Soccer fans in the Pacific Northwest waiting for the US Soccer Federation to announce a 2022 World Cup qualifying match in Seattle might want to find something else to do with their time.
In a press availability with reporters today, Men’s National Team General Manager Brian McBride essentially shut the door on venues with artificial turf hosting any of the remaining World Cup Qualifiers. That obviously includes Seattle’s Lumen Field.
Just off a media avail with USMNT GM Brian McBride, who shared lots of insight into the WCQ processes ahead (more to come on that), including this tidbit about home venue selections:— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) July 29, 2021
"At this point in time we're not considering stadiums with artificial turf."
A U.S. Soccer spokesman confirmed to Sounder at Heart that cities with artificial turf are not currently under consideration for the three remaining qualifiers. Four of the seven home qualifiers have already been announced by the USSF.
Sept. 5, 2021 Canada at Nissan Stadium (Nashville)
Oct. 7, 2021 Jamaica at Q2 Stadium (Austin),
Oct. 13, 2021 Costa Rica Lower.com Field (Columbus)
Nov. 12, 2021 Mexico at TQL Stadium (Cincinnati)
The three remaining home matches (Jan. 27, 2022 vs. El Salvador, Feb. 2, 2022 vs. Honduras, March 27, 2022 vs. Panama) are not expected to be announced until late this year, though the USSF spokesman stressed that is a rolling target, and is subject to change. Regardless, when the USSF announces those venues, fans in Seattle should be prepared to call their travel agents if they want to attend.
Foreclosing Seattle as a venue seems a curious decision on the surface, given the city’s soccer-supporting history. The Sounders in pre-pandemic times averaged more than 40,000 fans per game, and are one of the most successful sports franchises on and off the field. More importantly for U.S. Soccer’s purposes, the city has supported the national team in huge numbers. More than 47,000 fans showed up for the 2016 Copa America quarterfinal match between the USA and Ecuador, and in the match that put Seattle on the map from a national team perspective, more than 40,000 fans cheered on the USMNT in a 2-0 victory over Panama. Both of those are among the biggest pro-USA crowds the red, white and blue have ever experienced.
With all that in mind, why is the USSF snubbing Seattle?
Grass is greener
According to US Soccer, there are around 30 different variables that the USSF looks at when deciding where to place qualifiers. Of course, there is a commercial consideration to the USSF decision-making. But even with the opportunity to put 40,000 fans in the stands against a team that may not otherwise draw a huge crowd such as Honduras or El Salvador, all indications are that the USSF’s overwhelming preference is to have its games on natural surfaces.
In their previous trips to Seattle, the national team played on grass laid over the artificial turf. A source rated the experience for the national team on the surface as “pretty good” but also noted that was relative to other similar surfaces, and not to permanent grass. Additionally, the USSF is wary of placing important qualifiers in venues where the overlay may not turn out as well, which risks injury or other issues. Importantly, Earnie Stewart, sporting director of the United States Soccer Federation, is said to adamantly prefer venues with grass as their normal surface according to the source.
Adding to the complication is that the Honduras and El Salvador games are in the winter, when temporary grass may have an even harder time settling in.
Location, location, location
Call it East Coast bias, or whatever else, but Seattle’s location at the northwest corner of the country probably played a factor in the decision not to award a qualifier, too. It hardly escaped notice that no city west of Austin has as of yet been awarded a qualifier. USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is keenly aware of how much travel his most important players will be enduring over this qualifying cycle. The squad is expected to be comprised of mostly European-based players, meaning at least 5-7-hour plane rides just to get to the East Coast. A trip to Seattle would likely turn that into a double-digit-hour trip one way. Additionally, there are several three-game trips, which further complicates travel to the West Coast.
The calculus could, of course, change if Canada chooses to play their home match against the USA in Vancouver, as many have speculated is a distinct possibility. That match falls between the El Salvador and Honduras games and would at least open up the West Coast as a more viable location.
Finances don’t outweigh competitive reasons
As previously noted, a USMNT qualifier in Seattle would likely draw upwards of 35,000 fans based on the previous history. That would be a substantial increase over what games at what the vast majority of MLS stadiums could draw. While commercial considerations are taken into account, the source said they never outweigh sporting considerations, noting that they could place the USA match against Mexico in the Rose Bowl and make upwards of eight-figures in revenue. The source said they don’t do that because of the importance of home-field advantage, which is why that match is typically played in a smaller venue, and why the match has historically been played in Ohio, with limited Mexican fans. While a game other than Mexico or Canada could be awarded to Seattle, the other factors have more weight over the decision than simply putting a less marquee opponent in Lumen.
All is not necessarily lost
The source did stress that no decisions have been made about the remaining three qualifiers, and if the men’s qualification cycle goes well, it’s possible the USSF could look at awarding one of the later qualifiers to a venue such as Seattle or Atlanta, where the ability to reap a financial windfall may influence where the game is played. However, that depends on the national team having wrapped up qualification, and would likely still take some serious convincing that it’s worth it.