Interest among U.S. soccer fans in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals tonight at Livestrong Sporting Park undoubtedly took a hit when the U.S. under-23 men’s national team was eliminated during pool play earlier this week.
But tournament organizers still expect a big turnout for the elimination games, as well as Monday’s tourney final between tonight’s semifinals winners.
“Obviously, we see that in most cases, the home team draws the most people, but we feel that it might be different in this case,” CONCACAF manager of media relations Ben Spencer said. “The U.S. is a very different country just because there are other fan bases all around within the population.”
While the United States failed to qualify, heated rivals El Salvador and Honduras, who square off at 5 p.m., and Mexico, which faces Canada at 8 p.m., are expected to draw crowds, as each country has a sizable immigrant population in metropolitan Kansas City.
There may not be any need for U.S. flags this weekend, but Spencer believes local fans would still enjoy the soccer.
He pointed out that while Kansas City fans might be used to the occasional international game, including appearances by the men’s and women’s national teams as well as Newcastle and Chivas Guadalajara during the last year, rarely do local fans get the chance to see such a high-stakes international competition.
“First of all, this game really means something,” Spencer said. “Unlike friendlies or exhibitions, where the game may not be as heated or competitive, this is something they have spent two years fighting for and something that only happens every four years.”
The losers of tonight’s semifinals will not compete in the Olympics this summer in London. And for most players, this represents the only chance they will have to take part in the Summer Games.
“It is professional players — high-quality players who may not be familiar to fans in Kansas City but are celebrities back home — playing high-quality soccer,” Spencer said. “This is something you don’t get to see every week.”
Still, there is no doubt that the elephant in the room remains the U.S. team’s failings.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury, who played for the U23 squad that went 1-1-1 in pool play. “It was always a dream of mine to be part of the Olympics. Hopefully, someday I will still be able to, but right now it’s very disappointing — and not just for me, but for the country. We won’t have a team in there, so it’s kind of a setback for (U.S. soccer).”
Bunbury echoed the sentiment expressed by Juan Agudelo earlier in the week that overconfidence may have played a role in the squad’s demise.
“That first game against Cuba, beating them 6-0, I don’t know if we went into the Canada game complacent,” Bunbury said. “But it’s crazy, because we had all the tools and all the players with so much ability and talent on that team. It’s a shame that we didn’t qualify.”
At the same time, the outrage at the U.S. under-23 team’s failure underscores how far the sport has come in this country.
“For sure, it’s disappointing,” said Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, a former player for the U.S. men’s national team. “Absolutely, but our game has really evolved in this country, and I think that people should be disappointed and should view it as a failure. But I don’t think it all of a sudden sets the program back.”
About 2,500 tickets are still available. Tourney organizers suggest buying in advance through Ticketmaster because a large walk-up crowd is expected.