With FIFA currently mired in a scandal that has led to the arrest of seven of the organization's officials, it's easy to forget there are still critical international matches to be played this summer. In fact, two of them take place at M&T Bank Stadium July 18, as Baltimore will play host to the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals for the second time.
CONCACAF -- soccer's governing body for North America, Central America and the Caribbean -- is right smack in the middle of this corruption case. The organization's president, Jeffrey Webb, was one of the officials arrested, and the Gold Cup, which helps determine CONCACAF's Confederations Cup entrant, is among the competitions being investigated.
But fear not, Baltimore soccer fans. According to CONCACAF, the show will go on. "CONCACAF continues to operate in the ordinary course of business, hosting all of its upcoming tournaments in a successful and timely manner, including the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup," the confederation said in a statement released May 27 after the story broke.
That assurance should come as a relief to international soccer diehards in the greater Baltimore area, more than 70,000 of whom packed M&T Bank Stadium in July 2013 to see Honduras edge Costa Rica, 1-0, and the U.S. throttle El Salvador, 5-1. If all goes according to plan for the U.S., it should find itself in Baltimore once again for the first match of the tournament's knockout round.
"We are potentially aligned to have the U.S.," said Terry Hasseltine, the executive director of Maryland Sports. "But if they have a bad tournament, we might get Mexico, which would not be a bad thing. But at the end of the day, Team USA -- when it comes to national pride -- is far more marketable."
Hasseltine would know, as he is front and center in all efforts to bring what he calls "mega-events" to Baltimore. The two quarterfinals July 18, which are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., will include both the Group A winner and runner-up. Group A consists of the U.S., Panama, Haiti and Honduras, making the U.S. a near-lock to land in Charm City.
The 2013 Gold Cup presented a similar scenario. Only about 26,000 tickets were sold to the event before eventual-champion U.S. clinched a spot in one of the Baltimore-based quarterfinals. Within 48 hours, the total number skyrocketed beyond 60,000 and topped 70,000 by game time, according to Hasseltine. Should history repeat itself, the city will be in for quite a weekend.
Hasseltine projects the Gold Cup infused more than $10 million into the Baltimore economy and brought nearly 100,000 people to the city for that July 2013 weekend. Both of those figures could grow this time around, Hasseltine said.
First, this edition will take place on a Saturday, potentially enticing more out-of-towners to make a weekend out of the event. Furthermore, Baltimore will be better equipped to cater to the tastes of the soccer fanatics.
"The biggest takeaway was that it has a very rabid fan following, and that we have to open up our complex earlier here at Camden Yards," Hasseltine said. "The one thing we learned last time is that fans want to come hours, and I mean hours, before the matches start -- not just a few hours like we do for NFL games."
As of now, Hasseltine believes the parking lots will open at 8 a.m., and the venue will also open early, giving fans ample opportunity to get comfortable and enjoy the litany of food and beverage options the stadium has to offer. It should also deter the type of traffic issues that plagued the 2013 event, which resulted in backed-up highways and gridlock in the city. All of these developments should mean good things for Baltimore's bottom line.
The passion for soccer in this area should come as no surprise. According to Nielsen ratings, the Baltimore market ranked among the top 10 markets in TV in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. The city supported the Baltimore Bays and Comets (outdoor), and the Baltimore Blast (indoor) has been around since 1980.
"As a lifelong Baltimore guy, I know our area has had a passion for soccer for a longtime," said Kevin Healey, who has guided the Blast to five indoor championships in 14 years as general manager and head coach. "We take a lot of pride in the tradition that we have in the game, with championships at the college level, the youth level and the pro level. I think it's a product of our history. I think we've grown and developed the sport."
Beyond the weekend-long economic boom the city's hotels, restaurants and watering holes experience, the Gold Cup also brings a unique level of exposure to the city.
"There's a huge social impact," Hasseltine said. "Look at the matchups last time. They were all on Fox Sports. We had exposure from a media standpoint all over that brought the spotlight onto Baltimore and our capability of hosting.
"It was a unique environment. In one match, we saw people wearing their El Salvadorian jerseys, and in between games, they flipped them inside out, and they became Honduran jerseys. They were supporting Central America and their location. It was really unique and a fun environment to watch."
Making sure that soccer's international spotlight shines brightly on the city is one of Hasseltine's current focuses.
It started in 2009, when he brought A.C. Milan and Chelsea to M&T Bank Stadium. Two years later, Baltimore won the rights to a Gold Cup quarterfinal, but ultimately had to pass due to a conflict with a U2 concert.
After July 18, the city will have two Gold Cups under its belt, which might give it the standing to secure a role in the U.S.-based Copa America in 2016, a tournament that will include 10 South American teams and six from the CONCACAF region. But ultimately, there is a bigger endgame in play.
"We've built a brand," Hasseltine said. "We've built integrity in the type of events we're pursuing in soccer. So, year in and year out, we're getting high-quality matches. When the U.S. is ready to pursue another World Cup bid opportunity, it is about keeping our venue and our city front of mind with the Federation that we're equipped to host mega-matches."
The World Cup in Baltimore; now that is exciting. Let's just hope international soccer can clean itself up by then.