When Avaya Stadium opened in 2015, the new home of the San Jose Earthquakes was touted as a destination venue for some of the biggest events in Bay Area soccer. The World Cup champion U.S. women’s national team has played two friendlies at the 18,000 seat stadium in the past two years, and MLS held its annual All-Star game at the venue last summer, pitting the league’s best players against storied Premier League side Arsenal.
And now Avaya Stadium has been selected to host its most important match yet — the must-win 2018 World Cup qualifier between the United States and Honduras on March 24. The first qualifier to be played in the Bay Area since 1997 will kick-off at 7:30 p.m. local time, and the match will be broadcast live on FS1 and Univision Networks.
On a conference call with reporters this week, USMNT head coach Bruce Arena emphasized the importance of the game in the team’s efforts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After the first two games of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying — known as “The Hex” — the USA sits in last place in the six-team group. When group play is finished later this year, the top three teams will automatically qualify for Russia, while the fourth place team will play a nation from the Asian Football Confederation. Arena has 8 games remaining to turn around the USA’s fortunes.
“We have to win games right now,” Arena said. “We are a little bit behind the 8-ball in World Cup qualifying.”
Arena took over the national team program late last year from long-time head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the USMNT dropped its first two games of The Hex to Mexico and Costa Rica. He quickly assembled an all-MLS roster for the team’s annual January camp, and is currently planning to meet with the many foreign-based players in the pool ahead of the March qualifier.
“Now the goal is to merge our players abroad with our domestic players and come up with the best roster for those games against Honduras and Panama,” Arena said. “We’re working right now with a pool of approximately 40 players, give or take a few numbers either way, and we need to break it down to somewhat near 25 for when we report to San Jose.”
San Jose will be the epicenter of soccer yet again next month, as Arena assembled his squad starting March 19 for the critical match against Honduras. The choice of the intimate Earthquakes home stadium was a calculated decision, aided by Arena’s familiarity with the two-year-old venue.
“I think it’s a great venue,” Arena said. “Having seen it in person a number of times with the LA Galaxy, it will have a great surface, we’ll have a lot of great local support, and the weather will be good.”
That last factor was especially important to the organizers of the match, as the March 24 game date may certainly qualify as in the spring according to the calendar, the weather in most of the rest of the country is unlikely to be favorable for the contest.
“Obviously, it’s snowing in the Northeast today,” said Arena during the conference call, “and you never know what the weather is going to be on the East coast. For the most part, the venues in the United States in March are generally in Florida, California, maybe Arizona.”
The decision to eschew a more easterly location for the qualifier, especially factoring in the extended travel for the number of European-based players expected to be named to the final 23 man roster ahead of the Honduras and Panama games, could be possibly prove to be a disadvantage to the USMNT, though Arena did not acknowledge as much. Instead, the coach focused on the positives the 18,000 seat Avaya Stadium would give the Yanks when so much will be on the line.
“When you look at all venues the around, San Jose is an outstanding selection,” said Arena, “and we think it will be very receptive to hosting the US team.”
Due to the anticipated high demand for the limited supply of tickets to the match, U.S. Soccer is using a lottery system to allocate tickets. So far, San Jose Earthquakes season ticket holders have applied, and those that registered on the U.S. Soccer website are next in the cue. Via the process, the vast majority of those in attendance on March 24 will be supporting the USA, just as Arena would like it.
“We think it's a place where we will get fantastic support from the U.S. fans in a game that's critical for our effort to qualify for Russia in 2018,” said Arena.
USMNT supporters from around the Bay Area will, without a doubt, be ready to do their part.