Each time I share information about the selection of a home venue for a U.S. men’s national team match, the e-mails and tweets arrive within minutes. Check that: They arrive in seconds.
Why does the U.S. Soccer Federation hate Seattle?
Or something along those lines.
Despite the Sounders’ MLS-best attendance since their arrival three years ago, despite the metropolis’s history of passion for the sport, despite the intensity of the matchday experience at CenturyLink Field -- matched only by Cascadia rival Portland -- the USSF hasn’t awarded a home friendly or World Cup qualifier to the Emerald City since 2003.
Since then, 64 matches under the USSF’s auspices have been staged in this country, none in Seattle. (The Americans did play there in 2005 twice and in 2009 but as part of the Gold Cup, a CONCACAF-run event.)
With upcoming U.S. friendlies in Jacksonville (Scotland) and Landover, Md. (Brazil) and a 2014 qualifier in Tampa (Antigua & Barbuda), the streak will continue. The USSF has begun the process of selecting sites for home qualifiers against Jamaica and Guatemala this fall and might make those decisions before June 1.
“We’ve considered Seattle in the past and will continue to consider it in the future,” spokesman Neil Buethe told the Insider. “We think Seattle is one of the best soccer markets in the country – no doubt.”
So what’s the problem? I asked Buethe to explain the venue-selection protocol. After determining an opponent and a date, the USSF reviews possible sites. It then cuts the list based on variables. How many variables? A lot.
— Stadium availability
— Field condition based on previous event
— Type of playing surface
— Size of field
— Seating capacity
— Climate/time of year
— Infrastructure for TV production
— Market demographics
— Cost to rent stadium
— Ticket demand
— Level of support for U.S. team
— Starting time for TV purposes
— Competing events in market on that day
— Past history of market hosting U.S. matches
— Gap between U.S. matches held there
From there, the fed begins reaching out to viable venues. “Which fits best? What makes the most sense?” Buethe said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Obviously, a venue cannot possibly meet all conditions. For instance, Tampa was awarded the June 8 qualifier despite the market’s lukewarm response (i.e. only 4,500 tickets sold, as of Monday, in a stadium that accommodates 65,000) because it satisfied many other factors. Among them was the USSF’s decision to base the team in Florida for about 10 days ahead of the May 26 game in Jacksonville and again following the May 30 friendly in Maryland and June 3 game at Canada.
The Tampa match is the first home qualifier in Florida since 1980.
It’s clear Seattle’s tallest obstacle is artificial turf. Yes, FIFA approves the fake grass. Some versions of it are better than others. In some places, there is no other reasonable option. (Until Costa Rica opened a new national stadium last year, the Ticos played on the rock-hard turf field at Saprissa Stadium.) But let’s face it: Few coaches and players want to play on it, regardless of the quality. And to propose playing on turf could become a deal-breaker for other federations.
The last time the USSF scheduled a home game on artificial grass: 1994 against Russia at Seattle’s Kingdome. In 2002, the Americans played at adjacent Safeco Field, which has natural grass, but the baseball park doesn’t offer ideal sightlines and requires cover for the dirt infield.
In recent years, the USSF has placed natural grass over artificial turf (Meadowlands in New Jersey and Foxborough, Mass.). But it’s an expensive proposition and, as we’ve learned, it fails to replicate a true grass field, leaves creases and is unsightly on TV. The USSF doesn’t rule out cities offering artificial turf venues only. The preference, however, is to play on grass.
Another factor working against Seattle: location. It’s not uncommon for federations from Europe -- or federations with most of their players based in Europe -- to stipulate an East Coast venue.
So while Seattleites will continue to set the standard for MLS attendance and atmosphere, they will probably have to set aside their hopes of welcoming the U.S. national team.