Who could have seen this coming?
The U.S. team took a chance by playing in an unproven soccer market in 2005, staging a game on a temporary grass field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and loved every bit of the experience. Well, there was Landon Donovan's famously wry, mixed review: "I wouldn't necessarily say I loved Provo, but Salt Lake was fun." Yet that 3-0 victory over Costa Rica in front of 40,000-plus fans was enough to keep the Americans coming back.
They've adjusted slightly for each return visit, after having practiced at BYU in '05. The team made Park City its headquarters in 2009 and is being housed in downtown Salt Lake City during this trip, while using Rio Tinto Stadium and Real Salt Lake's nearby facility in Sandy for practices.
This love of Utah is conditional, though. If these guys lose to Honduras in Tuesday's World Cup qualifier or to Cuba in next month's Gold Cup tournament, we may never see them again.
The USMNT wants one thing from a qualifying site: a competitive advantage. Whether that means ordering snow for Costa Rica's visit to Colorado in March or having Panama deal with 40,000 fans in Seattle last week, the Americans just want to win and get to Brazil in 2014.
So while they like Rio Tinto's pristine playing surface and appreciate RSL's loyal following, one loss in our midst could change everything when it comes to choosing stadiums for the 2017 round of qualifying.
Nobody's expecting such an outcome Tuesday, of course. Asked about the state of the team, goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "Morale is super-duper high," and why not?
The U.S. team is rolling lately, the atmosphere should be revved up and Howard is comfortable here. He delivered two outstanding performances in 2009, playing for Everton FC against Major League Soccer's All-Stars in July and returning to Sandy with the national team in September.
Howard made two huge saves on headers by Conor Casey and Davy Arnaud to earn the 1-1 regulation tie with the MLS team, then stopped three of six penalty kicks to give Everton the victory.
In a 2-1 victory over El Salvador in World Cup qualifying, Howard's big save in the 87th minute preserved the U.S. lead.
That game did not quite attract a sellout crowd (19,066) and El Salvadoran fans filled a surprisingly high percentage of the seats. But as the Americans surged ahead with goals from Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, the home-field advantage took hold. So they're back, banking on more support.
Matt Besler, a defender for Sporting Kansas City, expects to feel much differently Tuesday than when he comes to town for MLS competition. "The fans can affect the momentum of the team, because they get so loud and you can just kind of feel it," he said. "The plan is for us to use that to our advantage to attack, to drive the tempo of the game and get the fans involved."
These final-stage, regional qualifying games are big-time events. Everybody wants them and Utah keeps getting them, beginning with RSL's inaugural season of 2005 and continuing for two more World Cup cycles. Everything suggests there will be more games to come, as long as the U.S. record remains intact.
Since 2001, the Americans are 22-0-2 on home soil in World Cup qualifying. That zero needs to stick through Tuesday, if Utahns want this team back here in four years.