It’s easy for Orlando City fans to forget how lucky they’ve been when it comes to stadiums. Except for the 2014 season, when the club was displaced to the ESPN Wide World of Sports while the Citrus Bowl underwent major renovations, the club’s games have been played near downtown. But that’s not the case for all teams.
Following the construction of Mapfre Stadium in Columbus in 1999, multiple MLS teams began planning their own stadiums. Desperate to get out of their NFL venues, stadiums began popping up around the country. But property can be hard to come by in some of the country’s biggest cities.
The result was that several MLS teams built stadiums in the suburbs, far away from the downtown area. In addition to creating an aesthetic problem, the location of these stadiums made them difficult to get to. Cities like Carson, CA, Frisco, TX, and Harrison, NJ became major league towns.
No club in MLS has been hurt more by stadium location than the Chicago Fire. The country’s second largest city has a mass transit system that makes living downtown without a vehicle quite easy. Getting to most of the city’s entertainment options, including the other professional sports teams’ venues, is as easy as jumping on a train.
Looking to vacate the 60,000-seat Soldier Field, the Fire came to an agreement with the small suburban town of Bridgeview, IL. The stadium deal included restaurants and shopping establishments that would supposedly draw thousands from Chicago’s suburbs.
As with other MLS stadiums, such as Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and Talen Energy Park in Chester, PA, those establishments never came, resulting in a stadium located in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, the city’s famous “L” train ends at Midway Airport — five miles away.
Getting to the stadium from downtown Chicago requires taking the train as far as it will go and getting on a special bus, specifically running for games, or walking five miles.
Another issue with SeatGeek Stadium is its design. Similar to Mapfre Stadium and Toyota Stadium in Frisco, the stadium was built by the town as a multi-purpose venue. There is full seating on three sides and a stage on the other end so it can host concerts and other events. The result is a venue that doesn’t look much like a soccer stadium and doesn’t include some of the essential aspects of quality venues, like a surrounding roof.
This is not a case of being critical of these stadiums, as they paved the way for what we see today in the newer venues. But it does show how far the league has come in building these venues. The most recently opened stadiums — Orlando City Stadium in Orlando and Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, for example — are downtown structures that were built specifically for the sport. With seating on all sides, they provide the feel of being in a professional venue.
As more clubs enter the league and older ones build their own stadiums, they will likely advance, being better than the two newest ones. When Orlando City fans look at the stadium in which the Lions will play this afternoon, it should be a reminder of how far the league has come and how far it might go in the future.