On Saturday night Orlando City will travel to Columbus, OH, to take on Columbus Crew SC. Apart from being one of the charter members of Major League Soccer, Columbus also has the honor of playing in the first major league-level, soccer-specific stadium.
Prior to the building of Mapfre Stadium (formerly Columbus Crew Stadium), professional soccer teams in America generally played in large football stadiums. Often, these cathedrals of sport held more than 50,000 spectators. While grandiose, these cavernous venues appeared empty when filled with approximately 10,000 fans for a soccer game.
Beginning in 1996, the Columbus Crew called Ohio Stadium home on the campus of The Ohio State University. But the 90,000 seat venue was less than ideal for a soccer team. Restricted field size, lack of permanent lights, and about 65,000 tarped seats made life difficult for the Crew.
To make matters worse, in 1998, the stadium began to undergo a major renovation, which wouldn't be finished until 2001. The renovations would mostly be done during Ohio State's off-season, which falls during the MLS season, leaving the Crew homeless.
With little options available to house the young club, oil billionaire and Crew owner Lamar Hunt decided to privately fund a new stadium near the university. Built for $28.5 million at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds, Columbus Crew Stadium opened May 15, 1999.
Seating just 22,555, the new venue would fix all the problems the Crew had with Ohio Stadium. Hunt described the new facility as a "soccer-specific stadium." Its impact on the sport in the United States continues to be unrivaled.
Over the next ten years, 12 soccer-specific stadiums were built for professional teams in the United States. Today, all but four MLS clubs either play in a soccer-specific stadium or are in the process of building one (New York City FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, and New England Revolution).
Seeing the impact on attendance and game day atmosphere that these stadiums were having, MLS Commissioner Don Garber decided to make these smaller venues a focal point for the league. With the exception of a few larger markets, expansion teams would now need a soccer-specific stadium or a plan for one to gain entrance into the league.
In 2012, Garber visited Orlando to gauge the interest of the market towards an MLS team. Satisfied with the fan base of the young local USL club, Orlando City, the commissioner left a list of requirements to be met before the club would be accepted. On top of the list was a new, preferably downtown soccer-specific stadium.
On Oct. 22, 2013, Orange County commissioners voted 5-2 to approve $20 million in tourist taxes toward the new venue. And less than a month later, on Nov. 19, Garber was back in Orlando to announce Orlando City as the 21st team in MLS.
Today, that 16-year-old stadium in Columbus seems outdated. With bleacher-only seating and no roof, it's nowhere near the glamorous buildings being built by MLS clubs today. But the building of Mapfre Stadium was a turning point for soccer in America and its top league. Without the vision and dedication of Hunt, who knows where the sport would be today.
On Saturday night, Orlando City will make its first visit to Columbus to play in a stadium which made an impact that is still widely felt today. And next March, when the gates open to the new soccer-specific stadium on Church Street, it will be important to remember that it's because of that old stadium in Ohio that Orlando will have its newest treasure.