Real or folklore? Taking stock of CONCACAF venues, from hostile to bizarre

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. men are in a land not often traveled to for international soccer matches. Richard Farley takes a look at facts and fables of CONCACAF venues.

Thoughts of bad cricket grounds have been rekindled this week because St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ home venue, an 18,000-seat cricket stadium that, because of the lack of lights, forces teams to play in the middle of the day. While that certainly gives visitors a harsh introduction to the humid Caribbean summer, it only adds to the list of issues CONCACAF teams face when they venture beyond their borders.

Those issues have become regional legends, tales that are both apocryphal and true. Poor draining turning grounds into bogs. Antiquated field turf strategically used for World Cup qualifiers. Fans’ ritualistic parties outside team hotels. Waste, both organic and inorganic, becoming weapons when dropped from the heights of one of the largest stadiums in the world.

When people allude to the difficulties of CONCACAF, this is what they’re talking about: Long trips into hostile environments that leave players wondering when association football became Thunderdome. A few examples:

San Vivian Richards Stadium, Antigua and Barbuda

Like many stadiums throughout the Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda’s national ground is primarily used for cricket, and like many stadiums throughout the Caribbean, that entails a series of potential problems. Lighting is often an issue, field lengths and widths often become compromised, and the venues often lack the latest technologies, like new drainage systems.

The United States discovered this during the last qualifying cycle, when a trip to Richards Stadium revealed a muddy, waterlogged pitch set to neutralize the team’s more skilled players. Having already dropped five points through four rounds, the game had a must-win feel, yet the surface in North Sound seemed destined to deliver a draw.

Jurgen Klinsmann, though, had an answer. In one of the under-appreciated tactical strokes of his tenure, Klinsmann had recalled Seattle Sounders’ No. 9 Eddie Johnson, only to use him on the wing. As a wide target man who could attack opposing fullbacks, Johnson produced two goals from his left-wing position. Bypassing the puddles to go direct, the U.S. took a 2-1 victory and ended up winning its third-round qualifying group.

Estadio Saprissa, Costa Rica

Costa Rica opened a new national stadium in 2011, a multi-use facility that offers only a fraction of the intimidation of the old Estadio Saprissa. Home of one of the nation’s biggest clubs, Deportivo Saprissa, the 23,122-seat venue offered seats against the sidelines and the only FieldTurf surface among the region’s qualifying venues. The turf was so rare and so bad that the venue became an even bigger advantage for the home team.

The turf was eventually replaced by natural grass in 2015, but before that, the notorious field was nearly weaponized once more. In response to the Ticos’ being subjected to a Colorado blizzard during the 2014 qualifying cycle, the Costa Rican federation tried to bypass the Estadio Nacional and schedule its return qualifier against the U.S. for Saprissa. The FieldTurf would be going soon, but in exchange for a night of debilitating snow, the U.S. would get a final taste of Saprissa’s woes.

Those plans were eventually thwarted, but then again, so was the U.S. Costa Rica went on to win, 3-1, at the Estadio Nacional.

Estadio Azteca, Mexico

Ah, yes, the Azteca - not only the bane of U.S. Soccer travels (until Klinsmann finally slayed that beast during a friendly last cycle) but the example American supporters’ fallback to justify any borderline behavior. How can U.S. fans be bad when Mexico fans are worse?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a false equivalency, for sure, but the underlying stories are true. Well documented, too. In addition to offering walls of fans extending to the sky, the 98,500-seat Azteca crafts an atmosphere that’s emboldened supporters who throw bags of urine and feces at opposing players. Burning flags and homophobic chants are also part of the festivities, with the extremes often saved for the U.S.’ visits to Mexico’s national stadium.

Like all these stories, waste bags are the exceptions, not the rule. But like all these stories, these anecdotes are part of CONCACAF lore. And that lore is in the minds of players whenever they go abroad.

Estadio Olimpico, Honduras

Azteca’s standard as CONCACAF’s toughest venue ends up diminishing the challenges of places like Saprissa. The Olimpico is on that list, too. While the venue “only” seats 45,000 for its most important events, the entire experience is one of the most hostile in CONCACAF, a hostility that extends beyond the stadium’s walls.

The U.S. was particularly aware of that in 2013, when the Department of State issued travel advisories calling the city of San Pedro Sula the most violent in the world. The department also warned of a corrupt police force that contributed to the city’s high crime rate, and players’ activities were tailored to expose them to as little of the city as possible.

All of that seemed overly precautionary, though the better-safe-than-sorry approach didn’t absolve the team from being subjected to an all-night party outside its hotel rooms. The government had declared the next day, a Wednesday, a national holiday, freeing fans to live out their insomniatic fantasies through drums and other noise-makers outside the U.S. windows. The Americans would lose the next day, 2-1.

FFB Field, Belize

The home stadium for Belize’s national soccer team, FFB Field was deemed unfit for CONCACAF competition from 2009 through early 2015, leaving the nation’s national club champion excluded from CONCACAF Champions League. In early 2015, thanks to a grant from FIFA, FFB Field was upgraded to improve lighting, the playing surface, bathroom and locker room facilities as well as the stadium itself.

Come August, the venue again failed to meet CONCACAF’s standards.

Including the Belmopan-based stadium on this list bends the rules a bit because teams from outside Belize rarely play there. Still, it’s a reminder of the issues in region where so many nations are still coming into their soccer maturity.

Bryant Andersson Field, Werehpai*

The epitome of all CONCACAF issues — underfunding, prioritization, execution, corruption — is actually found off the coast of South America, among the small cluster of countries that are actually members of North and Central America’s soccer region. Though we rarely hear from Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana during World Cup qualifying or Gold Cups, their nuances complete the spectrum of the region’s exotic soccer tales.

Take Werehpai, for example. The small island nation 80 miles off the coast of Suriname once received funding from Jack Warner’s CONCACAF regime to build a 5,000-seat venue. The reported price, of course, was its vote on a number of major issues, something that may have been fair value had the stadium’s construction not cut a number of corners. Now the venue survives with a number of major embarrassments, including a field that becomes disgustingly bogged down when below-surface plumbing falters amid high bathroom usage.

In early 2014, Werehpai enjoyed brief fame when it was revealed as the naming inspiration for one of Chuck Blazer’s cats. Werehpai was also the name of a yacht owned by former CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, who learned of his indictment by the FBI only after returning from a two-week sailing expedition along South America’s East Coast. The yacht itself was originally the possession of former Argentina federation president Julio Grondona, who lost the vessel to Webb during a game of baccarat in Curacao.

DSG Park, United States

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Never forget. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Lest you think bad experiences are solely the realm of far away, Central American nations, consider what a soccer fan beyond the U.S. thinks about a place like DSG Park. Does it host a team regularly? Is it always used for World Cup Qualifiers? Does it have a decent surface? Good questions, but nobody cares, because thanks to last cycle’s win over Costa Rica, DSG Park will always be remembered for the Snow Clasico. Cross the U.S., and the federations will schedule you for a snow storm.

Yes, it’s not a fair characterization, but how fair is it that we remember other teams for their cricket grounds, or Azteca for its urine bombs? Terribly unfair, but it’s also kind of fun, which is why you have to appreciate those people who don’t care if DSG Park regularly hosts Colorado Rapids games. ‘Isn’t that where they have blizzards?’ foreign fans might ask any time the U.S. schedules a game for Commerce City. You can’t really blame them.

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* Note: Werehpai is not a real country, and Bryant Andersson Field doesn’t exist. If you didn’t know that before, sorry to ruin the fun, but Werehpai is actually a site consisting of a series of caves in southwest Suriname.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.