The atmosphere at professional (and even amateur) soccer matches in the United States has come a long way in the past 20 years or so.
In the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, we were accustomed to seeing sparse crowds made up of families and youth soccer teams sprinkled around cavernous old gridiron football stadiums, or crammed into inadequate stands of high school bleachers. Oftentimes, these venues were located in far-flung suburbs or set amidst a sea of parking spaces with little surrounding environmental ambience. And once inside, soccer aficionados were in many cases greeted with little enthusiasm from the crowd beyond “Let’s Go [insert animal mascot here]!” over the PA system.
But now the sport enjoys a robust dedicated infrastructure, with modern soccer venues throughout all three professional divisions. These venues, in many cases, have been built in more attractive locations in their communities, with amenities like bars, restaurants, and parks within walking distance. The sights and sounds inside our stadiums have also changed, with organized supporters groups exploding onto the scene since the turn of the century, bringing the kind of 90-minute energy seen around the world here to the USA, making for an experience that you simply don’t see in any other sport here.
So the question is, which team does it the best? Who has the best atmosphere in all of US soccer? It’s definitely a subjective thing, and picking and choosing one club over the other is sure to start a few arguments. But we’re going to highlight a few places that are some of our favorites, that we feel have truly helped elevate the game here, and that if you get a chance, you should experience in person for yourself.
Which team has the best match atmosphere in US soccer?
So, in no particular order, here we go:
The Sounders’ history dates back to the old NASL in the 1970s, and they kicked back online in the 80s and survived as a USL team, to decent support, in the 90s and 2000s. But the Emerald City took things to another level when they ascended to MLS in 2009. In an era where most MLS teams were (rightfully) leaving the big football stadiums and building their own smaller, soccer specific venues, the Sounders moved in with the Seahawks at the 68,740 seat Qwest (now Lumen) Field. A fun fact about the venue is that the first sporting event ever held at the stadium was a USL Sounders game in 2002.
The team made use of the large capacity, smashing the (at the time) league average attendance record, bringing in over 30,000 fans per game, and over the years has regularly packed the entire building with huge crowds for big matches. Much of the energy in the building is brought by the supporters, the largest group being the Emerald City Supporters, but the entire crowd is often involved in the chants and songs. Massive tifo displays often grace the south end of the stadium in the main supporter area, creating scenes that were rarely seen in this country up until Seattle rose to the first division, sparking a choreo arms race across the supporter culture in the USA.
Detroit City FC
Detroit City FC is, in my opinion, perhaps the best story in US soccer, if not sports in general in this country, of the past decade. Le Rouge has its roots in the Detroit City Futbol League, and was founded as a NPSL (4th tier) amateur team in 2012. The club cultivated a dedicated supporter base over the years, most notably the unapologetically-passionate Northern Guard (their website address is NoOneLikes.us).
City plays at ~8,000 seat Keyworth Stadium which was built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project in the enclave city of Hamtramck. Through a crowdfunding investment program, the club raised nearly $750,000 from supporters to renovate (many volunteered themselves to do the work) the venue, and they moved in for the 2016 NPSL season.
The team later raised over $1,000,000 in supporter investment as they turned pro, first in the 3rd Division NISA for 2020, then, somewhat surprisingly, jumping up to the D2 USL Championship in 2022.
The most impressive thing about the outstanding level of support in Detroit is that it’s come about entirely organically. It wasn’t born from having a first division team dropped into town, or even built on the back of the premise of that ever happening. In fact, supporters have vocally fought off efforts over the years from MLS and others to come into town and usurp what they’ve (literally) built themselves. It’s all about a club doing things right, and their fans being dedicated whole-heartedly to them.
The move to the more upscale confines of USL has sadly forced some tension between supporters and the club, and forcibly taken some of the edge off of this rebellious outfit. But all the ingredients are still there. The combination of the old stadium nestled in a working class neighborhood with freight trains rolling by behind the stands during matches, smoke so thick it’s hard to see anything after goals, and the incredible supporters spread along the far (camera-facing) sideline always in full voice make for a unique spectacle in the US soccer landscape.
Portland Timbers / Portland Thorns
Portland is twofer, as the city shows outstanding support for both its men’s and women’s pro sides. Providence Park was originally built in 1926, and its history and unique layout brings a character unmatched by any soccer venue in the US. This was the stadium (then called Civic Stadium) where Pelé played his last official soccer game ever, at Soccer Bowl ’77. Always a multipurpose venue sharing with baseball and football, the stadium was expanded and renovated exclusively for soccer when the Timbers moved to MLS in 2011. In 2018-19, the club extended the east sideline seats upward in a towering 3-deck addition rising above the street below.
The original covered stands not only create a nostalgic/classic feel to games, even just on TV, but it also helps amplify the noise from the Timbers Army and Rose City Rivers, supporters for the Timbers and Thorns, respectively. These are fans that have sold out every MLS home match since 2011 and have led the NWSL in attendance by a wide margin. For Timbers games, some fans have been known to camp out overnight or longer, even though they already have tickets, to secure the best spots in the GA section. That’s the kind of dedication the fans in Portland have for their clubs.
Controversies in 2019 (a battle over the display of anti-fascist symbols in the supporters section) and 2021/22 (allegations of sexual misconduct by a former Thorns coach, domestic abuse from a Timbers player, and alleged cover ups) have shaken the relationship between the ownership and the fans, and rightfully so, but the atmosphere and ambience in Portland is still something special.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
This is perhaps a surprising pick, but I think it’s an underrated gem – even as a Fort Lauderdale Strikers (RIP) supporter who visited twice a year from 2011-2016 but rarely came home down I-75 with any points to show for it. The site in downtown St. Petersburg has a long sporting history, mostly for baseball as a Spring Training and Minor League venue, beginning in 1923. The current stadium was built in 1947, and had major renovations (for baseball) done in 1976 and 1996.
When FC Tampa Bay (properly rechristened as the Rowdies in 2012) moved in for their second season in 2011, baseball was gone from the venue so the opportunity was there to refit the venue to be more accommodating for soccer. Once owner Bill Edwards took control of the club and stadium, a significant bit of work was done to upgrade the facility. The field layout was turned 90°, old seats were replaced with new yellow and green ones, additional premium sideline seats were added in the former outfield, a new video board, paint, a new pitch, and so on.
What emerged was a fabulous, if a bit unconventional, lower division venue with a location that is unrivaled. In the heart of downtown St. Pete, the stadium offers a stunning view of Tampa Bay, with sailboats and palm trees providing the backdrop to the action. There’s plenty of walkable things nearby so hanging out in the area on match days really makes it feel like an event, even if Florida’s summer heat and frequent rain tamps down the attendance on a given night. The old concrete roof over the home plate section amplifies the crowd noise, with supporters group Ralph’s Mob providing the soundtrack all game long.
The future of the venue is a little murky, as current ownership, the Rays MLB team, is in venue/home city purgatory at the moment trying to figure out what their long term plans are – some of which have include potentially moving the Rowdies to a new shared facility with the baseball team. But the proposed expansion of Al Lang, floated in 2016 as part of a long-shot MLS bid, would really turn the stadium into one of the best in the country, on top of the outstanding environment and history the site already has.
Atlanta United FC
We’ll finish it out with the newest team on our list – Atlanta United. The club debuted in 2017, and has shattered the notion that soccer can’t work in the Deep South. Playing in the 70,000+ seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium alongside the NFL’s Falcons, Atlanta broke MLS attendance records again and again in it’s first few seasons, setting the mark for average attendance two years in a row, and several single game high water marks, that only this year have been broken (just up the road a bit by Charlotte FC’s inaugural home game). The stadium was designed from the start with soccer in mind (owner Arthur Blank first attempted to bring an MLS team to town in 2009/10 but withdrew the bid), featuring retractable seating areas to accommodate a full-size pitch and provide better sight lines.
Sadly, few current Five Stripes fans made it out to the quaint (but great in this 4-time visitor’s opinion) Silverbacks Park to see local pro soccer before the big leagues arrived on their doorstep. But pulling in some of the highest soccer attendance in the world on a regular basis since 2017 has proven that the area will support the game, and if you’re looking for sheer volume of humans in the building, it’s tough to beat ATL.
So there you have it. Are we way off base? Right on the money?
What’s your favorite soccer atmosphere in the US? Flashy newcomers with slick new grounds like Austin, Nashville or LAFC in MLS? Maybe it’s an old guard team like DC United or the Galaxy? Or perhaps something away from the bright lights – like the quirky gang at Forward Madison, small town community-focused Kingston Stockade, or uber-hip Oakland Roots? Let us know in the comments section below.
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