As the USA keeps drawing capacity crowds to more intimate soccer-specific venues for meaningful World Cup qualifiers, U.S. Soccer should carefully consider its hosting options.When it comes to winning crucial international matches, specifically in the CONCACAF region, no factor plays a bigger role than home-field advantage. Just ask the number of visiting teams that have tried and failed at Estadio Azteca in Mexico, Estadio Saprissa in Costa Rica (before Los Ticos upgraded to Estadio Nacional), Estadio Cuzcatlan in El Salvador and Estadio Olimpico in Honduras.
The United States, with its various selection choices of home venues for World Cup qualifying, is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of maximizing the home edge. As daunting is it can be for visitors to play at some venues, others don't provide the same impossible task. With the size and scope of the United States, there's no plausible way to lock down on just one venue like most other CONCACAF nations.
However, turning to a rotation of go-to arenas where the fan support is a given would go a long way in providing the most intimidating home experience for the U.S. men as opposed to them having to play some of the most important matches of the World Cup qualifying cycle in cavernous, half-full football stadiums where the advantage is marginalized. In some of these instances, less really is more.
Monday's announcement of Livestrong Sporting Park selling out for the USA's World Cup qualifier against Guatemala next month on the heels of the sold-out, raucous atmosphere at Columbus' Crew Stadium against Jamaica last month is another reminder of how much potential smaller, more intimate soccer-specific venues carry during these all-important matches.
There is the obvious financial benefit to hosting events in bigger venues with a higher capacity, but at the end of the day, what should be more important to U.S. Soccer: Securing a payday, or maximizing the home experience during qualifying to ensure a more manageable route to the World Cup? It is not as if the USA has fallen constantly at home in places without the ultimate fan support, but with other CONCACAF nations continuing to improve and challenge the USA's place as a perennial regional power, why not go to the greatest lengths to fortify the edge on U.S. soil?
U.S. veterans like Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo raved about the Columbus experience, praising it for being one of the only true home fields the national team has in this country, considering the venue, its penchant for selling out, being packed with U.S. fans making up a heavy majority of those in attendance and being a nightmare for the opposition, specifically Mexico.
Unlike in past World Cup qualifying cycles, a place like Columbus is no longer alone, and there is now a wider selection of soccer-craved pockets around the country with the top-notch atmospheres in soccer-specific venues to go along with them. During the last World Cup cycle, places like Livestrong Sporting Park, PPL Park, BBVA Compass Stadium and Red Bull Arena were not yet constructed. Jeld-Wen Field was PGE Park -- a baseball stadium. The soccer-stadium landscape here has changed considerably.
Under the current qualifying format, there are eight home World Cup qualifiers between the semifinal and final round of navigating through CONCACAF. The first home qualifier during the current cycle was held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., against Antigua and Barbuda and drew almost 24,000 to an NFL stadium whose capacity is almost 66,000, making for a less-than-intimidating experience for the island nation. Conversely, the recent qualifier against Jamaica at Crew Stadium drew nearly the same amount of fans to a place that was filled to the brim and bursting with energy well before the opening whistle. No offense to the fine fans in Tampa, but the contrast is beyond stark.
As more soccer-specific venues continue to get built in this country (San Jose's is on the way and, ahem, D.C. and New England, we're patiently waiting) to follow the "If you build it, they will come" mantra and alter the fan-viewing experience drastically, the U.S. national team can use that to its benefit. When Livestrong Sporting Park's rampant Blue Hell is transformed into Red, White and Blue Hell next month, it should be crystal clear how valuable a rabid and intense, yet intimate atmosphere can be with the stakes at their highest.