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Big choices ahead: where to stage U.S. World Cup qualifiers

Picturesque PPL Park outside Philadelphia. Among the choices in the coming World Cup qualifier sweepstakes.
Picturesque PPL Park outside Philadelphia. Among the choices in the coming World Cup qualifier sweepstakes.

Difficult as this might be to swallow, one of the next big stories coming out of U.S. Soccer won’t have anything to do with Jurgen Klinsmann.

I know, I know … it’s all about Klinsi right now. Heck, I’ve written as much.

But this lies right around the bend in U.S. Soccer newsiness: the critical selection of venues for World Cup qualifiers.

The math has changed on this one, kids.

As we know, things move fast in the development of our game domestically. Nothing has been more important over the last 10 years than facility development in the professional game. As I wrote last week in another post, just 10 years ago this country had one – just one! – facility built specifically for Major League Soccer. Now there are 14. (In that total, I am counting facilities in Portland, Vancouver and Montreal, where major renovations were done expressly for MLS clubs.)

Previously, any facility built for MLS could count on reaping appropriate rewards: an MLS All-Star game, an MLS Cup final, a U.S. national team match or some combo thereof.

It’s not as simple now. It's just math (with more stadiums competing for roughly the same number of marquee events), plus the way some things are evovling. For instance, the 2012 MLS Cup final might have gone to one of the showy new parks, Livestrong Sporting Park, or possibly to Red Bull Arena, weather issues notwithstanding. Houston’s new facility or possibly even PPL Park in Philadelphia might be in the cue for that carrot on the facility-development stick. But a procedural adjustment now says Major League’s Soccer's top MLS Cup finalist will host the final, a change I have long advocated. So, there’s one less "biggie" to hand out.

The point is: competition is fiercer than ever for available gems. Not everyone will get a cherry on their parfait. And that makes World Cup qualifiers quite important. Read on for more whys and wherefores (and for where I’d like to see the qualifiers assigned).

The United States national team, assuming the Klinsi clan safely navigates semifinal World Cup qualifying stage, will host a total of eight qualifiers.

There are 11 Major League Soccer-specific facilities within U.S. borders. One has artificial turf, so toss it from the mix. (Yes, yes, I know that Portland once hosted a massive U.S. qualifier, back in 1997. I was there, it was among one of my top soccer experiences ever. But I’ve been told that temporary grass fields layered over arty turf are not an option for qualifiers. It’s still an option for friendlies, but no chances will be taken for qualifiers.)

So that leaves 10. Now you add other viable cities that have hosted qualifiers over the last four cycles. So we factor in Birmingham, Palo Alto, Washington, D.C., and Nashville.

There you have it. I count 14 before adding any potential wild cards. (I took away a couple of cities that did host qualifiers during that time, but are no longer viable, such as Gillette Stadium due to the artificial turf issue, and Richmond due to the lack of a suitable venue.)

So by my count, that’s 14 spots (at least) vying for eight potential dates. Other factors will be considered, of course, such as regional demographics and the connected ability to create true "home" crowds. But the raw numbers say this: there are big choices ahead in terms of picking winners and losers in the qualifier facility sweepstakes.

Where would I love to see the qualifiers? Here are my top five choices.

1. Livestrong Sporting Park: The best U.S. soccer park out there, one that already carries a proven ability to fill the place at the drop of a hat trick.

2. Red Bull Arena: Another great park, and it’s in the Big Apple. Enough said.

3. Columbus Crew Stadium: I love this place for its historical importance in U.S. qualifying efforts. Yes, it’s been lapped many times now in the "bells and whistles" department by newer facilities. But I still say it’s a fantastic place to make Mexico come play in winter months, if the schedule falls that way.

4. PPL Park: Same as above in terms of bringing Mexico, Central American or Caribbean sides in colder months. Plus, if fans in Philly can’t make visitors just a little uncomfortable, nobody can.

5. Rio Tinto Stadium: The smaller market helps make these qualifiers bigger events. You just can’t duplicate that feeling in bigger markets, where the game is swallowed up by everything else going on. That means something to the players and coaches, as Bruce Arena told us a few years ago during one tense, important qualifier in Salt Lake City.