Edgar Yoel Barcenas #8 of Panama controls the ball in front of Jorge Villafana #2 of USA during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup Soccer match at Nissan Stadium on July 8, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Tampa has hosted CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer games before, most recently in 2011.
But this year Tampa Bay has a bigger stake in how they come off.
With the Rowdies hoping to secure an MLS expansion spot, tonight’s Gold Cup doubleheader at Raymond James Stadium may play a role in convincing league executives that the region has the appetite necessary for an MLS team.
Commissioner Don Garber visited expansion candidate Nashville last week as part of the league’s review of that city’s bid.
While there, he watched a doubleheader of Gold Cup openers, including the United States’ 1-1 draw with Panama. Garber is not in Tampa Bay for tonight’s games — Panama vs. Nicaragua and the United States vs. Martinique — but people who are “heavily involved” with MLS will be at the games, MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. MLS’s marketing arm manages the Gold Cup, which is played every two years and features national teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
“Though there’s not an official visit, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has a chance to make an impression,” Courtemanche said. “We’re hoping to arrange a visit to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area within the coming months.”
EXPANSION LIMBO: Will MLS take another chance on Tampa Bay?
Twelve cities are competing for four available MLS expansion spots as the league plans to expand from 22 teams to 28. Another Los Angeles team already is scheduled to begin play next year. A team planned for Miami is working on stadium funding. MLS plans to begin filling the final four spots with two teams announced in December. Those teams would begin play in 2020.
Five of the 12 markets contending for the final four spots will host at least one Gold Cup game, with Phoenix, San Antonio and Sacramento joining Tampa and Nashville.
Three key factors go into reviewing an expansion bid, Courtemanche.
“The first is a local ownership group, which exists for the Tampa Bay bid with Bill Edwards,” he said. “The second is a comprehensive stadium plan, and the third is strong fan support. That support is attractive to the league and attractive to partners. We want a city that’ll get behind its team and continue to help this league grow.
“The Gold Cup serves as an example of a prominent soccer event in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area that can act as a showcase for the level of support in the area. Ideally we want to see not just good attendance but also a strong atmosphere that gets people excited.”
In Nashville, the announced attendance for the United States-Panama game at Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Titans, was 47,622, a record for the largest crowd to watch a soccer game in Tennessee.
“Good attendance figures for an event like this obviously tell us something about fan support in the area, so it definitely can play a part,” Courtemanche said.
CONCACAF Gold Cup
At Raymond James Stadium
Panama vs. Nicaragua, 6:30; United States vs. Martinique, 9 p.m.
Tickets: ticketmaster.com; Raymond James Stadium box office 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday