ESPN Deportes' Jorge Ramos caused a bit of a stir last week by reporting that FIFA put U.S. Soccer on standby for the 2022 World Cup, should Qatar be stripped of its hosting privileges. While this report has been disputed and denied up and down, America's vast sports infrastructure would make it a sensible backup since it's perfectly capable of hosting a massive event like the World Cup on shorter-than-usual notice.
So, let's say FIFA grows a pair and takes the tournament away from Qatar like a parent snatching a toy from a misbehaving child. And then let's say the U.S. gets the nod. Where would they play?
There have been a lot of changes to the venues used in 1994, the last time America hosted a World Cup. The Silverdome is in ruins, RFK Stadium is fairly decrepit, and Giants Stadium and Foxboro Stadium are now parking lots.
The growth of MLS—the establishment of which was a condition for hosting that '94 World Cup—has led to an influx of soccer-specific stadiums, but thanks to their smaller capacities, they're probably out for our purposes. The largest, Red Bull Arena, seats 25,000. The smallest venue in Brazil holds 40,000.
The ability to pack massive stadiums is a unique U.S. strength—the 1994 World Cup still holds the attendance record, despite the tournament expanding by 12 matches beginning in 1998.
Because the U.S. formally bid against Qatar for the 2022 cup, we do have some major clues as to U.S. Soccer's intentions The bid committee selected 18 host cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, Tampa and Washington, D.C.
That's twice as many cities as actually hosted matches in 1994, so let's narrow it down to the 12 most likely 2022 venues, based on whether they've hosted an event of this magnitude, were a previous World Cup host venue, and their place in American soccer history.
- Los Angeles — The Rose Bowl: capacity 94,542. Hosted the final of the 1994 World Cup and the 1999 Women's World Cup final. There's probably no more iconic multi-sport stadium in the country.
- San Diego — Qualcomm Stadium: capacity 67,700. Was a CONCACAF Gold Cup site, as well as the host of Super Bowls XXII, XXXII, and XXXVII.
- Seattle — CenturyLink Field: capacity 68,056. Home of the Seattle Sounders, who easily lead MLS in attendance, and it was also a CONCACAF Gold Cup venue.
- Denver — Sports Authority Field at Mile High: capacity 75,165. The home of the Broncos, Denver hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention here,
- Houston — NRG Stadium: capacity 76,000. CONCACAF Gold Cup venue.
- Miami — Sun Life Stadium: capacity 80,240. Sun Life has hosted numerous soccer friendlies, as well as three BCS title games and multiple Super Bowls.
- Atlanta — New Atlanta Stadium: capacity 75,000. This will be the home of the Atlanta Falcons, as well as the new Atlanta MLS team, and will be designed with soccer in mind.
- Washington, D.C. — FedEx Field: 91,704. A 1999 Women's World Cup venue.
- Philadelphia — Lincoln Financial Field: capacity 69,111. "The Linc" has hosted matches for the 2003 Women's World Cup.
- Indianapolis — Lucas Oil Stadium: capacity 66,500. Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, NCAA basketball championships, and World Football Challenge matches.
- New York/New Jersey — MetLife Stadium: capacity 82,566. Recently hosted Super Bowl XLVIII.
- Foxboro — Gillette Stadium: capacity 73,393. This was a 2003 Women's World Cup venue and is home to the New England Revolution.
(Of the twelve stadiums listed, four [Seattle, Indianapolis, New York, and Foxboro] have FieldTurf instead of grass. When the 1994 World Cup was played at the Silverdome, FIFA insisted that it be played on natural grass; an ingenious solution was devised by a group from Michigan State, who developed a way for natural grass to grow inside the dome by laying it on wooden pallets atop the artificial turf. If that worked back then, it's a safe bet that real grass could be rolled out. Seattle, for example, has already done this for a few high-profile visitors.)
Instead of 1994 venues like Chicago, Orlando, and Stanford repeating, I've selected Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia and Indianapolis in their stead. All of these cities have state-of-the-art stadiums that are easily accessible. Just missing the list is RFK Stadium—a World Cup could be the catalyst for a desperately needed renovation, and the return of the Redskins. Another strong contender would be Phoenix, which hosted the most recent USA-Mexico game and saw Landon Donovan play his last game (for now) in a U.S. shirt.
Here's the thing, though: we're talking about 2022. Eight years is a long time, especially in sports. What is 'state-of-the-art' in terms of stadiums now won't be then. We can be sure that new stadiums will be built between now and then, and others will be extensively renovated. With that in mind, let's look at some other places that could potentially host World Cup matches:
- Jacksonville, Fla. — You don't normally think of Jacksonville as a soccer hotbed, but the U.S. played their last pre-World Cup friendly at EverBank Field, in front of a rollicking crowd, which is becoming something of a trend for Jacksonville. The stadium—which has hosted a Super Bowl—is receiving extensive renovations, including end-zone video scoreboards that will be the largest of their kind in the world. What's more, there will be a NASL team beginning play in the city in 2015.
- Columbus, Ohio — When it comes to modern American soccer, there are few places more resonant than the Buckeye capital. Not only is it the home of 'Dos a Cero,' which is why U.S. Soccer keeps scheduling meaningful national team games there, but Crew Stadium was the first soccer-specific stadium built. However, Crew Stadium is positively ancient compared to some of the newer MLS stadiums. Making Columbus one of the World Cup venues might be the perfect occasion to either do a wholesale renovation, or build a brand new Crew Stadium with expandable seating.
- Nashville, Tenn. — Nashville is another city that doesn't exactly spring to mind when you think World Cup. Yet, there are few places that are more quintessentially American than Music City, U.S.A. LP Field, which holds 69,143, was an Olympic qualifying venue in 2008 and 2012 and is a regular host for the U.S. men's national team, with both friendlies and qualifiers held there.
- St. Louis and New Orleans — If Columbus is "Fortress America" for U.S. Soccer, then St. Louis is its spiritual home. There is probably no other place in America with a deeper stake in the game, with its roots going back all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century. But professional soccer has failed to make any real headway. A USL PRO team is scheduled to start play in 2015, but the potential venue, the Edward Jones Dome, is an indoor stadium, which FIFA decidedly disdains. The same, for now, is also true of the only potential stadium in one of America's greatest event cities, New Orleans.
- Ann Arbor, Mich. — "The Big House" is the largest stadium in the United States and the third-largest stadium in the world. Michigan Stadium holds 109,901 and could potentially hold 150,000, which would make it the largest on the planet. This summer, it will host a sell-out friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid. You'd think that it would be a natural for soccer, but for one, it has a turf field, and for another, the field is only 53 yards wide, whereas FIFA requires that fields be between 70 and 80 yards wide for international competition.
- Portland, Ore. — If you have even a vague understanding of MLS, you're aware of Portland's standing as a hotbeds of American soccer support. Providence Park, a converted baseball stadium, makes for an intimate and intense venue, but at just over 20,000 seats, it wouldn't provide the kind of size you'd need for the a World Cup.
One thing is clear: should FIFA decide to take the World Cup from Qatar, it wouldn't take that much effort for the U.S. to be ready. We could probably host one next month, if need be. That, more than anything, might be the decisive factor.