by Marty Conway of Pressbox Online
M&T Bank Stadium hosted the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal round for the second time during the tournament’s history July 18, drawing an announced crowd of 37,994 for the two matches.
During the first match, the United States men’s national soccer team cruised past Cuba, 6-0, and in the nightcap, Jamaica topped Haiti, 1-0. The U.S. and Jamaica will meet during a semifinal match in Atlanta July 22, while Mexico will face Panama.
This year’s Gold Cup in Baltimore had a much smaller crowd than in 2013, when 70,540 packed M&T Bank Stadium. However, this year’s field featured three island teams — Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti. None of those three nations have the sort of soccer following as the three teams that played in Baltimore in 2013 — El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras.
Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, said the presence of one or two Central American teams would have increased ticket sales by about 25,000.
“We have to remember that this is a qualification tournament, so teams must win to advance,” Hasseltine said. “Honduras and El Salvador did not even make the knockout round, and Costa Rica ended up in the quarterfinal held at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, so you did the best you can with what you have.”
According to CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer officials, the city of Baltimore and M&T Bank Stadium, in particular, have proven themselves as bona fide hosts for international soccer matches and tournaments.
U.S. men’s soccer head coach Jurgen Klinsmann praised Baltimore and the M&T Bank Stadium staff for hosing the quarterfinals again.
“They did a very good job with the field here, putting in a grass pitch over the football turf,” Klinsmann said. “We enjoyed every day we were here. We’d love to come back.”
Will that happen? Will there be more matches in Baltimore for the U.S. men’s soccer team?
Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation and FIFA executive committee member, was non-committal about Baltimore’s chances of hosting future international matches. But Gulati was pleased with the local organizers and M&T Bank Stadium.
“This has been a first-class operation in 2013 and again this year,” Gulati said. “The grass was outstanding, and the staff and crew work very hard to get the details right.”
As a host city, Baltimore was an outlier of the 14 venues that will have hosted matches in this year’s tournament. Every other city and venue has a permanent professional soccer team in either Major League Soccer or a lower-tier league, including the United Soccer League.
Despite that “underdog” status, Baltimore has emerged as a soccer market, and Klinsmann labeled Baltimore as a “growing soccer city”.
M&T Bank Stadium’s convenient location off I-95, ample parking and walkable distance to the stadium are just a few things local organizers have working in their favor for future bids.
In addition, Baltimore’s proximity to Washington, D.C., a traditional top market for U.S. teams, could be a plus for a potential Baltimore bid..
Also, local organizers’ willingness to share the cost of bringing in a high-quality grass field that is required for international soccer matches — a cost that can exceed $100,000 — has raised Baltimore’s profile among both national and international soccer officials.
“The facility, the hotels, the hospitality options and more, plus a proven track record by the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Ravens, has gotten the attention of organizers of major sports events all around the world,” Hasseltine said. “We’re looking forward to hosting more and more sports here in the city and the state of Maryland.”
Looking ahead, though, there could be a few challenges and some competition for Baltimore after hosting back-to-back Gold Cup quarterfinals.
D.C. United, Washington’s MLS team, and the D.C. government are in the process of an agreement for a soccer-only facility in the city, which is scheduled to become the team’s new home in 2018. The stadium is projected to seat approximately 20,000 and would likely immediately become a venue that is considered for the group stage of competitions like the Gold Cup.
According to officials familiar with CONCACAF’s Gold Cup scheduling process, the organizers wouldn’t likely have an early stage and a knockout round (quarterfinal) within the same proximity of Baltimore and D.C.
In addition to the rise of future competition from venues, the corruption and bribery scandal of worldwide soccer organizations — including the FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMENBAL (South American soccer federation) that are being led by the U.S. Department of Justice — could cause the cancellation of the much-anticipated Copa America in 2016.
The 100th anniversary of the Copa America Centenario tournament was set to feature 10 teams from South America and six from the CONCACAF region and be played outside of South America for the first time. According to published reports, Baltimore was one of 24 metropolitan areas that were set to bid on hosting matches.
Local officials expect a decision to be made in the fall about Baltimore being in the final round of the bidding process and potentially hosting one of the oldest and most prestigious international tournaments.
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