CONCACAF brings taste of Gold Cup spectacle to town
Thursday's press conference at Lincoln Financial Field mainly served to make an official announcement of something that was already well-known: Philadelphia will host the CONCACAF Gold Cup final on July 26, and the third-place game on July 25.
But the event still didn't lack for spectacle. Mayor Nutter joined CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb and general secretary Enrique Sanz, Eagles president Don Smolenski, and Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz on stage. The seats in front of them were taken by national team coaches from across the region, including U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann and Mexico's Miguel Herrera. Soccer dignitaries including former FIFA World Player of the Year Luis Figo were in the crowd.
All parties involved had glowing praise for Philadelphia, its infrastructure and its sports culture.
"It's a city rich in sports history and passionate sports fans," Webb said. "Thanks to the strong relationship between the city, the Philadelphia Union and the Philadelphia Eagles - and what an outstanding mayor in the Hon. Michael Nutter. This relationship forged by community and a passion for sports has brought CONCACAF to the Philadelphia family."
Nutter is not what you could call a natural-born soccer fan, but he is certainly a sports fan. So while it was a bit over-the-top for him to call the Gold Cup final "the Super Bowl of soccer," he was within his rights to trumpet the city landing another shot at a big spotlight. You can add the Gold Cup final to a list that includes Pope Francis' visit in September and the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016.
"People are going to come here; they're going to shop here; they're going to stay in our hotels; they're going to walk this city, one of the most walkable and bikeable cities in the United States of America; and they're going to get to know Philadelphia in a very, very different way," Nutter said. "That's why these big events are so important. Not only the substance of what the event is about, but also the national and international attention that is brought to our city. We're a great international city, and we're trying to get more people to know that."
(Nutter also made a quip about "our passionate fans - and I'll leave it at that." Those of us in the room who've watched the U.S. play World Cup qualifiers in Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica, even on TV, tried not to snicker too loudly at the obvious punch line.)
And of course, there's the very real possibility of the Linc landing games in next year's Copa América Centenario. Bids are due on Marh 16, with the announcment of winners to come in May. The U.S. Soccer Federation put out a preliminary list of 24 venues in December, with Philadelphia among many other heavy hitters.
"We are actively bidding," Sakiewicz said. Given the city's growing prominence on the American soccer landscape, it would be quite surprising if that bid isn't successful.
That's for the future, though. Let's turn back to the present. This year will mark the first time ever that a Gold Cup title game played in the United States will take place in a market other than New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Lincoln Financial Field will be the stage, with a prime time kickoff on Fox Sports 1 and Univision.
A day earlier, PPL Park will host the third-place game, restoring that contest to the competition for the first time since 2003.
When the initial list of venues for this year's Gold Cup was published last December, the venues for the knockout rounds were named - but not assigned to specific rounds. It was assumed by a lot of people around American soccer that MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., was a lock for the final. New York hasn't hosted the title game since 2009, before MetLife replaced the old Giants Stadium.
But the Union and Eagles pulled off the upset.
"It's always great to beat New York at anything," said Sakiewicz, whose staff worked with the Eagles to bring Philadelphia another big event. "It's a testament to the collaboration between all the entities, and putting together a bid that CONCACAF couldn't refuse."
Webb called Philadelphia "the city of comebacks." You'd have to go back a long way to truly make that case from a soccer perspective. But is certainly clear that Philadelphia has shot to prominence in the global game since the Linc opened in 2003, and even more so since the Union's arrival in 2010.
"We have a growing, emerging fan base that's deep and passionate," Sakiewicz said. "It's a big reward for Philadelphia Union fans and soccer fans in general in the region. So we're highly motivated to bring these games, and the partnership that we've created with the city and the Eagles has really rewarded soccer fans."
CONCACAF's ticket-sellers always hope to get the U.S. and Mexico in the final, and for good reason. A rematch of North American soccer's signature rivalry would bring a guaranteed sellout to the Linc.
But it's no sure thing that the matchup will happen, because the Americans were handed a brutal group stage draw. Jurgen Klinsmann's squad will face Panama, Haiti and the winner of a playoff between Honduras and French Guyana. Honduras will be the overwhelming favorite to win, and if they do, they'll bring thousands of fans with them.
The U.S. could see Canada or Jamaica, featuring Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, in the quarterfinals. Costa Rica, always a power, could await in the semis.
"Right away, it puts you on your toes," Klinsmann said of the draw. "You've got to start the competition focused, concentrated and determined from the first game on."
The stakes are pretty big. If Klinsmann's teams wins the tournament, by virtue of having won the 2013 Gold Cup it will qualify automatically for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. That event will be a key stepping stone in preparation for the subsequent year's World Cup. If the U.S. doesn't win the Gold Cup, it will contest a playoff in October against this year's champion.
"We badly want to win this tournament, because we want to qualify for Russia 2017," Klinsmann said. "This is huge to us, and the best way to do it is to win this summer."
Other teams in the tournament also have plenty to play for, as two spots in the 2016 Copa América Centenario are up for grabs. The top two tournament finishers outside of the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica will earn tickets to next summer's big spectacle.
Expect to see the strongest squad Klinsmann can put together. Yes, it will be the middle of the Major League Soccer season, but that's been the case for the league's entire history. So the club-versus-country questions will be answered the same way they always have been: country wins.
"When you play a Gold Cup you want to have your best team possible," Klinsmann said. "In order to catch up with the big teams in the world, you need to have your best players all the time in camp, if possible... We'll figure out how we put the parcel together, but we'll have our strongest team."
A few moments after saying that, Klinsmann was off to the airport, and off to resume his preparations for the summer.