By IVES GALARCEP
When the U.S. Men's National Team takes on Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park next month in World Cup qualifying, there will be more on the line than a spot in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying. The stadium the game is being played in will be competing for a new role as the national team's preferred home for marquee qualifiers.
Ever since that freezing winter day in 2001, when the U.S. beat Mexico in World Cup qualifying at Crew Stadium, Columbus has been adopted as the unofficial home for big national team matches. We have seen three USA-Mexico qualifiers played at Crew Stadium over the past decade, and each time American fans converged on the nation's first soccer-specific stadium and given the team a tangible home-field advantage. Earlier this month, in a must-win USA qualifier against Jamaica, we saw what was arguably the best crowd to ever watch a national team at Crew Stadium.
Given that impressive history you would think there would be no chance for Columbus to lose its place as the preferred USMNT venue for important matches, but that beautiful new stadium near the Kansas/Missouri border is threatening take that spot. The Oct. 16th qualifier at Livestrong Sporting Park will be the Kansas City market's chance to make the very case that it is ready to take the baton from Columbus.
So why would U.S. Soccer consider anywhere but Columbus, where the team has had so much success and where we have seen some of the best and most passionate American crowds ever, for matches like USA-Mexico qualifiers?
From a practical standpoint, Kansas City, Kansas, where Livestrong Park is located, is about as close to the exact middle of the country as you can get, which means the most central location possible. It would mean an approximately 1,200-mile shorter commute (round trip) to major national team matches for fans from at least half the country.
Then you have the fact that Livestrong Sporting Park is an immaculate new $200 million facility, one of the nation's true crown jewels for soccer. As important as Crew Stadium is to the history of Major League Soccer, and as amazing as the crowds have been at national team matches there, you can't deny that Crew Stadium just doesn't measure up to the new stadiums that have been built after it.
Lastly, you have an aggressive Sporting Kansas City ownership group that understands what it would mean for their stadium, and for soccer in the midwest, if major national team matches become the norm rather than a rarity. The value of being considered the home of the U.S. national team, even in an unofficial capacity, would be a boon for a club that has already made amazing strides in establishing itself, not just in the Kansas City market, but nationally.
We saw just how agressive Sporting KC's owners can be when Sporting Kansas City beat out big-spending Seattle Sounders for the right to host the 2012 U.S. Open Cup. People in Seattle will certainly point out that the bidding process seemed to be a curious one considering both clubs apparently made very comparable bids, but that is what stands out most in that whole situation. Sporting KC's owners managed to put up a competitive bid against a team that generates considerable more revenue, and a club that isn't still paying off the cost of a brand new stadium like Sporting KC's owners are.
As much as Sporting KC's owners will do their part to help push Livestrong Sporting Park, it will still be up to the fans to maximize the venue's potential on Oct. 16th. The upcoming qualifier against Guatemala will serve as an audition of sorts. A passionate and packed Livestrong Sporting Park will show U.S. Soccer officials that turning to Kansas City in 2013 for the USA-Mexico qualifier might not be a bad thing (assuming the USA qualifies for the final round of CONCACAF qualifying).
If that change does happen, and if we find ourselves heading to Livestrong Park next year, instead of Crew Stadium, for the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier, there will be some inevitable sadness. Why? The fact is the USA has never lost in Columbus, and Crew Stadium has always produced amazing crowds and memories. Trips to Columbus for important matches have become traditions for countless fans throughout the country. The lasting memory of the U.S. national team at Crew Stadium will be that unforgettable crowd urging the team on in a must-win qualifier on Sept. 11th.
The emotion of that night won't soon be forgotten, and that memorable night only served to set the bar higher for the fans who travel to Kansas City for USA-Guatemala.
The Oct. 16th qualifier is going to be a dramatic event already because of what will be on the line for the national team, but the reality is that more than just a place in the Hexagonal is on the line. A chance to turn Livestrong Sporting Park into the U.S. national team's new unofficial home will also be on the line. Put that all together and you have the makings of an unforgettable night, and potentially the first of many memorable U.S. national team visits to Livestrong Sporting Park for important qualifiers.