More than 70,000 soccer fans piled into M&T Bank Stadium in 2013 to watch the United States take on El Salvador in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. While the home of the Ravens is used to selling out on football Sundays, it was an impressive total for a sport that traditionally hasn't had as strong of a following in the United States.
The attendance for the last Gold Cup showed soccer gaining momentum and a strong performance by the U.S. men's team in the 2014 World Cup built on that.
Then, on July 5, the U.S. women's team capped its 2015 World Cup run with a dominating 5-2 win over reigning champion Japan in front of a television audience estimated by Nielsen to be over 26 million in the United States, the largest ever for soccer.
Now, as fans in the area eagerly await the return of the Gold Cup quarterfinals to Baltimore on July 18, another huge turnout at M&T Bank Stadium is expected — especially with the U.S. team playing in one of the two games.
"With what the women were just able to do, I think the timing is great and I expect a tremendous crowd," said Kevin Healey, general manager of the Blast, a Major Arena Soccer League team.
Baltimore will host a doubleheader with one-ticket admission Saturday, with the first game, which includes the United States, kicking off at 5 p.m. and the second at 8 p.m. The other two quarterfinals of the Gold Cup, a biennial 12-team tournament for teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean, will be held Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Fans won't know the full quarterfinal matchups until group play finishes Wednesday. There are three four-team groups. The United States on Friday clinched first place in Group A, which also includes Panama, Honduras and Haiti, earning a berth in the 5 p.m. game in Baltimore.
That's what executive director of Maryland SportsTerry Hasseltine was hoping for.
"Obviously, we want Team USA," Hasseltine said. "It's a pride thing."
Not to mention a ticket sales thing.
Marisabel Munoz, a spokeswoman for Soccer United Marketing, said two of the three venues for the United States' group play games sold out. And three weeks before the tournament started, she said they had seen a 100 percent increase from that time frame in 2013 with approximately 300,000 tickets sold across all 14 venues.
Although the 2013 Gold Cup in Baltimore did draw a sellout crowd, ticket sales were slow until the teams were announced. Hasseltine said some 50,000 tickets were sold in the first 48 hours after the squads were set. When the 2015 Gold Cup began Tuesday, ticket sales for the Baltimore quarterfinals were ahead of where they were at that time in 2013, he said, with more than 20,000 sold.
Hasseltine has helped bring top-level soccer to Baltimore. On July 24, 2009, M&T Bank Stadium drew a sellout crowd to watch English Premier League club Chelsea play Italian Serie A team A.C. Milan, marking the first soccer match played in the stadium. That success has continued with other international games, leading up to Baltimore playing host to a second straight Gold Cup.
"Soccer in this area is like a hidden gem," Hasseltine said. "There is a great soccer following in this region."
Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, who has also served as an assistant coach for the U.S. U-20 National Team, said the sport has always been big in the area, from youth leagues through the professional level.
Cirovski attended the Gold Cup quarterfinals in Baltimore in 2013 and plans to go again this year. He said in the past it felt like the United States was playing a road game in its home country because of the large numbers of other teams' fans who would attend matches, but he noticed a shift in the early 2000s to more pro-U.S. crowds.
"Every time I've gone to a game, the U.S. presence has been bigger and bigger," Cirovski said.
The coach, entering his 23rd season at Maryland, attributed the growth to the success at every level of soccer, with the Women's World Cup victory by the United States providing the latest boost. Cirovski said he gathered with a group of more than 100 kids at his soccer camp to watch the final.
The Gold Cup started less than 48 hours later, and the passion for the sport is still running high.
"It's coming off the heels of the Women's World Cup," Cirovski said. "It's at the front of everyone's thinking."
CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals
M&T Bank Stadium, Saturday
5 p.m.: United States vs. Group B/C third-place team (Chs. 45, 5, Univision, Univision Deportes)
8 p.m.: Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up (Fox Sports 2, Univision, Univision Deportes)