federation can hammer out the details, then it makes sense to give the city a game of real importance (and Honduras presents a difficult challenge, indeed) and watch how a presumably sold-out CenturyLink Field affects the visitors.
4. Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio (Sept. 10 v. Mexico)
Dos-a-cero in 2001. Dos-a-cero in 2005. Dos-a-cero in 2009. Any questions?
5. Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah (Oct. 11 v. Jamaica)
A final day trip to Panama (Oct. 15) increases the importance of this particular affair. Securing a third straight Hexagonal win in Utah might guarantee a World Cup berth. The prospect of playing Jamaica with a little chill in the air and a paucity of oxygen available probably represents a wise course of action to ensure no mistakes occur.
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