MLS History As Seen Through Its Stadia: Top 20 Countdown!
One can make a number of observations about the development of Major League Soccer by examining the stadia its teams have played in. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to rank 20 of the thirty-two primary MLS stadia over the last 14 years and share my impressions and a few anecdotes. Through the rankings, which in general tend to be in chronological order, one can see not only the evolution of MLS stadia, but evolution of the League itself. The stadia are listed in order from bottom to top, of my preference (caveat: I’ve only watched soccer games in 16 of the 20). Here are numbers 20 through 11 (next week will feature my top 10):
20) Ohio Stadium, Columbus Crew: Ohio State’s iconic horseshoe gave the Crew credibility by playing on the home field of Central Ohio’s only major league sports team. The field unfortunately was ridiculously narrow, because it was surrounded by the historic Jesse Owens Track and despite Kroger’s huge season ticket commitment and the Crew’s attendance success during MLS’ early years, its crowds were dwarfed in the cavernous stadium.
19) Giants Stadium, MetroStars/Red Bulls: Another over-sized behemoth that gave MLS credibility in its early years, but quickly worked against the League when crowds settled in at sub-15,000 numbers. Expenses were notoriously high (>$100,000 per game), atmosphere was non-existent despite the Empire Supporters Group’s best efforts and field issues both when the grass was real and when it wasn’t. As the Red Bulls clear out, all of MLS can say “good riddance”.
18) Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City Wizards: Like Giants Stadium, Arrowhead isn’t old enough to have character or new enough to have first class amenities. It did have too many seats and not enough fans to give Wiz or Wizards games any sense of intimacy. Mentioning the Wiz reminds me of two stories from the team’s first year. Hunt Sports Group paid the Wiz electronics storesan undisclosed sum to permit use of the name and when it came time for a marketing slogan, one Wiz staffer suggested: “The Wiz, You Gotta Go!” The slogan was rejected 😉
17) The Rose Bowl, Los Angeles Galaxy:Like Ohio Stadium, the Rose Bowl is old and lacked amenities…unlike Ohio Stadium, it had a really nice playing surface and actually looked like it was filling up with people occasionally for MLS games. The Galaxy downsized the 100,000 seat stadium to nearly half it capacity with tarps for its first ever game. To everyone’s surprise, the Jorge Campos led side attracted so many fans they caused gridlock on the 210. Fans and staff hurriedly tore half the tarps off the seats. New Galaxy fans abandoned their cars on the roadside, climbed down the highway embankment and stood in line for hours (the last ticket was purchased with less than five minutes in the game). Alas, the love affair tapered off, but the team still attracted an average of 21,000 fans in its last Rose Bowl season prior to moving to the number four ranked stadium in my countdown.
The Galaxy staff was a first class operation, but they worked out of a series of connected remodeled mobile home units in the Rose Bowl parking lot that occasionally became home to small mammals. I’ll always have fondness in my heart for the Rose Bowl for being home to three great moments in my life: 1) the Fire captured its inaugural season MLS Cup there on October 25, 1998 in front of 51,000+; 2) I sat next to Oscar De La Hoya in a Rose Bowl suite for the USA vs. Columbia match in the 1994 World Cup and 3) after a later Fire vs. Galaxy match, I met the gold lamed and sequined singing sensation KC of Sunshine band fame.
16) Gillette Stadium, New England Revolution: I hate this place…during my Fire tenure it was the place playoff dreams went to die…and the security was suffocating…and the field was crappy…and I had more bad away fan experiences there than any other stadium I’ve been to….in other words, I’m way too biased to objectively rank this stadium. In fact, given my feelings about it, a rational person would probably move it north in the rankings half a dozen spots…the Fort is pretty good (underrated actually), the Minutemen are kitschy (in a good way) and the stadium club is nice…OK, there you go, I said something nice about it…and Evan Whitney, Tony Biscaia, Prairie Rose Claytonand a bunch of other good eggs support the perennial MLS runners up in good form.
15) Robertson Stadium, Houston Dynamo Maybe after all the reports about the crappy field conditions earlier in the season and again last weekend, I should drop the home of the Texian Armya couple spots. I’ve never been to Robertson, but on the telly it looks intimate and the fans do a great job of creating a home field advantage. Really seems to be one of the best atmospheres in MLS though the organization and fans don’t seem to get the credit they should. If you moved them to New Jersey, they’d be the darlings of MLS….or they’d catch whatever disease is in the Jersey water and spontaneously combust.
14) New Soldier Field, Chicago Fire: Idecided to rank the new instead of the old, because the new has a large number of seats which are, IMHO, the best sightlines for soccer in the United States or Canada. The 200 level of the Cadillac Club…or whatever it’s now called, is cantilevered over the 100 level meaning the entire level feels like its suspended over the near touchline. And the amenities are incredible. Thousands of fans not only have an incredible view of the field, but they can also take a few steps back into a state of the art stadium club then take a few more steps beyond the stadium club and actually stand amid the historic Doric colonnade on the stadium’s east side and soak in views of one of the world’s most gorgeous skylines and Lake Michigan.
The view from the 300 level which was rarely opened for Fire games and the seats behind the south goal are also terrific. The front row of seats behind the south goal at the new Soldier Field are about 30 yards closer to the field than the view from behind the south goal at the old horseshoed Soldier Field. The field at new Soldier Field is better than at the old, but it was still thin in the beginning of the season due to the cold spring along the lakefront), thick in the middle of the season and long, thick and bumpy in the end of the season (when the Bears season starts). The Bears, traditionally a strong defensive team, liked to keep the grass long to slow opponents’ offenses down, which didn’t really make it a good soccer pitch.
13) Spartan Stadium, San Jose Earthquakes: Man, I saw Spartan on television Sunday night as San Jose State was being destroyed by Nevada. Made me smile, because it bothered me that the university didn’t give the Quakes a legitimate chance to stay on campus. Just as well I guess.
It’s now fake grass and the width will always be narrow due to the pillared concrete walls. It hosted the first MLS match ever (thank you Eric!), an MLS All-Star Game and back in the day, Georgie Best!
12) Cardinal Stadium, Chicago Fire – Great location and incredibly intimate. Life (aka the Chicago Park District, Chicago Bears, Mayor Daley, Ed Bedore and Jerry Reinsdorf) handed us a bag of lemons and I think we made a pretty damn tasty pitcher of lemonade! 2002 was hard. Hard on the staff. Hard on the players. Hard on Bob Bradley. Due to the fake fake grass (it wasn’t even Field Turf), we suffered more knee injuries than any other season and had one of our worst home records ever. When we got the official word in December, 2001 that we’d need to find a new home, we only had a few months to convince the City of Naperville to let us convert a nice little 4,500 seat small college stadium into a 15,000 seat Major League Soccer stadium for up to twenty home games.
Cardinal Stadium is located in an idyllic suburban location hemmed in by a small river, a charming downtown, a college campus and a neighborhood filled with many historic residences valued at well over a million dollars. It seemed to be the definition of NIMBY, but our staff did yeoman’s work, earned Naperville’s approval and a second year under a new coach, many new players and new attitude, which led to arguably the Fire’s best seaon ever.
11) Lockhart Stadium, Miami Fusion: It wasn’t appreciated as a “soccer specific stadium” during its MLS run….I’m not even sure the term existed in 1998 when the expansion Miami Fusion hosted the expansion Chicago Fire’s first game (second game for the Fusion). Tony Kuhn started and Roman Kosecki scored the game winner for the good guys. Great crowd, great atmosphere. Didn’t last. Wasn’t the stadium’s fault. The open air “suites” were certainly nothing special, but it did provide a certain level of exclusivity, the field was generally in good condition and the few times the place was filled, the passion of the fans was infectious. One can argue its location was to blame for the Fusion’s demise, but I’d put geography down the list of the perpetrators. Poor early management was the real criminal. Doug Hamilton’s efforts darn near created a true Miami miracle, but he couldn’t quite overcome the thrifty ownership and the errors of the past.
I’m not ranking every MLS stadium from the League’s first 14 years…Old Soldier Field, Foxboro Stadium, Buck Shaw Stadium, the Cotton Bowl, Dragon Stadium, Raymond James, the Sombrero, new or old Mile High, Rice-Eccles and CommunityAmerica Ballpark were all left off this list…that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re in the Top 20 MLS stadia…I simply didn’t choose to include them in the review. If i had chosen to review them, they all probably would’ve fallen in the bottom half of my rankings. Next week, I’ll give you my top ten.