Michelle Kaufman: Sun Life Stadium has given elite soccer a local stage

Certainly, the Marlins have taken some heat for their new stadium and business decisions. But South Florida soccer fans continue to benefit from the baseball team’s departure from Sun Life Stadium.

With the Marlins out of the building, the stadium has been aggressively seeking world-class soccer matches to fill open dates. Colombia plays Guatemala on Feb. 6 in a friendly. Word is, a summer exhibition tournament featuring internationally known club teams is in the works. And, on Wednesday it was announced that Sun Life Stadium is one of 13 venues chosen to host matches during the 2013 Gold Cup, which runs July 7-28.

Eight large stadiums and five small-to-medium-sized stadiums were chosen. The other large stadiums are Georgia Dome (Atlanta), M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore), Solider Field (Chicago), Cowboys Stadium (Arlington, Texas), Sports Authority Field (Denver), Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.), and CenturyLink Field (Seattle).

Of those, Sun Life Stadium, Rose Bowl, Sports Authority Field and Soldier Field are the only ones with real grass, making them more logical choices for the final.

The smaller stadiums hosting matches are: Rentschler Field (East Hartford, Conn.), BBVA Compass Stadium (Houston), Red Bull Arena (Harrison, N.J.), Jeld-Wen Field (Portland, Ore.), and Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, Utah).

It is not yet known which sites will host which teams or games. That is expected to be determined sometime in March. But figure that Mexico and the United States will play in larger venues, although Portland, Ore., and Sandy, Utah, would offer a nice partisan crowd for the U.S. team, whereas some of the bigger stadiums in big cities tend to draw fans with Latin American roots cheering for their native teams.

We do know 11 of the 12 teams in the draw. They are: the United States, Mexico, Canada, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Belize, Cuba, Haiti, Martinique and Trindad and Tobago. Panama and Guatemala are battling for the final spot in a regional playoff.

It is unknown which teams will bring their full squads and which will send younger players, as teams such as the United States and Mexico will be in the midst of World Cup qualifying and Mexico will have just played in the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.

Whoever shows up, Sun Life Stadium executives are happy to be among the hosts. Dolphins and stadium owner Stephen Ross a few months ago launched a soccer division to his RSE Ventures, and hired longtime soccer promoters Charlie Stillitano and Jon Sheiman. They put together the World Football Challenge the past few summers, an exhibition competition featuring clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Juventus.

South Florida fans can expect those kinds of teams to become regular visitors to Sun Life Stadium in the coming years.

“International soccer is experiencing a tremendous surge of interest in the United States and RSE plans to be at the forefront of this transformation,” said Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures. “The time is right to elevate the platform of the World Football Challenge — showcasing Sun Life Stadium and other great U.S. venues as premiere destinations for the world’s elite clubs. To lead this effort, we’re pleased to welcome the pioneers in the international match business with deep relationships spanning the globe.”

Nearly 200,000 fans have attended the four international soccer matches at Sun Life Stadium since summer 2011. A crowd of 70,080 showed up for FC Barcelona’s friendly against C.D. Guadalajara in August 2011. The most-attended match of the 2012 World Football Challenge was Chelsea’s against AC Milan, which drew 57,748 here last July.

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“[U.S. players] settle very early because they don’t get the peer pressure. If a player makes it to MLS when he is 18 or 19 years old, he thinks he made it. This is the problem we have because we are not socially so connected so deeply to soccer in the daily life. They think, you get a tryout in Europe with West Ham, this is huge, you made it. No, you haven’t even made it if you have the contract with West Ham. And even if you play there and if you become a starter, which would make us happy, that still doesn’t mean that you made it.

“My whole talk to Clint Dempsey for 18 months was [about how] he hasn’t made [expletive]. You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team and that you may end up winning the Champions League. There is always another level. If you one day reach the highest level then you’ve got to confirm it, every year. Xavi, [ Andres] Iniesta, [ Lionel] Messi. Confirm it to me. Show me that every year you deserve to play for Real Madrid, for Bayern Munich, for Manchester United.”