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Our City: Soccer Needs More Than a League to Flourish, it Needs a Home

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The opening of D.C. United’s new home has me thinking about the importance of places for soccer in America.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at D.C. United
Last night, D.C. United christened their new home, Audi Field.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I have a memory from my early teenage years — driving from North Wales to London and passing the Stoke City FC’s old ground, Victoria Ground. In this pre-internet age I didn’t know much about English soccer beyond the London clubs and Manchester United, but seeing the stadium rise out of the landscape gave me chills I can remember to this day.

I don’t recall it as especially beautiful, but I remember it felt strong and significant. To a soccer-mad American who had watched all of his soccer in converted American football and baseball stadiums, it looked like a cathedral to my single biggest passion.

The experience has been repeated since then, outside train windows in Germany, on walks through Zagreb, Croatia, driving around lost in Iceland, or from airplane windows over unknown places. Every new soccer stadium I pass in my travels brings a similar touch of excitement. No matter the size, or that they are usually lying dormant waiting for the next game, they always fill me with exhilaration.

While the feeling is forever intangible, I believe it is attached to a sense of place. More accurately, a sense of a soccer place. Growing up in the United States, soccer places were rare. The NASL teams I watched in Detroit and Atlanta played in American football and baseball stadiums, respectively. The only soccer-specific stadiums I’d seen a game in were small college venues.

When I walked down Church Street to Orlando City’s first game at the club’s soccer-specific venue last season, that same feeling swept over me. In my city, my club had a place for soccer.

Purpose-built stadiums are designed to be architectural platforms for experiencing, participating, and loving soccer. We think of them as places we go for games, to see our friends, make memories, and support our team. We imbue them with meaning. We infuse them with significance.

Visitors to my city will know soccer has a home here. They will see in the midst of commerce and residency, a structure of concrete and steel that stands silently as a monument. Should they bend an ear; they will hear echoes of goal celebrations and the clink and “ohh” of a shot off the post. They will know that there is a place in my town that celebrates soccer and civic pride.

These thoughts feel relevant to me today as an MLS original, D.C. United, opened its own stadium last night. After playing their first 21 years at RFK Memorial Stadium, they now play on a field built for, not adapted for, the game of soccer. RFK was built in 1961 as a dual-use baseball and football field and was always wrong for soccer, despite all of the memories the club crafted there. Their new 20,000-seat complex along the Anacostia River rewards the United faithful with a home for soccer.

After the Columbus Crew built the first MLS soccer-specific stadium in the United States in 1999, these intimate homes to soccer have become the norm. Sixteen of 24 teams play in purpose-made homes, with Minnesota United joining the ranks in the near future.

With the attendance success of the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United in American football stadiums, and New York City FC in Yankee Stadium, the true need for soccer-specific stadiums is often questioned, usually by people in Seattle, Atlanta, and New York, incidentally. In the case of these three teams, the formula is working as team owners own all of the teams playing in a stadium. The above average attendance numbers work against the chasm feeling experienced in New England, and — until recently — Washington DC.

These temporary soccer pitches interloping on American football and baseball fields feel too much like everything that was wrong with the NASL. Soccer-specific stadiums provide more than glorious game days for fans, perfect sight lines, and a better operating budget for team owners. They offer permanence. The stability of place. That soccer, and, more importantly, Orlando City, are committed to this community.

While I’m sure nobody in Seattle, Atlanta, or NYC have reason to fear their team folding anytime soon, what is stopping them with no purpose-built space for the team? None of the three teams who have left MLS owned their own stadiums, with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion sharing football stadiums, and Chivas USA a tenant in the LA Galaxy’s StubHub Center.

As the league moves forward, adding teams at a significant pace, adding places for soccer has been part of the model for success. While it has been disappointing to watch what has happened in Columbus with the threatened move to Austin, the leagues hard line with David Beckham’s efforts in Miami have been promising. We need more than simply a league for soccer to flourish in the United States, we need soccer spaces and places.