Copa America Centenario - Road Trip map

This spring, I spent a significant amount of time thinking up ways I could convince my editors to let me cover the Copa America.

Story ideas bounced around my head like a ping pong ball at a tournament draw: A full-fledged Bobby Wood profile here, a “State of the USMNT” piece there, an off-the-beaten track feature about some forgotten American soccer hero way, way over there.

But my main pitch didn’t come from a brainstorm at my kitchen table or at my local coffee shop. No, that was born 13 years ago, on a lazy stretch of highway somewhere between Lake Okeechobee and West Palm Beach.

My family and I were headed back to our South Florida home after yet another weekend spent at yet another youth sports tournament, and the conversation had turned to dream vacations. As a 12-year-old who hadn’t quite discovered girls yet, the only thing I wanted from life was to play, watch and talk about baseball.

What could be better, I announced from the back seat, than driving around the country and seeing a game at all 30 Major League Baseball parks in one summer?

I was a kid, but I knew enough to know the idea was nothing more than a pipe dream. An impossibility. My parents would never be able to take a full summer off work, my brother and I would never be able to get away from our various sports commitments and none of us would want to spend that much time together in the car.

Fast forward a couple of months, and the impossibility was, much to my preteen amazement, turning into a reality. My Dad got laid off from his job not long after that car ride, but picked up a bit of severance pay on his way out. He and my Mom decided to move us closer to relatives in Chicago, and they were planning on taking the summer to get everything organized.

We had time, we had some cash, we had an SUV and we had the impetus to get out Florida. We decided to make the trip happen.

The four of us drove off the day after the school year ended. Three months, over 40 states and more than 15,000 miles later, we’d seen 30 games in 30 parks. It was, quite literally, the trip of a lifetime.

Like any serious road trip, our ride was far more about the journey than the destination. The games were the original draw, the guideposts, but the simple act of seeing the country – taking a 500-mile detour to spend one night in New Orleans, stopping at what we thought was a gas station but turned out to be a seriously good restaurant in Big Sur, spending a couple of nights in Yosemite and Yellowstone and seeing friends and family everywhere in between – was the real highlight. Those are the memories that stick out over a decade later, the ones my family and I will forever hold dear.

I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I’ve long dreamed of recreating that experience in soccer. And what better way, I thought this spring, than to experience the Copa America Centenario, the ultimate American tournament, with the ultimate American road trip? 

Armed with the enthusiasm of my nostalgia, I made my pitch. A photographer and I would start in San Francisco, attend the Copa opener between the US and Colombia on June 3, then drive. We’d work our way through the American West, stopping to chronicle interesting soccer stories we’d scout out in advance, eventually winding up in Chicago for the USMNT’s match against Costa Rica on June 7. We’d repeat the process from Chicago to Philly, where the US will play their Group A finale against Paraguay on June 11. We’d continue on as long as the USMNT was alive, with dreams of ending the trip at the final on June 26 in New Jersey.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

My editors loved the idea – in theory. Shockingly, they weren’t quite as psyched about how much it would cost. Thankfully, they hit me back with an alternative. A decidedly cheaper alternative. I couldn’t take the trip, but I could design one and write about it.

I was given no rules or guidelines, but came up with a few of my own:

  • Goal No. 1: Maximize my chances of seeing every potential USMNT match.
  • Goal No. 2: See as much of the country as possible.
  • Goal No. 3: Catch as many of the marquee teams (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, etc.) as possible.
  • Goal No. 4: Try to keep things within the realm of human possibility.

With that, I planned out my own soccer odyssey. Like the actual Copa America Centenario, which will see the two finalists play six games in roughly three weeks, this trip is both a marathon and a sprint. So load up your phone with music, podcasts and books on tape, grab a driving buddy and stock up on the caffeine.

Nothing’s behind you. Everything’s ahead of you. You’re going on the road.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

June 3 – USA vs. Colombia – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

Odometer: 0 miles

The tournament opener and a game that could very well decide Group A, the US’s match against Colombia at Levi’s Stadium outside San Francisco was the only place I could possibly start. I’m a little worried about James and Co. putting a serious damper on the US’s party, so I’d plan on heading out to Santa Clara nice and early to soak up those positive tailgate vibes. Things could go sideways quickly for the USMNT against Los Cafeteros, and I’d want to enjoy the everything-is-possible optimism of a pre-opener party before there’s even a chance of something bad happening.

June 4 – Brazil vs. Ecuador – Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

Odometer: 399 miles

Take it easy on Friday night – you’ve got a long drive on one of the most beautiful roads in the world in store for Saturday. You won’t have time to really do the famed Pacific Coast Highway right, but I’d still take it on. The switchbacks and sheer drops off the side of the road into the ocean don’t make for the easiest driving, but the scenery is more than worth it.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

Head from Santa Clara to Santa Cruz, then on to Monterey. Take the picturesque PCH from Monterey all the way down to San Luis Obispo, perhaps stopping off for lunch in Big Sur, maybe even doing a drive-by at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Hop on the 101 after you get to San Luis Obispo and head straight to the Pasadena for Brazil-Ecuador. It should be the biggest game of Group B, with the victor likely to take the group and face the Group A runner-up in the quarterfinals. The loser will still have a solid shot of finishing second, earning a date with the Group A winner (perhaps the USMNT?) in the quarters.  

June 5 – Mexico vs. Uruguay – University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

Odometer: 764 miles

There’s not much of a scenic route from LA to Phoenix, so sleep in – or start with an early morning on the beach – before hitting I-10 for the 365 miles to Glendale.

Don’t worry too much about the lack of attractions on the drive. Today is all about the game. On its own, the Mexico-Uruguay matchup is enough to get me going. Throw in 63,500 El Tri fans, Uruguay’s famously hard-nosed nature and a certain star striker’s penchant for using his teeth, and this one could go all the way up. Try to get to the stadium early, and try to make some friends. There’s going to be a lot of carne asada on hand, and you’re going to want some.

June 7 – USA vs. Costa Rica – Soldier Field, Chicago

Odometer: 2,531 miles

You didn’t think this was going to be all beautiful coastal roads, beaches and tailgate parties, right? No, this is the road trip of suffering, and you want to be the road tripper that can suffer the most.

You’ll have your first major test on this leg of the trip. Phoenix to Chicago is a serious haul, and you need to make the drive in less than 48 hours if you want to make it in time for a CONCACAF Battle Royale between the US and Costa Rica. It’s going to be painful. Sacrifices will be made.

The first? Getting out of Arizona immediately after the Mexico-Uruguay match. Capitalize on the early start (kick is at 5 pm PT) to drive the 468 miles to Albuquerque before stopping for the night. Bonus: You’ll get to drive through Sedona in the gloaming. It’s lovely.

Make an early stop at the Breaking Bad house, then say bye to Albuquerque. You’re headed to Kansas City, and you need to get there by 9 CT if you want to get to Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) before they close up shop. I’ve never been, but my friend Keane fancies himself a Kansas expert, and he swears by their Z-Man sandwich.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

If you don’t care about making it to KC in time for that sweet, sweet BBQ, then stop off at the Cosmophere in Hutchinson, Kansas. A Smithsonian-affiliated museum, it features the largest collection of US and Russian space history in the world, including the Apollo 13 command module and the flight-ready backup of Sputnik.

You’ve got another early start on June 7, so don’t hit The Plaza, Power & Light district, Martini Corner or Westport too hard in KC. History buffs that get out of town really early could kill an hour or two at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Otherwise, head straight to Soldier Field. Traffic can be a pain around the stadium, so you’ll want to leave yourself plenty of time for the last leg of the 509 mile drive. 

Kick for the US-Costa Rica match is at 7 CT. A win against Colombia, and the US could seal their spot in the quarters with a victory against Los Ticos. A loss in the opener, and the Americans could be buried by a defeat to Costa Rica.

June 10 – Chile vs. Bolivia – Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts

Odometer: 3,573 miles

Enjoy yourself after the US-Costa Rica match in Wicker Park, Logan Square or, if you’ve had already had a few, Lakeview. Lord knows you earned it with that drive, and you’ve got the next day off.

Spend June 8 checking out a few of Chicago’s greatest hits. The Art Institute is one of the top museums in the world; it’s worth a trip for anyone with even a passing interest in art. A trip to Millennium Park followed by a stroll down Michigan Avenue is obligatory for anyone visiting from out of town. I’m a fan of the architecture boat tours, and any of the beaches north of the Loop offer some pretty magnificent views.

For food, hit Portillo’s for lunch and pick any one of the city’s world class restaurants – or keep it simple with some deep dish at Lou Malnati’s – for dinner. Most importantly, drink some Malort. Just do it.

You’ll be on the road again on June 9, headed to Boston ahead of the Chile-Bolivia match on June 10. Try to make it as far as you can on the first day of the drive. It’ll take you all day, but Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is as good of a stopping point as any. Spend the night in the home of America’s pastime, then make an early start for Boston – four hours away – on the 10th.

My buddy Mike, who lived in Boston for nearly a decade, recommends starting out your afternoon by getting lost in the city’s North End. Stroll around the Italian neighborhood, grab a slice or a chicken parm sandwich for lunch, walk over to Beacon Hill and Boston Common and head down to the Charles River before trekking out to Foxboro for the game.

Enjoy the stylings of Alexis Sanchez and the defending champs Chile in relative tranquility. Tomorrow is going to be a big, potentially nerve-wrenching day.

June 11 – USA vs. Paraguay – Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

Odometer: 3,871 miles

If it isn’t already sealed entering the match, the US will know their Knockout Round fate following their contest against Paraguay. Their tournament could end in Philadelphia, they could make a short trip up the road to take on the Group B winner in the Meadowlands or they could head all the way to Seattle for a date in the quarters with the Group B runner-up.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

My money’s on that third option. I think the USMNT will win Group A, setting up a quarterfinal battle against Ecuador in Seattle and prompting the most ridiculous leg of this road trip.

(Oh, and when in Philly, skip Pat’s and Geno’s. Get your cheesesteak at Jim’s, instead.)

June 16 – 1A vs. 2B – CenturyLink Field, Seattle

Odometer: 6,607 miles

Stretching nearly from coast to coast and coming up just short of the 3,000 mile mark, the drive from Philadelphia to Seattle is a monster. You’re going to have to split this up into several stops, but, because of the quick turnaround ahead of the quarters, you’ll have to bite off a big chunk each day.

You’ll start out on June 12 with a trip from Philly to Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is a tremendous college town, and while school won’t be in session in June, there will still be plenty of opportunities for a quintessential Wisconsin experience. That means a trip to The Old Fashioned (“Where Wisconsin is King”!) for what my friend Mark, a UW graduate, calls “an old-timey Wisconsin meal” of a bratwurst with sauerkraut and brown mustard, cheese curds and a brandy old fashioned. Jurgen would be proud.

Plan for another early start on the 13th. You’re hauling to Bismarck, North Dakota. I’m going to be totally honest here: I don’t know anything about Bismarck, and I don’t know anyone who’s been there. So we’ll plow through to Montana, all the way to Missoula, in the western portion of the state. I do know people who have spent time in Missoula, and they love the place. Head to Missoula Club for a burger, grab a beer at KettleHouse Brewery’s taproom and continue the night at Charlie B’s, a nationally-renowned dive bar.

From Missoula, you have a comparatively short 475-mile trip to Seattle. If you’re going through a little soccer withdrawal after a few days without a game, don’t worry: The Open Cup is in town. The Sounders will host either Sacramento Republic FC or Kitsap Pumas at their training complex in Tukwila, Washington, on June 15. They had an, um, interesting end to their Open Cup last year, and this match will be their first crack at the tournament since Clint Dempsey shredded that poor referee’s notebook.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

You’ll be able to spend June 16 in Seattle, perhaps the most naturally beautiful major city in the States. Start the day at Agua Verde on Lake Union, where you can grab a solid breakfast burrito before renting out a kayak or paddleboard to grab some great views of the city from the water. A hike through Discovery Park or some downtime at Alki Beach are two gorgeous ways to while away an afternoon, while Pike’s Place Market is a good spot for those who have never been. A sandwich at Paseo makes for a pretty awesome lunch, too.

The main attraction, however, will be the match. You can bet a US Copa America quarterfinal in Seattle will be absolutely rocking, with a supporters’ march to the match likely to take place on the same route Sounders fans use during Seattle home games. Get to Pioneer Square in time to head into the stadium with the masses; it might not be as intimate as the atmosphere in Portland, but the march into CenturyLink Field is an experience unlike any other in American soccer.

June 18 – 1C vs. 2D – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

Odometer: 7,550 miles

It’ll require yet another long drive, but this matchup in the Bay Area will likely be too good to pass up. Mexico or Uruguay will likely go up against either Chile or Argentina, potentially setting up an intense all-South American battle or El Tri against one of the top-ranked teams in the world.

Thankfully, you can break the drive into two days, and you have some solid options for sights on your way down the coast. An afternoon in Redwood National Park is an option if you hustle, as is the Oregon coast, highlighted by spectacular Cannon Beach. If the city is more your scene, you could spend a few hours in Portland (Powell’s Books, food trucks, etc.) before continuing down towards California.

June 21 – Semifinal 1 – NRG Stadium, Houston

Odometer: 9,489 miles

If Michael Bradley has to suffer through the brutality of 90 minutes in Houston in late-June, then you’re going to be there to suffer with him. Even if you have to pull two-straight days of never-ending driving to do it. There won’t be much time on the road to the semis, so you’ll be pushing pretty much straight through. First up will be a trip from Santa Clara to Flagstaff, Arizona, then more than 900 more miles from Flagstaff to Dallas.

At this point in the trip, you’re going to hate yourself. You’ll have listened to all the music on your phone twice over, used far too many gas station bathrooms and you and your driving partner(s) will no longer be on speaking terms. But the US will be favored against Ecuador in Seattle, and a win would put them in the semifinal in Houston. You’ll make the easy drive (247 miles will feel like nothing to you) from Dallas to H-Town, and you’ll get to enjoy some of the city’s famous Tex-Mex before the match. Then you’ll be off to the semis, where the US, if they make it this far, would likely face one of Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina or Chile.

Copa from the Car: A field guide to the ultimate Copa America road trip -

Can you imagine a US-Mexico match … in the Copa America semifinals? That alone would make the trip worth it, no matter how many nights you have to spend in Flagstaff.

June 26 – Final – MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

Odometer: 11,300 miles

One final push, one last stretch, and your odyssey – this fantastical Copa quest – will be over. Taking this trip would quite possibly break me. Just writing about it is exhausting. Reading about it can’t be much better. Actually doing it? I feel like that’d be a form of torture.  

Thankfully, you have some time to get from Houston to New York and, compared to the wide open spaces of the wild west, not so far to travel. You’d start out the day after the semifinal, when you’d head from Houston to New Orleans. The drive isn’t too bad – only five hours – so you should have plenty of time to walk through the Garden District, maybe check out the National World War II museum, grab an excellent dinner and gallivant your way through the French Quarter.

Work off the previous night with some coffee and beignets at New Orleans institution Café du Monde, then start out for Nashville. If you’re interested in a scenic route, head up via the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful stretch of road that runs all the way from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville. More interested in speed? Head up the interstate into Alabama, where you should stop off for ribs at Dreamland in Tuscaloosa or Archibald’s in Northport. Once you get to town, Nashville native Pablo Maurer – a.k.a. @MLSist – recommends Robert’s Western World for honky tonk and fried bologna sandwiches, Santa’s Pub for anyone looking for a divey feel and Husk for some incredible, southern-style cuisine in a repurposed mansion a few blocks from Broadway.

From Nashville, you’re on to Pittsburgh. My childhood friend Sam has lived in the city for four years, and he recommends checking out the Strip District for its summertime open-air market and a potential stop at the Andy Warhol Museum. Primanti Brothers is a Pittsburgh institution, but if you’re not feeling fries and coleslaw on your sandwich, head over to Gaucho Parilla Argentina. They have incredible Argentine-style steak sandwiches, and their grilled meats should get you in the mood for potentially seeing Messi and La Albiceleste in the final a few days later.

Leave Pittsburgh on June 25, and roll into New York City, land of infinite possibilities – and the end of our road. When you arrive in NYC, you’ll have driven 11,300 miles, been to 33 states, seen nine Copa America matches in eight different venues and lived on the road for more than three weeks.

So do whatever you want in New York. Rest up. Wash off the grime. Close the hotel curtains and hibernate. Go to Central Park, look at those long, long skies over New Jersey, and get ready for one final game on the trip of a lifetime.