By next season, 10 MLS teams will be playing in stadiums built specifically for soccer.
On Saturday, Seattle Sounders FC will visit the original: 10-year-old Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, a creation of sports visionary Lamar Hunt.
“What (Hunt) did in Columbus by doing the first soccer-specific stadium was set the wheels in motion for the Home Depot Centers of the world, and Red Bull Arena (in the New York City area) as it comes up, and Rio Tinto (in Utah) and all the other stadiums that are in the league now,” said Sigi Schmid, the Sounders coach who worked the previous three seasons in Columbus.
“He set that into motion, and it was his ability to have that forethought and to look ahead that was so important.”
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Hunt’s vision was to move soccer out of American football stadiums and into places tailored to the unique needs of Major League Soccer.
That was always part of Hunt’s plan for the Crew, from the time it became an MLS charter member in 1996. However, voters rejected the idea twice.
By 1999, a summer renovation project was about to force the Crew out of its wildly oversized home at Ohio Stadium, and perhaps out of Columbus. So, Hunt took matters into his own hands – even the small matters – and decided to privately finance the stadium.
“He was very involved in the design and the construction,” Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers said this week. “Lamar’s background is in geology, and when they started to build the stadium they unearthed these huge boulders, and he quickly identified them as glacial boulders that had moved down during the last ice age into central Ohio.
“So he saved all these boulders. They were getting ready to throw them all away – but no, no, no, no – he saved all these boulders and placed them around the stadium as part of the landscape design. He was very hands-on. I think this stadium was really one of his proudest accomplishments.”
That’s saying something, because Hunt did not lack for accomplishments. He was a founder of the American Football League, a co-founder of the North America Soccer League, and founder/owner of the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, founder/owner of the Kansas City Wizards and of the Crew. He helped establish the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun theme parks. And he’s been inducted into the halls of fame of pro football, United States soccer and international tennis. The first trophy won by the Sounders – the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – is named in his honor.
Hunt died Dec. 13, 2006. But by that time his vision of soccer-specific stadiums had been copied by the Chicago Fire, Chivas USA/Los Angeles Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC. The New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union will open their own versions next season. And D.C. United, Houston, New England and San Jose are trying to do the same.
The newer versions have added comforts and frills that Crew Stadium can’t match. But the basic concept endures.
“We’re extremely proud of this facility,” McCullers said. “We celebrated our 10th anniversary this spring. We’ve had a lot of memorable moments here over the last 10 years. It’s iconic to us. ... (Newer stadiums have) some bells and whistles that I wish we had. And there’s technology now – 10 years later – incorporated into new stadiums.
“I think that’s a progression; I think that’s good.”
In all of MLS there is only one holdout: Sounders FC.
The Sounders have become the top-drawing club in MLS by going against conventional wisdom: using an urban NFL stadium as a permanent home.
However, for all the obvious differences between Crew Stadium and Qwest Field, they share some of what Hunt considered essential: a regulation-sized soccer pitch, appropriate sightlines, and a reasonable ratio of available seats and fans to sit in them. Where the facilities differ, McCullers sees Qwest at a unique case that doesn’t disprove the general rule.
“Obviously, I think it’s working in Seattle, but I think that’s the exception, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for the league, but I feel like the definite choice is to have your own soccer-specific stadium.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808