Brian McBride isn’t quite ready to dub Ohio “the capital of US soccer.”
But the decision to situate two of the US men’s national team's most important home 2022 World Cup qualifiers in the Buckeye State underlines the region’s ongoing importance to the federation and its teams, acknowledged the USMNT general manager in a Thursday call with media in the wake of U.S. Soccer’s announcement that Lower.com Field in Columbus will host the Oct. 13 clash with Costa Rica.
Almost exactly a month later, Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium will welcome the USMNT’s match vs. Mexico, which has for decades been the most highly-anticipated game of the qualifying cycle.
“Soccer continues to grow in this country and we see it with not only the amount of teams that are in MLS, but the support that they have, and then you look at the amount of new buildings and stadiums that have been put in place, whether they're training grounds or stadiums themselves, it's great to see,” said McBride.
“You can't deny the fact that we've put two very important qualifiers in the state of Ohio, but it also has so much more to do with it. So I wouldn't want to single it out as the capital of soccer in this country, but certainly Ohioans have shown that they have great support and they can fill out stadiums. So we're excited for that.”
November will mark the first time the USA-Mexico qualifier happens outside of Columbus since the turn of the century, interrupting the “Dos a Cero” tradition that took a hit when El Tri knocked off the Yanks 2-1 at Historic Crew Stadium in 2016.
Seeing that game shift south to the home of their FC Cincinnati rivals stings the MLS originals a bit. But McBride – himself a Crew legend in his playing days – emphasized how important a pronounced home-field advantage will be against Los Ticos. Costa Rica dealt the USMNT’s 2018 qualifying hopes a devastating blow with their 2-0 upset win at Red Bull Arena in the same fixture during the previous cycle, and federation officials believe the large presence of away fans was a factor.
“During the last cycle we made the wrong decision at U.S. Soccer in where we placed the game,” said McBride. “And so knowing the importance of that game, because we had lost it last [time], Columbus was just a great fit.
“The amenities and the training field and the facility that the Crew have built is a factor,” he added of the OhioHealth Performance Center, built in the shadow of their previous stadium. “Gregg [Berhalter] actually went out to see the weekend of the opening, had really high reviews and rated it very highly. And also it's a new stadium; we get a chance to create a new chapter, and looking forward to that.”
This week’s announcements complete the home venue selections for this fall’s qualifiers; the Yanks will also play Canada at Nashville's Nissan Stadium in September and Jamaica at Q2 Stadium in Austin a month later. The process rolls on with decisions to be made about next year's games vs. El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, which promises to be a competitive race among a multitude of contenders.
Venue attributes like a natural-grass playing surface – McBride said artificial-turf venues are not in the mix – and quality training facilities are key, as is the ability to ensure a dominantly partisan home crowd.
With most of these matches scheduled three to an international window due to a COVID-19-induced calendar crunch, McBride & Co. must also gauge location, climate, time of year and travel distances involved in what promises to be a brutally draining journey for the players.
“It is going to be a daunting task,” he said. “So we've tried to take as much into consideration as possible, even building out a platform that can help us make decisions: temperature, travel between one place to the next, and you have to add in that a good amount of our group is going to be flying in from Europe. So it is a lot of travel and a lot of turnaround.
“We talked about, do we want to just fly into one place, leave all our stuff, fly out, come back, train there and then fly to our home game? It tends to be, if we can minimize travel and minimize time where players are uncomfortable or in situations where they're not having the ability to rest and rehabilitate, those things come into play.”
USSF will distribute tickets to these matches via lottery processes intended to give devoted fans and VIPs the first crack, while also filtering out traveling or expatriate supporters of the visiting teams. The Costa Rica and Mexico matches in the 2018 cycle showed how the evolution of the industry has complicated that effort, though the federation remains determined to cultivate the biggest home-field advantages possible.
“This goes back a long, long way, even back to the first time we played in Columbus [in 2001],” said McBride. “After that match you heard Mexican fans say, ‘we're just going to buy season tickets so we can actually get tickets for that match.’ I don't know if that ever happened. But really when it comes down to making sure that we have a pro-US crowd, we trust our partnerships with the clubs that are hosting, and then add on the fact that we have a list of fans on our side now that continues to grow, where we can actually offer a sort of draw or a lottery situation, we feel more and more comfortable.”