The United States is through to the final round of World Cup qualifying. It wasn't nearly as easy to reach as many expected, but they are there and next up are 10 more qualifiers in 2013. They will play each of Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras twice, once at home and once away.
The Hex is still four months away, with the first match set for February, but the USSF has to get to work on them immediately because they have five cities to choose as hosts of those crucial qualifiers that will determine whether the U.S. is a part of the 2014 World Cup or not. It is a vitally important part of the process of qualifying, too. Obviously it is not nearly as important as actually playing well, which is the job of Jurgen Klinsmann and his players, but as we have seen for decades now, home field matters and having a pro-American crowd, especially in a country with so many immigrants who root for their birth country and raise their children to do the same, finding that advantage is not easy.
Last cycle, the U.S. played their five Hex matches in Columbus, Nashville, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. Since then, Livestrong Sporting Park has opened in Kansas City and provided the U.S. with a great advantage, while BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Red Bull Arena in Harrison and PPL Park have all also opened its doors.
Jeld-Wen Field in Portland has also become a soccer-specific stadium since 2009 as well, but as is the case with any stadium that has a turf surface, it is not going to be considered. Neither turf nor temporary grass laid over turf is going to host a qualifier and whether you agree with that or not, that is the reality right now and it will not change for this cycle.
So where will the U.S. play their Hex matches? Trying to predict it now is pretty useless because we do not know who the Americans will play when, which is incredibly important when considering weather and travel, but we excel at being useless so let's take a premature guess.
Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio vs. Mexico
This one is a gimme for two reasons: 1) The U.S. is 3-0-0 vs. Mexico in Columbus, all be 2-0 score lines and if this ends up as the February qualifier then there is the added advantage of the cold. 2) Sunil Gulati basically told fans in the Members Club after the match in Kansas City on Tuesday that the match will be in Columbus*. Book it, done.
* U.S. Soccer has said that no decision has been made on where the Mexico match will be played and that Gulati was joking in response to questions about whether Kansas City might host the match.
Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kansas vs. Honduras
Honduras is not as good as they were last cycle and it might make more sense to play Costa Rica or even Panama in Kansas City, which is the best home-field advantage that the U.S. has right now, but that ignores one important factor -- there are a lot of Hondurans in the U.S. According to the 2010 Census, there are more than 600,000 people of Honduran descent in the U.S., compared to 165,000 people of Panamanian descent and 126,00 of Costa Rican descent.
A decent number of Guatemalans made it into Livestrong Sporting Park on Tuesday, but it will still a very, very pro-U.S. crowd. It will be much harder to keep Hondurans out of the stadium than any other non-Mexican team in the Hex, making Kansas City the best host for the match against the Catrachos.
LP Field, Nashville, Tennessee vs. Jamaica
The U.S. has been to the south in each of the last two qualifying cycles, visiting Birmingham in 2005 and Nashville in 2009, and they will probably do so again this year. Nashville has become a favorite of the U.S., providing the team with as pro-U.S. a crowd as they have been able to find outside of Birmingham, which now has turf. There isn't a MLS stadium in the south so a NFL stadium is a good bet and while Charlotte might also be a great home, the Hex isn't a great time to take that chance. Another 25,000 fans is a good bet in Nashville so count it in and an NFL stadium is a risky bet so it has to be the host against a team without a big following. Hello, Jamaica.
PPL Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania vs. Costa Rica
The new stadium in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester has hosted one U.S. match since opening in 2010 and it was an uninspiring crowd, but that was for a boring match without some of the team's top players and a part of the post-World Cup malaise. Of course, you could make excuses for most lackluster turnouts for U.S. matches, but when you have a new MLS stadium in an easily accessible city on the east coast that has shown well before -- as they did for a pre-World Cup friendly -- then the USSF is going to be far more likely to buy the excuse.
Costa Rica doesn't bring much of a crowd so a bigger city isn't much of a concern and should still provide a pro-U.S. crowd. The good surface at PPL Park will also be a draw to Jurgen Klinsmann.
Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah vs. Panama
Panama was the most surprising team in the Hex, not because they qualified for it because they have been making strides the last few years, but how good they looked at times in doing so. This is not a throw away, guaranteed three points match no matter where it is played and the U.S. will need a good crowd.
Salt Lake City did a magnificent job in 2005, giving the U.S. a huge, great crowd against Costa Rica, but it wasn't nearly as good in 2009. Salvadorans made up a good chunk of the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium, but Panama won't have the same crowd waiting for them no matter where the match is played. Without the visiting crowd that El Salvador brought, the boisterous Americans in the crowd will stand out more. Toss in the general growth of soccer in the Salt Lake City area, as evidenced by Real Salt Lake fabulous support of late, and this one should look a lot more like 2005 than 2009.
Of course, all of this assumes that the U.S. goes for the best home-field advantage they can find and not the money grab, which they did last time around when they hosted Honduras at Soldier Field. That isn't much of a problem late in the round if the U.S. has already qualified for the World Cup, but the U.S. did not have that luxury last time around and considering their performance in the semifinal round, it probably isn't something they should bank on.
Other venues that could host matches include Toyota Park in Chicago, where the U.S. can play at a MLS stadium with the chance of a pro-U.S. crowd in the third-biggest city in the country, as well as the USSF home city. Red Bull Arena in New York (New Jersey) is also an option, although they are not the easiest people to deal with. RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. has always been a USSF favorite and Rentschler Field in Hartford has been a good host before to go along with the added benefit of being able to please ESPN. BBVA Compass Stadium could also sneak into the mix, although a home-field advantage is tough to come by.
Once again, it looks like the west coast will be left out. The U.S. hasn't played a final round qualifier west of Salt Lake City since Palo Alto and Portland each hosted matches in 1997, but it doesn't seem likely to change. With so many players playing their club ball in Europe, the west coast makes for terribly long travel. That makes the June date, which is after the club season and preceded by a long training camp, the only logical opportunity to play on the west coast, but that still seems like a reach.
The Hex is coming, but where to? Five cities will get the privilege of hosting the U.S. as the road to Brazil continues in 2013.