Betfred Sport

'Soccer specific' stadia required to allow MLS to compete

An American friend who has lived in India since the last century once described his adopted homeland as “a place where you see something heart-warming one moment, and heart-rending the next.” The plight of the American soccer fan, though not nearly as dire, is rather analogous. This week proved to be no exception. 

It’s always uplifting to see an MLS star get top billing in a city with multiple professional sports teams. DC United boss Kevin Payne stirred controversy by proclaiming that his star Dwayne de Rosario (pictured) was “the most accomplished professional athlete in Washington DC - actually by a wide margin.”

Some context: the most popular athlete in DC for the past several years has been ice hockey star Alex Ovechkin, whose achievements on the ice have been the main reason why his club, the Washington Capitals, have been among the league’s best for several years.

So popular is Ovechkin that the Washington Post changed its annual poll last year from 'most popular' to 'second-most popular' local athlete, ceding the top spot to Ovechkin in advance. So even comparing the two raised many an eyebrow. Surprisingly, many pundits agreed.

More impressive

DC’s true sporting passion is the NFL; that an ice hockey player could be its most popular athlete is still astonishing. And the question was about success, not popularity. De Rosario has a far more impressive CV.

Though Ovechkin has won multiple individual scoring titles, team success has so far eluded him, bar gold medals for Russia at the World Championships and World Junior Championships. De Rosario is the reigning Most Valuable Player in the MLS, and has won four MLS Cups, plus a CONCACAF Gold Cup and Under-20 Championship with Canada. 

In fairness, Ovechkin should still reign in DC over de Rosario for one reason: Ovechkin has played his entire career there, while de Rosario’s MLS Cups were with other clubs prior to joining DC United several months ago. But like I said, it was still heart-warming to see ‘DdR’ be named the only challenger to King ‘Ovie’.

Days later, news from Minneapolis was much the opposite: irritating to MLS fans. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings are negotiating with the city for the construction of a new stadium. In an effort to gain leverage in the negotiations, the club has decided to apply for an expansion MLS franchise.

MLS deserves better than to be a pawn in an NFL stadium dispute. MLS clubs spent most of the league’s first decade playing in NFL stadiums, with poor soccer lines due to oblong NFL dimensions, grid-iron lines on the pitch, and dull atmospheres from 10,000 fans occupying 60,000 seats.

'Soccer-specific' stadia

As the sport grew, MLS clubs clamoured for 'soccer-specific' stadia, with capacity for 20,000-ish fans clustered very close to a pitch specifically designed for soccer - as most clubs in England have. 

A soccer-specific stadium is more than just a good venue. It signals to fans that the city has embraced the club and sport as an integral part of its culture. A heightened soccer atmosphere delivering a bolder game-day experience also helps convert new fans to the club.

Thus, it is a major statement for MLS that 15 of 19 clubs play in soccer-specific stadia today, with another on the way. That doesn’t include two exceptions for whom the NFL stadium is actually ideal: Seattle Sounders can sell all 64,000 plus seats with some regularity; DC United are the only tenant in an abandoned NFL stadium.

There is no question that MLS has an established presence in the US today. Attendance has skyrocketed, averaging over 17,000 fans per game with those soccer-specific stadia. The league earns $19 million per year from selling its domestic television rights, similar to the National Hockey League.

Several cities in North America have offered to build a soccer-specific stadium for an expansion MLS club. Bypassing them and awarding the next MLS expansion club to an owner who is only interested because it helps his NFL team is a major step backwards for the league.

By Sreesha Vaman

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