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Judgement day for local soccer fans

Over 48,000 tickets have already been sold for the United States' World Cup send-off match on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. But will there be a genuinely pro-American crowd? If there is, it will send a strong message about the future of soccer in Philadelphia.

NOTE: A few hours after I wrote this, Kerith Gabriel broke the news that the Union are trying to sign Italian national team captain Fabio Cannavaro - and they might just be able to do it. We'll have plenty of time to discuss this over the next few days. For now, though, all eyes are on Saturday's U.S.-Turkey game at Lincoln Financial Field. Here's my take on why it matters.

Although this is the U.S. national team's sixth consecutive World Cup, the concept of a "send-off match" hasn't always been a part of the proceedings.

In 1990, the team's last game on home soil before heading to Italy was an exhibition against Dutch club Ajax of Amsterdam. Although over 18,245 people came to RFK Stadium for the game, it wasn't even considered a full international match by the U.S. Soccer Federation, and it was played over a month before the World Cup started.

You can't necessarily count 1994 either, because the United States hosted that year's World Cup. Because of the lack of qualifying matches and the lack of a domestic league, the national team played quite a few times in the weeks and months prior to the tournament. The last of those matches, a 1-0 upset of Mexico in front of 92,405 at the Rose Bowl was the squad's 19th game of the year. That's a huge total.

So you have to start in 1998. Which means that up until now, a total of three cities in the entire United States have hosted the national team's last match before leaving for a World Cup. Washington, D.C. was the venue in 1998, Foxboro, Mass. in 2002, and East Hartford, Conn. in 2006.

Tomorrow afternoon, Philadelphia will join this select group. It is not a small matter.

I am sure that for much of the Philadelphia region, the Flyers' opening game of the Stanley Cup Finals will be more important. Others across the area will spend their time worrying (with some reason) about the Phillies' 36-inning scoreless streak.

But U.S. Soccer announced yesterday afternoon that over 48,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday's soccer game, a 2 p.m. kickoff against Turkey at Lincoln Financial Field. It will be the largest crowd for a World Cup send-off match in American history.

1998: 46,037 at RFK Stadium for a 0-0 draw with Scotland
2002: 36,778 at Gillette Stadium for a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands
2006: 24,646 at Rentschler Field for a 1-0 win over Latvia

Philadelphia comes in first by 2,000 tickets sold, and there's still a lot of time left before the game. That's a pretty big statement for a city which has spent most of the last few years on the outside of American soccer looking in.

This is the one chance that the city has to show that it should be part of U.S. Soccer'S World Cup bid package. It's also a chance to show U.S. Soccer that Philadelphia deserves to host the national team more often.

The former point will be addressed by the size of the crowd, and it sounds like our region's soccer fans have made themselves heard lound and clear. The latter point, however, is is a bit tricky - and it is where Philadelphia really has something to prove.

It's one thing to get a big crowd, and another to get a pro-American crowd. The U.S. national team has struggled for many years to draw crowds in the Northeast that loudly back the home team, especially when playing opponents with large immigrant populations in this part of the country.

This is part of why the U.S. doesn't play in New York and Chicago very often, and why it chooses the teams it plays in Washington very carefully. The problem is more pronounced when the opponents are from the Americans compared to Europe, but it's still there more often than not. I still remember going to a U.S.-Poland game at Soldier Field in 2004 where at least 30,000 of the 39,529 fans at Soldier Field were supporting Poland.

We don't know how many of the fans in attendance Saturday will be supporting Turkey. I'm sure there will be plenty of them. But from everything I've read and heard, it sounds like the vast majority of the crowd will be genuinely pro-American. That was the case for last year's Gold Cup doubleheader, and I'm sure that night was a big factor in U.S. Soccer's decision to play Saturday's game here instead of somewhere else.

If Philadelphia's standing within the American soccer community has improved over the last few years, so too has soccer's perception among the Philadelphia sports community. Although Lincoln Financial Field has hosted a lot of soccer games since it opened in 2003, I've sensed a change in local rhetoric over time about the value of bringing the other kind of football to the Eagles' stadium.

It surely helps that the Union made a point of partnering with the Eagles to bring more soccer games to Philadelphia. But I suspect that the Eagles wouldn't have gone in on this as much as they have if it didn't make good business for them.

Call it a hunch, but I'd say that a big crowd at the Linc for a nationally-televised soccer game in July makes good business sense.

"Part of the reason the Eagles and union partnered is to create a city that has options for U.S. Soccer to come here with their full men's national team, or their Olympic team, or their women's team, or their junior teams," Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz told me. "Between PPL Park and Lincoln Financial Field, I can pretty much assure them we'll have a pro-American crowd in Philadelphia no matter who they play."

That's a big boast for Sakiewicz to make. But Saturday brings the opportunity for him, the Union and the Eagles to back up their belief witth hard evidence.

If that happens, it will make a real statement about just how much soccer has grown in the Philadelphia region - and the seeds planted this weekend could bear fruit for a long time to come.