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Aug 30, 2009

More U.S. soccer fans need to enjoy the journey

I got into a spot of trouble a few weeks back with friends who will be traveling to next weekend's important World Cup qualifier outside Salt Lake City, where the United States will meet El Salvador. Bob Bradley's team is heavily favored, but an upset could seriously imperil its entire South Africa 2010 quest.

So it's a biggie. And considering the relatively small capacity of Rio Tinto Stadium, I advised buying tickets early. Upon my stately advice, there they were, credit cards in one hand and computer mouse in the other the very hour seats went on sale -- motivated by visions of flying to Utah only to watch the sold-out proceedings from a Salt Lake City bar.

U.S. men's schedule
Sept. 5
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Sept. 9
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Well, a few tickets remain on sale today. And I'm in the market for a new crystal ball if anyone has one at a good price.

How could this be, I thought? What's wrong with this picture?

The United States can lead the globe in World Cup ticket applications but can't expeditiously sell out an important World Cup qualifier at a supersweet little 20,000-seat stadium?

Turns out, the U.S. indeed leads the globe in ticket applications for South Africa 2010. But that doesn't mean the U.S. team leads in follow-my-team packages. England is king of those.

Many of the applications from here are marked to follow Mexico, Brazil, England, etc., as the significant immigrant heritage of our country has been heard.

But I also wondered whether U.S. Soccer was doing enough to incentivize U.S. fans to attend these qualifiers. Four years ago, many U.S. supporters were left in various degrees of bluster and infuriation because they couldn't get tickets for Germany 2006. They were good U.S. supporters, they decried, and they were armed with foam fingers and funny hats, ready to storm Europe to support their team -- if only they could get past the overmatched U.S. Soccer lottery system.

But I know for a fact that some of them, bluster and all, had not gone to see a single qualifier in the run-up. So I talked to U.S. Soccer officials at the time, and they said that programs were being studied that would provide World Cup ticketing priority to fans who attended qualifiers.

The models certainly are out there in college alumni programs that operate similarly, putting season-ticket holders at the front of the queue for big bowl games or NCAA basketball tournaments and such. Heck, everything from Costco to the local sandwich shop has some kind of rewards program built around frequency, right?

But not much has been done along those lines at U.S. Soccer in four years, although the federation does have a fan club program. Essentially, for a yearly $50 membership, fans get first dibs on tickets for marquee matches.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said the federation continues to look into these programs. But he wonders about their effectiveness for U.S. Soccer. Besides, assuming the United States takes care of business and qualifies, and because FIFA is allocating more tickets this time around to national federations, Gulati doesn't anticipate the same problems with ticket shortages in the summer.

"Given the inventory of allocations to nation associations by FIFA, as well as the potential additional costs of traveling to South Africa, combine all that [with] the worldwide economic slowdown, it's my hope we'll be able to take care of the large majority -- if not all fans -- who want to go," Gulati said Saturday.

Which is all well and good. Get your funny hats ready, assuming your credit cards can take the hit. But it brings us back to Salt Lake City and how good seats are still available for such a critical match.

Gulati said ticket sales are just part of the rubric when it comes to selecting qualifier sites. Take this one coming up Saturday. Is Salt Lake City the easiest place to get to, especially in a drab economy? Obviously not.

More World Cup coverage
For more features, analysis, predictions and opinion about the World Cup, drop by our special U.S. index page.

But getting to South Africa is the ultimate aim, not a short-term cash score from selling bundles of tickets, parking passes and sodas. If that were the case, you'd see all the qualifiers in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and any other big-city mega-stadium willing to drop $250,000 for a grass field that will last five days, tops.

Instead, it looks at things such as immigrant population demographics, hoping to maximize a home-field advantage that sometimes can be tricky to achieve here. For instance, it avoids playing El Salvador in most big cities, which are populated with Salvadoran immigrants who would relish the nostalgia of cheering for their homeland.

Which is why Bradley will gather his men this week at a training ground in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, prepping for a night at 4,500 feet.

One of the problems in the qualifier-fan disconnect has nothing to do with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Rather, it's about a U.S. fan base sometimes still stuck in the shallow end when it comes to the nuances of the global game.

Yes, there are good U.S. fans out there who understand the brilliant layers of passion and emotion attached to these qualifiers. You just have to go to one important, sold-out qualifier to get it, to comprehend the meaning and spectacular weight of it all. There just aren't enough of these fans at the moment.

Meanwhile, plenty of U.S. supporters take for granted that "World Cup" means three to six matches once every four years. They don't catch the drama of getting there. Or in some cases they do, but just can't absorb the travel costs involved.

In a sense, you can't blame them, because when all goes as it should, every World Cup should be a quadrennial downhill U.S. cruise. But roads can get bumpy, and things do go wrong in the world. So there well could be a dark afternoon when the qualifying effort lands short and leaves everyone's World Cup cereal sad and soggy.

So it's a bit of a pity that more U.S. fans don't engage in the qualifying drama. I'm looking at the qualifier schedules during the next two weeks. What do you think it will be like in Belfast as group leaders Northern Ireland and Slovakia compete on a potentially historic day, one that could mean everything in seeing one of these small lands earning a World Cup berth? Same for Medellin, which will rock as Colombia hosts Ecuador in a match dripping with impact on the South American table.

I'm afraid it might take something truly crushing for more U.S. fans to take the process seriously. If key injuries parlayed with a couple of bad afternoons, you certainly could find the United States on the wrong side of the velvet ropes once the party starts in 2014 or 2018. Heck, a bad night in the Wasatch Mountains next week, and it could be 2010.

Maybe then my friends would really (really!) have to step lively as the next round of qualifier tickets went on sale.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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