As the United States Men’s National Team is down in Brazil playing in the 2014 World Cup, we look back at their final week of training in Jacksonville.
For the entire first week of June Jacksonville hosted the US Men’s National soccer team as they prepared for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It was an amazing honor and accomplishment for our city to be selected by the US Soccer Federation as their final training site and host of the prestigious final send-off match. To understand how and why the US Men’s National Team came to Jacksonville in 2014 we have to go back to 2012.
In early 2012 US Soccer decided to return to Jacksonville for the Men’s National Team friendly match against Scotland at EverBank Field on Saturday, May 26, 2012. The Men’s National Team had already played three friendly matches in Jacksonville, but those matches were way back in the 1990’s (Moldova in 1994, Israel in 1997 and Germany in 1999) and US Soccer instead usually went to Nashville, Tampa and Miami whenever they brought the Men’s National Team into the Southeast. But thanks to the persistence and salesmanship of local civic leader and former FIFA referee Zim Boulos, US Soccer decided to take a chance and return to Jacksonville in 2012. To say Jacksonville returned the favor and rewarded their faith would be an understatement.
Prior to the Scotland match in Jacksonville, the average attendance for a Men’s National Team friendly match in the Southeast was just over 26,000, with the record being 31,547 in Tampa. Jacksonville shocked everyone when we put 44,438 fans in EverBank Field for the Scotland match. It was “the shot heard round the [US Soccer] world” and it shattered the Men’s National Team Southeastern record by 12,891 or 40%. The large and patriotic crowd helped fuel the Men’s National Team to a resounding 5-1 victory over Scotland that saw Landon Donovan score a hat trick and Michael Bradley score a sublime half-volley “golazo” from distance.
Based on the tremendous success of that match, US Soccer quickly rewarded Jacksonville by choosing EverBank Field as the site for the Women’s National Team to kick-off their 2013 season in the United States. On Saturday, February 9, 2013, the Women’s National Team played Scotland and once again Jacksonville exceeded expectations. Prior to this second Scotland match in Jacksonville, the average attendance for a Women’s National Team friendly match in the Southeast was just over 6,800, with the record being 10,493 in Boca Raton. Jacksonville shattered another Southeastern record by putting 18,656 fans in EverBank Field to see the Women’s National Team beat Scotland 4-1. By now it was clear to all that Jacksonville was a soccer town and that we had earned the right to host future National Team matches.
This gave many local soccer fans hope that maybe Jacksonville could be a host city for the coveted 2014 World Cup Send-Off Series. Before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, US Soccer had a two match Send-Off Series in Hartford and Philadelphia so it was expected that US Soccer would hold a two or three game Send-Off Series in 2014. But then in November 2013, our City Council approved the Jaguars proposed stadium renovations and the Jaguars quickly commenced construction. This major renovation to EverBank Field appeared to have totally eliminated Jacksonville from any consideration. The momentum and buzz that Jacksonville had created in 2012 and 2013 appeared to be dying as we neared 2014.
In early 2014, US Soccer announced that the Men’s National Team would be conducting its pre-World Cup training camp at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto and that there would be a three match Send-Off Series. No host cities were announced, but it was speculated that the first match would be logically in San Francisco, the second match would be in New York City since it is the media capital of the US, and that a third match would be played somewhere else on the East Coast so it would be in the same time zone as Brazil.
Then on March 6, 2014, US Soccer officially announced the three host cities. San Francisco and New York City, as suspected, were confirmed and to the surprise of most soccer fans Jacksonville was not only awarded the third and final send-off match, but the team would also be training in Jacksonville for the entire week prior that final send-off match.
A local press conference was held that same afternoon at EverBank Field to officially announce Jacksonville’s selection to the local media with Mayor Alvin Brown, SMG Jacksonville General Manager Bill McConnell, Jaguars President Mark Lamping, Jacksonville City Council President Bill Gulliford, Visit Jacksonville Executive Director Paul Astleford, and Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Davis.
“The Jaguars get the credit for creating the opportunity thanks to their connections with US Soccer,” said Bill McConnell. “It was a highly competitive process, but it was also a team effort with great support from the Mayor’s Office and Visit Jacksonville.”
“Jacksonville beat out other cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Miami for the final send-off match because of the fan support we showed for both Scotland games,” according to Zim Boulos. “The team also decided to train in Jacksonville because the weather conditions here are similar to what the team will experience while playing in Brazil.”
“It all came down to relationships and the tremendous support for soccer in Jacksonville. The relationships with US Soccer are strong and the Jaguars played a major role through Mark Lamping and Shad Khan,” reiterated Chief Operating Officer of Gator Bowl Sports Alan Verlander
The team stayed at One Ocean Resort and Spa in Atlantic Beach from Monday, June 2nd through Sunday, June 8th and practiced at the University of North Florida. It was a time for training and final preparations, but it was also a time for relaxing as many of the families for both the players and the coaches came to town to join them at the beach.