U.S. Soccer returns to Philadelphia for the Gold Cup quarterfinals this Wednesday. Costa Rica plays Panama at 6 p.m. before the United States hosts El Salvador in the night cap, slated to start at 9 p.m. The other quarterfinals are Thursday in Glendale, Arizona with Jamaica playing Canada and Mexico facing Honduras.
This summer’s Gold Cup is an utterly meaningless tournament. The winner doesn’t qualify for the Confederations Cup, it’s sandwiched on the international calendar between much more important World Cup qualifying matches and, until this round, U.S. coach Bruce Arena was using it as a way to cap some young players and see what he’s got for the future.
For the players, especially those on the fringes of a World Cup call-up next summer, these games surely matter. One can make the case that for morale (nobody wants to lose a tournament on their home turf), this Gold Cup should matter for the U.S. team as well.
But at the end of this tournament, the results will mean very little. It’s a blip on the soccer radar that won’t even garner as much attention as the European friendlies being played around the United States this week. Some in the international football community have openly questioning why CONCACAF — the governing body for North and Central American soccer — would even host a meaningless Gold Cup this year when we’re in the midst of a World Cup qualifying cycle.
The answer is obvious: money. And this week, CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer want some of yours.
So, soccer-loving denizens, should you give it to them, despite all the reasons stated above not to? Sure! Here are 7 reasons why heading down to the Linc on Wednesday is totally worth the trip.
Stars are here
It’s fair to say the USMNT was not great in the group stage, so with advancement to the knockout round, Arena was able to make a few changes to his roster.
In comes Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore to get the U.S. through the next few rounds. Arena clearly wants to win this tournament now, bringing in the biggest names he’s got. He also called in newcomer Jesse Gonzalez to back up Howard in net and midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who has proven in a very short amount of time under Arena to be a vital part of the USMNT success.
These names mean something in American soccer history, and there’s a good chance if Philly doesn’t get a friendly in the run up to next year’s World Cup in Russia that this will be the last time we’ll have the chance to see Howard, Dempsey and maybe even Bradley play for the national team here. Altidore is only 27, but he’s been a part of the national team for what feels like two decades, so while it’s hard to believe he won’t be around after next year’s World Cup, this cycle could be it for him as a meaningful player in his prime as well.
The newcomers and local(s)
No, Hershey-native Christian Pulisic isn’t back in town. He was here for last summer’s Copa America Centenario and since then has become the most indispensable player in the entire country. So of course he’s not being called in for this Gold Cup. But other newcomers are, and this is a great chance for the U.S. loyalists in the area to catch a glimpse of players like Nagbe, who has just 17 international caps, as well as defenders Matt Miazga, who scored his first goal for country this weekend, Jorge Villafaña, Matt Hedges and Justin Morrow, all with single-digit caps for the USA.
While Alejandro Bedoya left the national team to be with his family as they welcome their second child into the world, Wednesday could give Philadelphia Union fans a chance to see Chris Pontius in international duty as well. It’s hard to believe he’s only had four caps with the national team in his career. If there was ever going to be a fifth, it will be Wednesday.
Tickets are reasonable
The problem with most U.S. Soccer matches in Philly is that the organizing committees criminally overcharge for tickets. (We mean that literally. Many of them have been criminals.)
Alas, this year’s Gold Cup is actually quite reasonably priced for two soccer matches, with thousands of tickets still available in the $30 range (plus fees). Tickets in the 11th row are just $65, plus fees.
Even the secondary ticket market is reasonable, thanks in large part to the fact so many regular tickets are unsold. For serious, there are a lot of tickets still available.
Costa Rica is pretty good, too
In the latest FIFA world rankings, the Ticos are ranked 26th in the world, after dropping seven spots since the last ranking. The USMNT? They rank 35th, behind Turkey and Tunisia, down 12 spots.
There are many who say the world rankings don’t mean much, but Costa Rica did enter this Gold Cup with a lot of buzz, and pundits talked just this week about how important it was for the U.S. to win the group, to avoid having to play Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. Surely, that would be a better match-up to see in person, but now fans get two teams worth watching in two different games. And the U.S. should win, so there’s that.
Pardon the “go go USA” for a moment but, well, this country is pretty darn fractured right now. Even air travel has turned into a fight between both sides of the aisle. (Hey-o!) There are very few things the entire country can agree on, and while some of us may quibble about a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formation, one thing is for certain: Go. Go. USA.
What’s odd is that while professional soccer is the least “American” of the major American sports, it’s the only sport where the national team matters more than any club teams. USA Basketball is barely a blip on the hoops radar, and even during the Olympics it matters less than who LeBron James is getting to join the Cavs. International baseball is fine, but nobody pays attention to Team USA, even during the World Baseball Classic.
But soccer? In soccer, country always comes before club. Around the world, playing for your country is the highest honor, and rooting for country is part of your fabric as a fan as much as it’s part of your fabric as a citizen. We aren’t quite there yet here in America, but it’s still one of the few places we can all agree, and cheer together. For 90 minutes, at least.
To prove Philly is a soccer city
I’ve been banging this drum for years, but it’s probably more important now than ever before. Philadelphia has to continue to prove it’s not just a big event city, but a big soccer city.
In past years, Philly has gotten major European friendlies, but overpriced tickets and a saturation of the soccer market has led to some real clunkers. Does anyone need to be reminded of Inter Milan – AS Roma in front of 12,169 fans? (Does anyone remember that?)
This year’s International Champions Cup has 12 matches around the country, with teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester United. A total of ZERO are here in Philly.
Why does this matter? Well, the United States is going to host the 2026 World Cup, and in the run up to that event, host cities for matches will be chosen. In 1994, the last time we hosted a World Cup, Philly wasn’t a host city, and there’s no guarantee we’ll get any games this time, especially with a joint bid for the continent potentially giving 10 games to Mexico and 10 to Canada.
With New York and Washington D.C. locks to get matches, the organizers could easily opt to skip Philly as a host city and spread the matches out around the country. We are now in the window where buzz, interest and most importantly ticket sales matter for organizing committees. Yes, this is a set of meaningless games on Wednesday. And yes, Philly continues to get big events like Copa America — TV networks love using the Linc for matches, so that helps a lot — but if attendance is poor for smaller soccer matches, we might not stay on the short list of cities in line to get the big ones.
Wednesday’s Gold Cup matches might not mean much, but in the long run, they could mean the world.