The United States learned its road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia on Saturday, and that road will run through St. Louis.
For the first time in more than 25 years, the U.S. men’s national team will play a match that matters in St. Louis when it plays its first home game of qualifying for Russia on either Nov. 13 or 17 at Busch Stadium. The United States was drawn into a group that includes Trinidad and Tobago; either St. Vincent and the Grenadines or Aruba; and either Antigua and Barbuda or Guatemala, for the fourth round of qualifying.
CONCACAF, the regional governing body for soccer, had yet to finalize the schedule as of Saturday night, but those two November dates are set aside for the first two qualifying matches, one of which will be a home date for the Americans. The order of opponents may not be set until after the third round of qualifying is completed.
The United States and Trinidad got byes into the fourth round of qualifying. The other teams in the group will be determined by a two-game series played on Aug. 31 and Sept. 8.
It’s the first time the men’s national team has played in St. Louis, once one of its regular homes, since a friendly match with Paraguay in 1997.
An official announcement of the game will be made on Sunday and a news conference with further details will be in St. Louis on Monday.
Not that there is much doubt about the Americans reaching the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, but the draw was about the easiest possible for the Americans for the fourth round, in which each team plays the other teams twice and the top two teams move on to the final round. In Saturday’s draw, the U.S. avoided Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and Haiti. Honduras has qualified for the past two World Cups and Panama almost, and probably should have, beat Mexico on Wednesday in the Gold Cup. Jamaica plays for the regional championship on Sunday against Mexico.
Guatemala, meanwhile, is ranked 105th in the world and recently lost to the U.S. 4-0. Antigua is 107th, St. Vincent 115th and Aruba 135th.
Still, it’s a breakthrough for St. Louis, which has been able to host friendly matches but not matches that count in the past 2 ½ years. Most of those have been met with impressive crowds. In April, in a tuneup match for the Women’s World Cup at Busch, the U.S. women’s team drew a crowd of 35,817, the largest crowd in U.S. history for a standalone women’s friendly match.
When the United States was last here for World Cup qualifying, St. Louis was very much one of the hubs of the sport in America. Two of the team’s five home matches in the final round of qualifying for Italy 1990 were held at the Soccer Park in Fenton, as well as a match in an earlier round of qualifying. In their most recent qualifier here, the United States tied El Salvador 0-0 on Nov. 5, 1989, a result that put their hopes of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in danger. The team had to win on the road two weeks later in Trinidad and Tobago to secure the spot.
Since then, times have changed. Back then, St. Louis was one of the few places the national team could count on drawing good crowds. (The others were Connecticut and Southern California.) But as the hosts, the team didn’t have to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, and by the 1998 tournament and the birth of Major League Soccer, other cities became attractive destinations. Meanwhile, the team had outgrown the Soccer Park, which back then seated about 8,500 fans.