It’s easy to forget that the United States men’s national team basically knows its qualifying path toward the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, considering the avalanche of news that has rocked planet futbol the past couple weeks.
But now, with international soccer returning this week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, seems a good time to circle back to the qualifying docket and ask the obvious question: If the USMNT plays its seven home matches as scheduled under CONCACAF’s new format, where should they be played?
With three of the Americans foes still to be determined before the Octagonal kicks off next summer, handicapping the candidate cities is an inexact exercise. There’s also the lingering question of how many fans would be allowed in stadiums. Still, there is already enough information to at least put together the framework of a plan that would provide the U.S. optimal travel, weather conditions and in-stadium support.
Those factors matter. Part of the reason the U.S. missed the World Cup for the first time in 32 years in 2018 was that Harrison, New Jersey was selected as the site of its penultimate home match. It was a costly mistake: The USMNT lost to Costa Rica 2-0 in front of a pro-Tico crowd, just its third home loss ever in the final round of qualifying and its second that cycle. And it proved a hole too big to dig out of.
Afterward, much was made of the fact that the U.S. didn’t win an away match in the final round for the first time. The two home losses were a bigger factor. “That’s what really cost us the World Cup,” current national team manager Gregg Berhalter said recently on U.S. Soccer’s podcast. “You have to win your home matches, no question about it.”
Having gone through two qualifying cycles as a player, Berhalter knows how crucial it is to pick up maximum points at home. Which places will give the Americans the biggest advantage this time around?
“For us its about two things,” Berhalter said. “Making it as difficult as possible for the opponent based on where the venue is, and the second thing would be a pro-U.S. crowd.”
Pressed by podcast host (and former U.S. forward) Charlie Davies about specific sites, Berhalter mentioned Orlando; Miami; Columbus, Ohio; St. Paul, Minnesota; Kansas City, Kansas; and Washington D.C. Most or all of those cities will get a game. But when, and against who? Here are some educated guesses.
June 2021 vs. TBD: Orlando or Kansas City
While we don’t know the Americans’ first foe yet, and either Canada (which beat the USMNT in a competitive match for the first time in nearly four decades last year) or Haiti (which has tied two of its last three outings against the Americans) are most likely. What we know for sure is Berhalter’s squad will play its first home match days after opening on the road, probably in El Salvador or Trinidad and Tobago, then head to Honduras for Game 3 before returning home to face Jamaica in the last of next June’s four matches.
If it’s Canada, Orlando makes sense. The U.S. could train in Orlando before and after the home opener, helping prepare them the heat and humidity they’ll face in both away games. Berhalter loves the facilities in Central Florida; he chose Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium for two of the 10 domestic matches the U.S. scheduled last year, including a 4-1 drubbing of Canada to close out 2019. And while attendance that night disappointing, the atmosphere there was electric during the 4-0 qualifying win over Panama last cycle.
If it’s Haiti, then Florida is probably out. The ideal alternative should be not too far from Honduras, with a similarly humid climate, and a guaranteed pro-USMNT crowd. Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park checks all those boxes.
June 2021 vs. Jamaica: San Jose or Portland
If Portland’s renovated Providence Park has a grass field by next summer, giving Soccer City USA its first qualifier since 1997 is a no-brainer. The Timbers’ 25,000-seat arena provides the best home-field advantage in MLS.
If not, then Avaya Stadium in San Jose, where the Americans smashed Honduras 6-0 in 2017 makes sense. Staging this match on the West Coast isn’t an issue for two reasons. One, the USMNT’s European-based players go on vacation afterward and won’t have to immediately travel 6,000+ miles to play days later for their clubs. And two, while the trip from Honduras to Oregon would be grueling, it would be even longer for the Reggae Boyz via Costa Rica. “The travel is already hard in CONCACAF,” Berhalter said. “We want to make it even harder.” A similar approach worked in June of 2013 when the U.S. flew from Jamaica to Seattle, where they beat Panama 2-0.
Sept. 2021 vs. Costa Rica: Columbus
Ohio’s capital has been reserved for Mexico since 2001, but using the Crew’s sparkling new stadium — scheduled to open next summer — is better suited for the Ticos this time around. The U.S. has won more big wins in C-Bus than anywhere else, thanks in part to the partisan support it most certainly did not receive at Red Bull Arena in that 2-0 defeat in 2017. “Columbus is always nice, especially with my history there but also the national team’s history there,” said Berhalter, who previously coached the Crew. “Think about the great games the U.S. national team has had in C-bus.”
Oct. 2021 vs. Mexico: St. Paul, Minnesota
“Whatever the weather could be that could affect the opponent, let’s find that spot,” Berhalter said. Against arch rival El Tri, enter Minnesota United’s pristine Allianz Field, which only opened last year. The low temperature in the Twin Cities is 39 degrees in October, five degrees cooler than Columbus, where the U.S. lost to Mexico at home for the first time last cycle following four consecutive 2-0 victories.
Nov. 2021 vs. TBD: Washington D.C. or Orlando/Miami
With the European seasons in full swing and the degree of difficulty, whoever the opponent, lower than in the two home games preceding it, figure an East Coast venue here. T&T is a good fit for D.C. United’s Audi Field. El Salvador, which used to routinely pack RFK Stadium for friendlies, is not. It wouldn’t be crazy to go back to Florida in that case, especially if the second match of the November window is in Haiti, just a short hop away. “Miami and Orlando are possible if you’re playing in the Caribbean,” Berhalter said.
Jan. 2022 vs. Honduras: Commerce City, Colorado
The Denver area provides two compelling arguments: One, it’s literally freezing in January, with an average low temperature of 17 degrees. Two, it’s at altitude, perfect preparation for the match in Mexico City days later. The U.S. played qualifiers at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park prior to traveling to the Azteca in each of the last two cycles, helping them earn a point against Mexico in both.
March 2022 vs. TBD: Cincinnati
What looks like one of the easier games on paper (Panama, Guatemala or Cuba is the likely guest) could be huge as a trip to the Americans’ house of horrors in San Jose, Costa Rica — where the USMNT has never won a qualifier — looms afterward. FC Cincinnati’s gorgeous new West End Stadium will be a year old by then. It will be cold, with March lows in Cincy hovering around the freezing mark.
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