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American soccer has a stadium problem; By Steve Davis

georgia-dome-turf

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 

 

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. toryblue

    July 25, 2015 at 3:51 am

    “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 easy. in the U.S., we want to make money off soccer. the passion for liking soccer is only confined to that tiny subset of American sports fans that are soccer fans. the people who run soccer? they want to make money. and everything they’ve built is geared towards that goal. why else would MLS be the opaque boondoggle that is?

    as for the stadiums, there is no logic that would support building giant soccer stadiums in the United States. it would be a waste of money that would cripple American soccer, which has survived over the past two decades precisely by being severely cheap and cost-controlled. the second you start spending on soccer in the U.S. like the rest of the world does, you can start the countdown towards soccer collapsing in the U.S. yet again.

  2. seattlered

    July 25, 2015 at 2:01 am

    Unfortunately, American pro sports owners expect the citizens to pay for the stadiums. Due to the public dislike of using taxpayer dollars for billionaire owners to make obscene profits from tickets, luxury boxes, and concessions profits, don’t expect any new soccer-only facilities anytime soon.

    If I remember correctly, owners pay for stadiums in Europe.

    A previous poster mentioned grass only stadiums. Are those soccer-friendly cities? If not, then perhaps that’s why the European clubs don’t go there.

    Go Liverpool!

  3. Javier

    July 24, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Completely agree with the stadium issue. I don’t get the grass over turf situation at all these NFL stadiums. It’s ridiculous. The worst offender I’ve seen was the Colorado/Seattle MLS game last Saturday where they had to play on the grass since there wasn’t enough time to switch back to turf after the ICC match Friday night.

    I do find it comical that Van Gaal is talking about concerts in stadiums and sharing sports when Old Trafford has hosted concerts and Rugby matches in the past. But I’m pretty sure he’s completely oblivious to that.

    • CTBlues

      July 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Doesn’t Old Trafford host the Rugby League Final?

  4. rkujay

    July 24, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Playing footy on turf is really bad. Playing on narrow, short pitches found in most throwball stadiums is worse. It affects the tactics of the game. This is (partly) why America is looked upon as a second class football country.

    For a country of our size, we should dominate, or at least be seriously competitive. Look what happened when we invested just a little bit in the women’s program.

    • CTBlues

      July 24, 2015 at 10:27 am

      Most of the new American football stadiums are built with hosting soccer games in mind now so they have enough room to fit a normal sized soccer field, but they don’t think about the playing surface.

  5. Blue Lou

    July 23, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    “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?”

    Based on the fact that these meaningless “ICC” friendlies are turning up on FS1 while many competitive Gold Cup matches are relegated to FS2 and US Open Cup matches are not on TV at all, I’d say the decision has been made.

    And I am with Miles. If we have to play in the big stadiums, lets do so in stadiums with legit surfaces. Add Stanford and Arrowhead in KC to that list.

  6. Miles Long

    July 23, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Why not host these matches in football stadiums with real grass? FedEx Field outside of D.C., Lincoln Financial Field in Philly, Soldier Field, Mile High Stadium, and the Rose Bowl all seem like perfect destinations.

    • Ata Dizdar

      July 23, 2015 at 11:46 pm

      Not at FedEx Field. Trust me on that one.

    • CTBlues

      July 24, 2015 at 10:23 am

      I listed all the grass NFL stadiums with grass in the LVG rant on CenturyLink Field.
      NFL grass stadiums Reliant Stadium in Houston 71k, Soldier Field Chicago 61.5k, Lincoln Financial Field Philadelphia 69.1k, Heinz Field Pittsburgh 65.5k, FedEx Field Landover, MD 75k, Bank of America Stadium Charlotte 74.5k, EverBank Field Jacksonville 84k, Raymond James Stadium Tampa Bay 66k, Sun Life Stadium Miami 65.3k, Nissan Stadium Nashville 69.1k, Arrowhead Stadium Kansas City Missouri 76.4k, Mile High Stadium Denver 76.1k, University of Phoenix Stadium Glendale 78.6k, Qualcomm Stadium San Diego 70.5k, Levi’s Stadium Santa Clara 68.5k.

      The you can add in all the big college football stadiums like the LA Coliseum, Rose Bowl, Stanford Stadium, Cotton Bowl, Kyle Field at Texas A&M, most of the stadiums in the SEC and ACC. Sad thing is most of the Big Ten teams switched to turf fields except for Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Maryland.

      • RakSiam

        July 24, 2015 at 12:30 pm

        Maryland has artificial turf.

        But I agree that this choice is not between big stadiums with turf or small stadiums with grass. There are PLENTY of large stadiums in this country with natural grass surfaces. There may be other technical issues with some of them though like the size of the field not being large enough or crowns, etc. But I think most of them should work. I am constantly baffled as to why they are not used instead of the ridiculous sod over turf that keeps getting used every year.

        • CTBlues

          July 24, 2015 at 12:46 pm

          Last time watched a Maryland game on TV they had grass and it looks like they made the switch to turf in 2013.

  7. Kei

    July 23, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    I was at the Mexico-Costa Rica friendly at the Citrus Bowl late last month. The playing surface looked awful from where I was sitting, and the players seemed to be struggling mightily with the skips and bounces of the ball. I had assumed they were forced to play on turf; after all, Orlando City play all their games on the fake stuff. It was only after I got home that I read about how they had laid temporary grass over the turf just days before. One picture I saw after the game showed the grounds crew ripping the grass out almost immediately after the final whistle.

    I went to the US Open Cup at the same venue just three days later, with the artificial turf in place. The bounces off the pitch didn’t look any less weird or uncommon than they did during the aforementioned friendly, though Orlando City seemed far more comfortable with them during the match (which may partially explain why they won rather comfortably that night).

    The rationale seems to be that it’s impossible to maintain a pristine, proper grass pitch in a place like Orlando due to the oppressive heat and the frequent rain showers during the summer. It struck me as bizarre on two fronts, first being that Orlando City trains on grass pitches, and second being that those same sweltering conditions are probably more dangerous for the players on a plastic pitch, beyond just the playing style and injury concerns.

    I don’t think there’s a player on Orlando City’s squad who isn’t looking forward to the inaugural day of their new ground, whenever that may be.

    • CTBlues

      July 24, 2015 at 9:55 am

      The Citrus Bowl used to be grass until during one of the New Year’s day Bowl games it rained and the players were slipping all over the place which kind of sounds like a poor drainage system because all the other football stadiums in Florida have grass and full time tents unlike the Citrus bowl is just started having one when Orlando City started playing there in the USL.

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