While many destinations are focused on whether they will be picked as host cities for the 2026 World Cup, this summer brings another international soccer event and, perhaps even more importantly, a way to leave 2020 in the dust once and for all.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup, a flagship men’s soccer competition, comes to 11 stadiums across eight U.S. metro regions, spanning a full month.
It’s notable for many reasons – international talent, media coverage from around the world – and, of course, the debut of Video Assistant Referees (VAR). Additionally, since FIFA is expected to announce host cities by the end of the year, some communities are considering this a "final audition."
The starting point for the tournament is Fort Lauderdale, where a new-to-CONCACAF preliminary round will be hosted from July 2-6. That round will see 12 national teams (Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Bermuda, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Bahamas, Cuba, French Guiana, Guatemala and Guyana) battling it out for three slots in the Group Stage that follows.
And, says Mike Sophia, Vice President, Sports Business Development, the city is looking forward to the action – which is sure to be intense.
“It’s really a big deal for us – to have 12 international teams of that caliber in this market will be great.”
Something else that will be particularly meaningful: the DRV PNK Stadium, where matches are held, is located near the center of the county, rather than on the coast – where resort-bound traffic tends to go.
“This tournament will be important for parts of the county, and for the hotels there, that might not be seeing as much tourism. I really like the idea that it’ll drive business to the central part of the county.”
Following its kickoff in Fort Lauderdale, the Gold Cup moves into the Group Stage, which begins on July 10 and runs through July 20. Group Stage play is divided into four quadrants:
Group A will play in Toyota Stadium in Frisco, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington as well as at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas in the Fair Park area. Matches include El Salvador taking on Curaçao in Frisco before Arlington hosts current champion Mexico against one of the winners of the preliminary matches held in Fort Lauderdale. On July 14, Curaçao takes on Mexico at the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Group B is stationed in Kansas City, Kansas at Children’s Mercy Park and will feature Canada and Martinique facing off in the first match of the day. This is followed by the U.S. Men’s National Team taking on against one of the winners of the preliminary matches. USA and Canada then remain in Kansas City for the Group Stage, while Martinique and the preliminary stage winner will travel to Frisco for the third match date.
Group C opens play at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium. Jamaica and Suriname have the first match of this group. Costa Rica then takes on the last of the three teams that qualified in Fort Lauderdale. For the last group stage date on July 20, Suriname and the preliminary winner will travel to Houston’s BBVA Stadium while Costa Rica will face Jamaica in Exploria Stadium.
Group D, based in Houston, at BBVA Stadium, will kick off on July 13 with Qatar versus Panama in the first match of the evening, before Honduras take on Grenada. On July 20 in Orlando, Grenada and Panama will close Group Stage play while Honduras face Qatar in BBVA Stadium.
At the end of the Group Stage, the top two teams from each group will advance to the knock-out stage – quarterfinals, semifinals and final. State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington will play host to the Quarterfinal doubleheaders on July 24 and 25. The semifinals will be played on July 29, in NRG Stadium in Houston, and the all-new Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas. Ultimately, the winners of the two semifinal matches will travel to Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium to face off in the final on August 1.
It’s an almost dizzying array of cities and venues and if you’ve lost track, don’t worry – a full schedule, which will be updated with results as the tournament proceeds, can be found here on the CONCACAF site.
The Frisco Convention and Visitors Bureau is already in high gear with preparations, according to Josh Dill, director of sports and events, and Wesley Lucas, senior communications manager.
“It’s going to be a great event,” says Dill, “and the Gold Cup is a way to showcase our regional partnerships, as well as our soccer history, which runs very deep.”
Lucas is equally enthused. “We have the Soccer Hall of Fame here, and we already have a strong soccer population.”
Frisco is the home of US Youth Soccer, and Dill views the Gold Cup as an opportunity to inspire even more children to play.
“Kids get excited about what their parents get excited about,” he notes. “It gets that love of sports invested in the next generation. Watching the sport and
seeing it played at such a high level, in person, is going to be a great experience.”
Arlington, another Texas destination, is on the docket, and Matt Wilson, vice president of sports and events, couldn't be happier.
"“We are looking forward to building on our recent success in hosting high-level soccer events here in Arlington," he notes. "CONCACAF is certainly one of the premier soccer events in the world and North Texas has proven to have a great appetite for international soccer. An event such as this demands the greatest stage and it doesn’t get any greater than AT&T Stadium!”
The fact that six Texas locations are hosting Gold Cup play is significant. One common denominator is that all cities stand to benefit, should World Cup matches be held in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area. And that brings up perhaps the most interesting dynamic of all: despite the fact that they often go up against each other for events, Dill notes, they are stronger together.
“We like to think of it as coopetition,” he says. “It makes us stronger. Selfishly, I want things to happen in Frisco but when we all work together, we can accomplish greater things. We wouldn’t be able to do it without these partners. They help us take things to another level.”
Monica Paul, executive director of the Dallas Sports Commission, agrees.
“Not only are we used to hosting major events, but we’re also partners in this. We have great relationships, and we lean in together to host.”
The goal, she notes, is to provide a good experience to the athletes as well as to the spectators, including those from destinations outside the U.S.
We want these major events to come back and we’re properly positioned to do that. We think of Dallas as the home away from home for the Mexican National Team – we host the MexTour, the Mexican National Team’s annual tour of the United States – and we want to build on that relationship.”
In Orlando, where Group C will be playing, Jason Siegel, president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission (abbreviated as GO Sports!), says CONCACAF began with bids from more than 40 major markets across the U.S., then winnowed down the field to create the current schedule.
“They really felt like we could execute” he notes. “And we can. We have a very diverse soccer population that is very strong and very interested in this.”
He estimates the Gold Cup play could have an economic impact ranging between $2.5 to $5 million, depending upon the attendance.
And truth to tell, it’s far from the only high-level soccer event GO Sports! is hosting this summer. When the final CONCACAF Gold Cup Group Stage matches
wrap up in Exploria on July 20, the city will be ready for the next event: the 2021 Florida Cup, which will be held at Camping World Stadium. Teams include 2020 FA Cup winners Arsenal, Everton from the English Premier League, this year’s Italian Serie A champions Inter Milan, and Millonarios FC from Colombia. The Florida Cup is also expected to have additional activations, including fan fests, concerts and other events.
Orlando has established itself as a go-to destination for soccer during the pandemic, where 24 MLS teams were able to meet and compete safely, completing 51 matches in 34 days at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
“Everyone – every single person – is in lockstep working to get back to where we were before COVID,” says Siegel.
Like the DFW area, Orlando is also under scrutiny by FIFA as a World Cup host city. As a result, Orlando is working to create the best possible impression since, according to Siegel, the value of hosting the World Cup “could be between $600 million and $800 million to our community.”
Alex Leitao, CEO of Orlando City Soccer Club, says the city is primed and ready.
“The fact that we have been hosting soccer events shows that we can deliver. We know how to do it – and we have done it before. Our stadium was designed with an event of this magnitude in mind.”
CONCACAF carefully curated the mix of venues, taking into consideration not just typical criteria such as the presence of professional facilities and easy access, but places for athletes to train and practice prior to their matches. One example of this is Kansas City, Kansas, which, in addition to being the first place the U.S. Men’s National Team will play (as part of the Group Stage), is the only Midwestern destination on the CONCACAF Gold Cup roster.
“We’re really excited about this,” says Justin Stine, meetings and sports sales manager of Visit Kansas City, Kansas. “We look at ourselves as the soccer capital of the United States, between our amateur venues and also our professional facilities.”
Games will be played at Children’s Mercy Park but the area is also home to the state-of-the-art Compass Minerals National Performance Center, which serves as the training facility of Sporting Kansas City. It also accommodates the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center at Village West and the U.S. Soccer National Coaching Education Center, making Kansas City a hub for youth athlete sports medicine services and overall soccer development in the United States.
“Compass Minerals is where the teams will be able to train and practice,” notes Stine, “and it’s such a good amenity to have here.”
And, he adds, there’s a strong soccer population.
“I love seeing how much the following for the sport has evolved and grown in our area,” Stine notes. “There’s a lot of passion and love for the sport, and of course, people are big supporters of Sporting KC. The atmosphere during those games is just electrifying and it’s something we’re so proud to be home to. It’s great to have huge events – but we really also look at this as a way of growing the sport and building on our destination for the future.”
In addition to being the home of MLS clubs, many CONCACAF host cities also have a deep-running sports history, with Major League (and/or Minor League) Baseball teams, the NFL, NBA, WNBA and NHL. According to Drew Hays, director of the Austin Sports Commission, Austin is enjoying the novelty of finally having a team in town – and loving it.
“The main thing for us right now is the newness and freshness of having our first professional franchise, Austin FC. People were so excited about it that when season tickets went on sale, we set an MLS record – 30,000 deposits within 24 hours. The stadium holds 20,500 seats and the entire stock of season tickets sold out. Now there is a long waiting list for single tickets for games.”
Austin is what Hays calls an emerging soccer market. Its new Q2 Stadium hosted a friendly between the US Women’s National Team and Nigeria last week, and Austin FC’s first home game against the San Jose Earthquakes was on Saturday.
With a new stadium, new club and now, nearly endless opportunities to host soccer, Austin is primed for success.
“I really think CONCACAF is going to have a ripple effect across the city,” concludes Hays.
Some destinations are repeat hosts; one of these is Glendale, Arizona.
"We are thrilled to host CONCACAF at State Farm Stadium,” said Danielle Dutsch, Interim Deputy Director, Glendale Parks & Recreation, Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Civic Center. "The 2021 Gold Cup will be the fifth time Glendale, Arizona will receive the international soccer tournament and with our world-class entertainment, dining, sports facilities and outdoor adventure, we look forward to hosting the teams and their fans with an amazing Glendale, Arizona experience."
The overall reaction to CONCACAF has been strong and swift – not to mention supportive. The final, scheduled for August 1 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, sold out in under 90 minutes.
That made it it the fastest sellout in tournament history, and the first sellout for a sporting event at Allegiant Stadium. More than 60,000 fans are expected at the match
And all told, it bodes well for the United States as a World Cup destination.
“The last time the World Cup was in the U.S. was in 1994,” says Monica Paul, “and one of the lasting legacies of that World Cup was the development of MLS. It had a really big impact on people – most people can tell you where they were when it was being played, where they saw it, who they were with. When you look back at it you see it really is the world’s game because of its ability to bring people together.”