One Nation. One Team. One City. One Week.

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.

Published June 23, 2014 in Opinion -

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.

“We were honored to host the US Men's National Team prior to their departure to Brazil since we had hosted the Women's National Team last winter,” said Jane Wilder from One Ocean.

“Everyone at the resort was buzzing with excitement, including our hotel guests, local fans and our staff.  It was thrilling to be able to be so close to the team.  They were so accommodating and happily posed for pictures and chatted with guests. They have a lot of supporters in Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville.”

One Ocean Resort & Spa

In the middle of the week, the team was afforded a uniquely Jacksonville opportunity as they played the famed 17th island hole at TPC Sawgrass.

“Matt Rapp and Bill Hughes of the TPC and Jerry Malott of JaxUSA worked behind the scenes to make it possible for the team to have a closest to the pin competition,” said Zim Boulos.  “Only three players (Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud and Brad Guzan) hit it on the green while the rest of team found the water, but they all had a superb time and Coach Jurgen Klinsmann later told me ‘they couldn't stop talking about it’.”

Zim Boulos

That wouldn’t be the only unique experience that our city leaders had planned for the team.  As is customary with the Men’s National Team, they held a public practice in the stadium the afternoon before the match.  Over 2,000 fans came out to support the team on Friday afternoon.  After the practice was over, a special ceremony was held in the stadium where each player on the team was given a personalized dog tag by members of our local military.  It was a very patriotic moment that impacted the team and the fans alike.

“This is probably the best gift I have ever got,” said striker Jozy Altidore (pictured below).  “It means a lot to me, to know that what we do affects so many people and the people that serve our country. They respect what we’re doing and that’s an amazing feeling. It was a special moment for everybody and something I’ll never forget.”

Here is a link to ESPN’s “INSIDE: US Soccer’s March to Brazil” documentary about the Dog Tag Ceremony at EverBank Field:

As game day approached the number of tickets sold kept increasing.  It was clear that Jacksonville’s old record of 44,438 would be broken, but what was surprising was the information US Soccer released on where ticket buyers and fans were coming from.

“The last time Jacksonville hosted the Men’s National Team (USA vs. Scotland) the match broke an attendance record for the Southeast, so we know Jacksonville was a big soccer town. But this time we were surprised on the reach of the final Send-Off match,” said Paul Astleford.  “Tickets were sold to visitors from 45 states, the 3 U.S. territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), and 6 foreign countries (Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada and the United Kingdom).  It showed us the power and draw of the Men’s National Team.  I hope we have more National Team matches so we can show off Northeast Florida again, and increase the status of Jacksonville as a destination for more national and international sporting events.”

“We learned from the two Scotland games that Jacksonville is a soccer community, but we are also becoming a soccer nation so I expected a large crowd. Close to half of the tickets were purchased from outside the market so that tells me Jacksonville is also becoming a destination city,” said Alan Verlander.

“I had a good feeling that we would be up over 50,000 for this match,” said local sports broadcaster and ArmadaFC radio host Cole Pepper.  “It showed me two things. First, there are a lot of soccer fans in Jacksonville plus a lot of fans who love big events. And second, Jacksonville is seen as a desirable destination for soccer fans.”

Winning the last match before any World Cup is critical for a team’s confidence and momentum.  The team had just won their two other send-off matches in San Francisco and New York, so now it was time for Jacksonville to do its part.  The team chose Jacksonville because of our weather, time zone, and prior fan support, but also because of their past success on the pitch in Jacksonville.  In their previous four games in Jacksonville going all the way back to 1994, the team had been undefeated with 3 wins and 1 draw plus they had collectively outscored their opponents 11 to 3.  It was hoped the Men’s National Team’s winning streak in Jacksonville would continue, and once again Jacksonville would deliver.

On game day, the patriotic fans arrived early and stayed late.  The parking lots were full hours before kick-off.  Our new NASL soccer team the Jacksonville ArmadaFC had a large tailgate party at the Jacksonville Fire Museum and the American Outlaws, the largest soccer supporters group in America, had their pre-match tailgate at Russ Doe’s for all their members that had traveled from around the country for this final send-off match.  Both tailgates ended with their own “marches to the match”, a soccer tradition where fans march together to the stadium singing fight songs and waving team flags.
The highlight of the pregame festivities, however, was when the team bus arrived at EverBank Field.  The police-escorted bus came from the east across the Matthews Bridge and then circled slowly around the stadium along Gator Bowl Boulevard and past all the full parking lots.  The final destination was Gate 1 on the west side where thousands of fans had formed a tunnel outside the stadium for the team to walk through.  Once the team entered Gate 1 they were then met by another tunnel of fans, but this time it was members of our local military.  And most of the players were wearing and displaying their dog tags as they walked through the fan tunnels.  It was another example of the unique patriotic experiences created by Joel Lamp and our city leaders.  

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By kick-off EverBank Field was already rocking with chants and songs, especially the infectious “I believe that we will win” chant.  Instead of having the National Anthem sung by an individual or famous singer, US Soccer let the entire crowd sing it.  While the crowd boisterously sang the Star Spangled Banner, the same local military members who formed the pregame tunnel unfurled two large American flags in the South End Zone.  And as is becoming customary at MLS and USMNT games, the Jacksonville chapter of the American Outlaws then unfurled their homemade tifo (an Italian expression for a choreographed banner) in between the two American flags with the words from the newest National Team fight song, “Here We Stand United, We’ll Never Be Divided”.


As the match began, Jacksonville showed the rest of America and the world that it is a soccer town.  The patriotic crowd of 52,033 shattered the previous (and it’s own) Southeastern attendance record by 7,595 or 17%.  

After the match US coach Jurgen Klinsmann started the press conference by praising the fans, “The reception from the fans here tonight has been something. The players coming and arriving at the stadium and seeing the fans out there, welcoming them, that was quite something. That makes everybody very proud now going down to Brazil knowing that we have the best fans in the world behind us.”

“The atmosphere at the match was superb and it equaled anything I saw as I refereed matches around the world,” said Zim Boulos.  “And that says a lot about Jacksonville!”

"The intense passion I felt in and around the stadium on match day was how Mark Frisch, Alan Verlander and I described Jacksonville’s passion for soccer to the NASL expansion committee last summer,” said downtown advocate and Cultural Council Executive Director Tony Allegretti.  “In fact it was greater on Saturday than we represented."

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The game itself was the capstone to an amazing and inspiring week in Jacksonville.  The team won convincingly 2-1 with both goals scored by starting striker Jozy Altidore from Boca Raton, Florida.  The crowd erupted in both ecstasy and relief on Altidore’s first goal in the 31st minute as he finally found the back of the net and broke his scoring slump going back to December 2013.  Altidore sealed the victory in the second half with another goal giving both his teammates and the fans confidence that he was back to form and ready for the World Cup.  
Here is a link to a special slow motion video US Soccer posted of both Altidore goals:

“Seeing Jozy Altidore score that first goal was my favorite memory of the week,” said Jacksonville ArmadaFC owner Mark Frisch.  “Man he needed that!”

As the team relaxed and recuperated on Sunday at One Ocean before departing for Brazil that evening, local leaders reflected back on what a blessing and honor it was to host our Men’s National Team in Jacksonville before the World Cup.

“The entire week was so spectacular on so many levels,” said Bill McConnell.  “For me it was making that connection between the potential and excitement on March 6th when Jacksonville was awarded the match to the actual excitement and experience at the match on June 7th.  I was moved by the tremendous amount of national pride that was communicated out of EverBank Field on game day.  I also want to give Hunt Construction praise for modifying their construction schedule to accommodate the match and for making a large-scale construction site safe for all the fans.”

“My favorite moments were working with the members of the military in honoring them and working them into the theme of the event,” said Joel Lamp.  “The dog tag ceremony on Friday was amazing to watch.  To see the service men and women connect with the members of the national team was an impressive moment.  Then Saturday, seeing the joy and pride on their faces as the team walked through on their way to the locker room, and later when they were rolling out the flag for the national anthem.  It was a pleasure to help them for a few minutes to be recognized and thanked for all that they do to protect us on a daily basis.”

“Game day itself was the highlight for me,” said Jaguars SVP of Communications, Dan Edwards. “The atmosphere in and around the stadium was electric and that is the kind of environment we want to see at Jaguars games.”

“My favorite part was the tremendous amount of national media and positive exposure it brought to Jacksonville,” said Paul Astleford.  “The impact to our local hospitality industry was fantastic.  Hotel occupancies across Duval County were up 18% on Friday night and 27% on Saturday night compared to the same weekend last year.  The downtown hotels told us they had fans checking in as early as Tuesday.”

“It was an incredible experience being down on the field with the team while the crowd of 52,000 plus sang our National Anthem,” said Mayor Alvin Brown.  “Being able to look around at a stadium packed with American pride is something I will never forget.”

“My favorite part was the buzz,” said Alan Verlander.  “There was just a buzz over this town, which we want to have more of throughout the year in Jacksonville. It was fun to see both soccer and non-soccer fans excited and patriotic the entire week.”

“I really enjoyed talking to the players and asking them about their experience in Jacksonville, which was all positive by the way,” said Cole Pepper.  “But I think my favorite memory was after the match, going to Mellow Mushroom in Avondale with my ArmadaFC shirt on and seeing so many people jazzed about the match and the overall feeling of national and local pride.”

“The stage is set for a bright future for soccer in Jacksonville,” concluded Bill McConnell

Yes it is.  We should all take pride in knowing that Jacksonville has become a special home field for our national soccer teams both on the field with their resounding victories and also in the stands with our large patriotic record-breaking crowds.  For this one city it was one proud week.

Editorial by Trip Stanly

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Metro Jacksonville