Peter Wilt’s Top 20 MLS Stadia (Part II)

Last week I wrote about the bottom half of my personal top 20 stadia (out of 32 total) in MLS history.  This week I share with you my top 10 (11 really).   My bottom seven were all larger stadia with capacities of 30,000+ and the next three were each smaller stadia.  Today’s list reveals nine smaller soccercentric stadia and two of the jumbo variety.  Let’s start with one of the big ones:

10. RFK Stadium, DC United: This multi-purpose stadia has survived the Washington Senators, Redskins and Nationals and has been converted into a pretty nice soccer stadium.  The old movable left field baseball grandstand was relocated to the touchline to create very good sightlines for sideline ticket holders.  The metal treads and risers also provide plenty of bounce for the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava that give it a unique and sometimes frightening experience for first time fans.

While the stadium has too many seats for most DC United matches and lacks many modern amenities, it possesses more history and tradition than most MLS stadia and the field is usually in very good shape for soccer.  The ring of honor of famous Washington athletes that surrounds RFK’s upper deck facade provided me with the inspiration to create Chicago’s Ring of Fire.

RFK Stadium

RFK Stadium

9. Columbus Crew Stadium:  CCS is the grand daddy of soccercentric stadia.  Built privately by Hunt Sports Group on the cheap for less than $27 million in 1999, its bells and whistles pale in comparison to the newer stadia.  In fact, I recall being in the visitor’s locker room prior to a game at CCS when Toyota Park was in its design phase and Fire players were pleading with me to make sure we would have bigger locker rooms with more shower heads and toilets than CCS’ meager locker rooms offered.

But CCS is more than simply “The First” of a generation of soccer stadia.  Renovated suites, a retrofitted stage and hospitality area, a newly energized supporters’ section and very good sightlines all are important reasons CCS is still among MLS’ best.

Crew Stadium

Crew Stadium

8. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Colorado Rapids: This ranking is based on second hand information as I’ve never been to Dick’s.  Most people I speak to about Dick’s and televised and photographic views indicate a stadium similar to BMO Field with a nice roof, grass field and poor location.  I believe the unique roof line is supposed to evoke images of the nearby Rocky Mountains.  Instead it reminds me of the canopy roof of the nearby Denver International Airport.

That does remind me, though, that I heard stories Major League Baseball prevented Coors Field from having one of the coolest stadium design elements ever.  As I understand, the Colorado Rockies wanted their outfield fenceline to mirror the peaks and valleys of the Colorado Rocky Mountains only to have MLB insist on a straight line wall.  And I thought the NFL was the No Fun League.

Dick's Sporting Goods Park

Dick's Sporting Goods Park

7. BMO Field, Toronto FC: I attended BMO’s Official Grand Opening Game (though there was a previous game) when Toronto FC hosted the Chicago Fire on seat cushion giveaway (and apparently throw on the field) day.  I bought a Montreal Canadiens jersey for the game, because I figured it would upset a few Toronto fans….it did.  BMO’s lakefront location on the former site of the Hockey Hall of Fame is closer to an urban center than any of MLS’ other soccercentric stadia, which, along with its switch to natural grass, is a tremendous advantage and bumps it just ahead of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

BMO Field, Grand Opening Day

6. Pizza Hut Park, FC Dallas: After they heard about Toyota Park’s inclusion of a permanent stage, the Hunt Sports Group redesigned PHP.  Their stage, however, has no seats in front of it nor suites alongside it, leaving the look of a giant, vacant concrete block on one end.  The ex-urban location is a deterrent to the MetroPlex’s many Hispanic fans, the lack of a roof makes for some very warm days and the distance of the locker rooms from the field is a bit of an irritant to the players, but the field view stadium club, the quality playing surface, the stadium merchandise shop and the surrounding soccer complex are all important pluses.

Pizza Hut Park

Pizza Hut Park

5. Qwest Field, Seattle Sounders FC: If they averaged 15,000 fans a game, I suppose I wouldn’t be ranking Qwest this high, but the fact is Sounders FC has made an NFL stadium intimate by virtue of the size of its crowds and the design of the stadium.  Like new Soldier Field, Qwest Field feels vertical.  The roof, steep grading of seats, first class amenities and 30,000 fans, many of whom are passionate, work well together to create the best big stadium feel MLS has ever had on a consistent basis.  Opening up the Hawks Nest next season will only add to the vertical and intimate feel of Qwest for Sounders FC matches.

Qwest Field. Photo: The West End on Flickr

Qwest Field. Photo: The West End on Flickr

4.  Home Depot Center, Los Angeles Galaxy: Rossetti Architects have had the most influence in soccer stadium design in the United States.  Their creations include each of the top five MLS Stadia in my list including their first venture, the self-proclaimed Cathedral of Soccer in the Americas, the HDC.  I have been there for many great soccer games including the Fire’s frustrating 2003 MLS Cup loss and the inaugural WPS Championship Game, but the most memorable event I ever attended at the HDC was the funeral of Los Angeles Galaxy President and General Manager Doug Hamilton.  I served as a pall bearer carrying Doug’s casket on and off the field through the player tunnel while a bagpiper played Danny Boy and Amazing Grace.  It was the most moving experience I’ve ever had in a soccer stadium.

For many, the HDC is the best MLS stadium and legitimate arguments can be made for that – until next April.  Its stadium club, suites and other hospitality areas are extremely nice.  It’s office space, beautiful landscape and connected facilities (indoor velodrome, tennis stadium, track and field stadium and a dozen soccer fields) are all very nice, but the stadium itself falls short of the top three IMH(and biased)O.  My two biggest complaints about the HDC are the poor quality of the playing surface due to over usage and the distance from the seating bowl to the touchline.

Home Depot Center. Photo: Whappen on Flickr.

Home Depot Center. Photo: Wha'ppen on Flickr.

3. Toyota Park, Chicago Fire: When designing Toyota Park, we worked with Rossetti Architects using the HDC as a baseline.  After we selected Bridgeview as the winning community of our stadium bidding process, Phil Anschutz almost apologetically confided to me, “You know Peter, we’re not going to be able to build you as nice a stadium as we did in Los Angeles.”  The budget restrictions Mr. Anschutz was referring to created limitations that resulted in only one training field, less storage and office space than at the HDC and a stadium club that doesn’t overlook the field.  But using hindsight from HDC, we added several improvements including a center entrance player tunnel, ground level front row, seating much closer to the touchline, steeper rake of seats and a permanent stage that protects the field and provides a nice field view hospitality area.

And perhaps the most important feature is one that is underground: a $1.7 million dollar soccer field with a year round field heating system that keeps the playing surface among the League’s best in spite of the challenging Chicago climate.  At the groundbreaking, when the stadium design was completed, AEG President Tim Leiweke confided to me, “I don’t know how you did it, but this is going to be nicer than Home Depot.”

Toyota Park. Photo: section8chicago on Flickr

Toyota Park. Photo: section8chicago on Flickr

2. Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake: Rio Tinto is a nicer version of Toyota Park.  Just as the Chicago Fire took learnings from HDC, Real Salt Lake, working again with Rossetti, used the Toyota Park blue print and evolved it using lessons from the Fire’s home.  The stadium club overlooks the field, the general and premium seat amenities are all a bit nicer than Toyota Park and the view of the Wasatch Mountains is gorgeous.  The south end stands are portable allowing for seats for sporting events and a permanent stage for concerts. And I love their use of text messaging for in seat food service, which is available for all fans.

Rio Tinto Stadium

Rio Tinto Stadium

1B. Union Field at Chester, Philadelphia Union: The two new MLS stadia for 2010 will in all likelihood be improvements on anything we’ve seen to date in MLS.  Based on descriptions, artists renderings, photos and costs, I’m giving a strong edge to Red Bull Arena for the new best soccer stadium in the history of MLS.  Like its 2010 stadium twin Red Bull Arena, Union Field is being built on a cleaned up brown field near a river in an industrial suburb near a major urban area.  Union Field’s design has morphed since it was first announced in order to become more budget friendly as the economic collapse changed the business paradigm that it was based upon, but it will likely be nicer than anything built previously in MLS.

Union Field

Union Field rendering

Red Bull Arena

Red Bull Arena rendering

1A. Red Bull Arena, New York Red Bulls: They’ve been talking about a new stadium for New York’s MLS team since Charlie Stillitano was there.  Several chief executives later, the dream and the “60-90 day” promises are finally coming to reality next spring.  Despite all the criticism Nick Sakiewicz has received from fans over the years, he will be able to rightfully take great pride in his role in developing the two best stadia in MLS history, both opening next spring – that is quite remarkable.  And Red Bull Arena is going to be a thing of beauty.  With its state of the art features and dedication to be a soccercentric stadium it may be a long time before anyone bumps RB Arena off my top spot.

So there you go, my top 10 (or 11 really).

Let me know how you rank your Top 10 (or 11) and why you chose yours differently than mine.  Have a great week.  Go Fire…er…uh….never mind.

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