TAMPA — When the United States embarks on its quest to capture the 2014 World Cup with a qualifier tonight against Antigua and Barbuda, it will make history for Tampa.
The match, which starts at 7 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium, will be the first time the city has hosted a World Cup qualifier.
The full men's national team has twice played at the stadium, beating Ecuador 3-1 in a 2007 international friendly match and losing 2-1 to Panama last year during Gold Cup pool play.
"We've had a great relationship with the men's national team over the years," Tampa Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said. "We expect a great night of action."
To prep the bay area's soccer community, the Tampa Sports Commission has been aggressively promoting the match for the past few months.
"Our advertising campaign has been very grassroots," Higgins said. "We've reached out to all walks of the community, including our ties with former and current Rowdies, the Mutiny, the (University of South Florida and University of Tampa) community and local businesses."
One of the main targets of the advertising efforts is local soccer clubs. Tampa Bay United coach Jim Cote said his club will be well represented at tonight's match.
"I believe there are about 600 to 700 players from our club who will be attending," Cote said. "If you include parents and coaches, the number is well into the thousands."
The men's national team has been gaining international recognition during the past decade and, subsequently, raising its profile.
The team accomplished two major goals not seen since 1930 — reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 and winning their group in 2010. In addition, the United States owns wins against international heavyweights Spain and Italy over the past few years and one of its stars, striker Clint Dempsey, recently became the most prolific scorer in the prestigious English Premier League.
"I think the team is anxious," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "They want to get this whole thing started. World Cup qualifying is a long stretch. It's a marathon of 16 games to get to Brazil, and this is now the first one."
This, combined with a strong effort from the Antigua and Barbuda Football Association, gave Higgins reason to expect tonight's attendance to fall somewhere between the Ecuador (31,547) and Panama (27,731) figures.
"The attendance at both of those matches was great and we expect the same," he said. "And if the weather holds up, soccer traditionally is a big walk-up market."
The Antigua association blocked off 4,000 seats for the match. Rupert Blaize, ambassador at large for Antigua and Barbuda, said he expects its section to fill up, and the number of fans could swell to 6,000.
"You will see an invasion of sorts from all around the U.S.," he said. "Antiguans are beyond excited for this opportunity."
If the Antiguans do bring 6,000, it will be significant given that two-thirds of the tiny Caribbean country's entire population could fit inside Raymond James Stadium. Blaize said Antigua and Barbuda is eager to play its first national team match on American soil.
"Reaching this point has created a big forward movement for football in Antigua," Blaize said. "We are just thrilled to be in position to show our skills on this stage."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]