American soccer fans, we need to talk. We have issues … with our stadiums. We need to sort this out.
At very least, we need to our feelings on the table: American soccer must find some peace in its conflicted relationship with the stadiums where our matches play out. It’s working for now … but only “kind of” working. Eventually, we just have to find a more stable place.
At some point, we have to decide: Are we a country that truly likes soccer and wants to function as one (a nation that loves and values the game, that is). Or are we a country that wants to make money off soccer, and doesn’t really give a crap about the game itself?
That’s where we are, and this is the best time to discuss it, during a summer of big and lucrative matches. They are “big” — at least, in the sense that hordes of fans here will happily rush forth, cash in hand, to watch the world’s iconic clubs in varying degrees of interest against other clubs with varying degrees of interest. That’s the International Champions Cup, where Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and other globally recognized heavies are once again drawing swell crowds.
And we have the CONCACAF Gold Cup, an actual international competition, even if it’s not all that competitive. Not yet, anyway, for the United States. But never mind that, the crowds have been solid.
Here’s the problem: Each time a promoter or tournament organizer sketches out plans for one of these matches, they face an all-to-familiar American soccer dilemma: Go with a smaller “proper” soccer stadium and its more suitable field, or; follow the money, utilizing a larger American football facility, where history has taught us the playing surface will probably fall somewhere between “garden variety poor” and “dangerously awful.”
Mostly, they go with the money –and that leaves us rehashing the same old tired conversation about how these champagne clubs and these matches deserve better.
Hence, American soccer’s complicated stadium issue.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal certainly had his say last week, lamenting the poor condition of CenturyLink Field. He even made a funny – Who knew the hard ass Dutchman had it in him? – about how other places had facilities for football, not for One Direction concerts, referencing the musical act that complicated field conditions in Seattle that were always going to be imperfect. At CenturyLink, you get artificial turf (which disgusts most players) or grass laid over it (which rarely works).
He mentioned similarly difficult footing last year in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a preseason match against Real Madrid. A record-setting crowd of 109,000 made a bunch of money for a bunch of folks … never mind the bad field.
Sure, the aesthetics of a match blessed with such fabulous talent would have looked better inside Crew Stadium in Ohio or at Toyota Park outside Chicago, the nearest “proper” soccer stadiums. The trouble is, matches between these highest-profile, Richie Rich-run clubs would never happen there.
Even selling seats at a premium, the financial reality of 20,000-seat stadiums would be prohibitive. Without huge financial guarantees, clubs like Manchester United or Real Madrid would never bother to come over. They show up in the United States for one reason, and we all know what that is.
MLS is alive and well thanks to places like Toyota Park and Crew Stadium; 15 clubs now perform inside of grounds built or renovated exclusively for MLS teams. That stadium initiative has been a real success story in American soccer. In some ways, the development of these soccer stadiums has been the savior of American professional soccer. At the very least, development of proper soccer stadiums has driven the growth of the game here. These facilities generate a cultural permanence, not to mention the vital revenue streams that pave ways for further growth drivers like Designated Players, better TV contracts, etc.
But the stadiums are what they are: appropriately small- to mid-sized grounds. They are built for the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls, etc.; we aren’t talking about the gleaming San Siro of Italy’s Milan here or Boca’s teeming La Bombonera in Argentina.
Thus, when a club like Juventus or a Chelsea comes calling for its annual U.S. cash grab, we stick them in a bigger stadium, where the temporary turf is so bad that we all nod in agreement at Van Gaal’s old-man-on-the-porch rant.
Or when the United States needs a bigger venue for the latest unfriendly friendly with Mexico, we have to suffer the crappy sod of (fill in the blank). In the spring, it was the Alamodome in San Antonio, where team officials on both sides were in a twist about the field, and rightly so.
CONCACAF officials chose the venues for the ongoing Gold Cup. Sure enough, the desire to fill additional seats trumped the better angels of actual competition. Last night inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, as the United States tested itself in a tournament semifinal, the match took place on yet another temporary grass surface laid over artificial turf. Mark this down as the third temporary field for the United States in its foursome of matches to date; Jurgen Klinsmann’s team also made do with slippery, bumpy, slow temporary surfaces in Foxboro, Mass., and in Baltimore.
Crowds there were larger than in suburban Dallas, where a sold-out crowd saw Klinsmann’s team open the tournament on an actual soccer field. But “sold out” meant 21,000 and change. So the payday was more “box lunch” than “fancy dinner spread.”
At least U.S. Soccer has more or less made its peace with the stadium situation for World Cup qualifiers. (Mostly, anyway, as exceptions remain.) Most matches the United States actually need to win take place inside actual soccer grounds, attached to more reassuring and predictable field conditions that favor the more talented side.
Now, come the next opportunity to make splashy cash in a meaningless friendly, all venue bets are off.
Eventually, we’ll have to get to a more stable place. Perhaps the stadium issue will solve itself with further growth of the domestic game. I wrote last week at another site about whether the conventional wisdom of domestic soccer stadiums was already changing?
For now, we’re stuck in a bad place, choosing regularly between two equally unappealing options. Lose a chance to see soccer’s global luminaries or stash the games in grounds on surfaces of discontent and pretend like there’s not a problem.
Alas, for now, this is a snapshot of big-time soccer in the United States: the sport has come so far, and yet still has miles and miles to go.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.