TAMPA — If the United States wins the right to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, organizers will have to pare the list of cities, which includes Tampa, from 18 to 12 or, perhaps, 14.
To make that final cut, which won't happen until five years before the event, U.S. Soccer president and USA Bid Committee chairman Sunil Gulati said cities will "need to distinguish themselves."
How? A tangible sign of support for the sport will be critical, which brings us to Wednesday's U.S. national team game against El Salvador at Raymond James Stadium. The men's national team hadn't been here since March 2007.
This game drew 20,086, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, filling in a good portion of the lower bowl.
"In some of the markets with MLS teams, it's very easy to gauge the support of soccer," said Farrukh Quraishi, the former Tampa Bay Rowdies star and vice chairman of the local bid group. "In other markets, like Tampa … events like these are important."
The goal for Wednesday was about 15,000 given the day of the week, an opponent that lacked panache, a U.S. roster lacking A-list players and only a few weeks to promote it. Consider: The United States, with a similar roster of MLS players, drew an announced 18,626 for a match against Honduras on Jan. 23 in Carson, Calif.
Raymond James Stadium did get an early endorsement from U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who has been here several times, including coaching in MLS when Tampa had a team.
"It's a great stadium. The quality of the playing surface is usually very, very good," he said. "For sure, I think it's a facility that stands up well."
Fan favorites: In addition to American F Jeff Cunningham (Crystal River High, USF) and GK Troy Perkins (USF), M Dax McCarty (Winter Park) had a nice cheering section.
"Since the (Miami) Fusion and the Mutiny are no longer a part of MLS, there's not much professional soccer in the Southeast," McCarty said before the game. "So my friends and family don't get a chance to see me play that much unless it's on TV."
None of the three started, but Cunningham and McCarty played in the second half.
Up next: The Americans, with their foreign-based players, head to Amsterdam for a friendly against a world powerhouse, the Netherlands, on March 3. That's a long-circled date on the road to this summer's World Cup in South Africa.
"After that, the next time we'll all be together is the middle of May and we'll be starting for real," Bradley said. "We're excited about the game. Any time you play a team with the kind of talent Holland possesses, it's exciting."
Stars of tomorrow: F Kellen Gulley scored two goals to lead the U.S. under-17 men's team to a 4-1 win against Mexico in the night's first game. Tarik Salkicic (Pinellas Park) started for the United States and said it was his best game with the team.
"I got my confidence back," Salkicic said of the adjustment from attacking midfielder to defensive midfielder. "When I first started, I wasn't that good at it. But then I started learning my job is to take the ball, tackle the ball and play simple from there."