Listen to Don Garber talk about the state of MLS for more than a few minutes, and you're bound to hear one the comissioner's most consistent refrains about the strides the league has made in its short history: 13 MLS teams now play in stadiums primarily built for soccer. That is not only a point of pride for the league, it's a marker of the roots many MLS clubs have laid down in their communities and the biggest sign that the future of the league is bright.
Two original MLS teams face very different stadium issues in 2013. One, the Columbus Crew is among the 13 teams Garber so often sites when discussing soccer-specific stadiums as a pillar of MLS success. Back in 1999, the Crew was the first MLS team to move into their very own purpose-built building, the spartan -- but still monumental for soccer -- Crew Stadium. While the rest of the league was toiling in the depressing chasmic environs of American football stadiums as secondary tenants, the Crew were moving on up. It’s easy to understate, 14 years and so many shiny new stadiums later, just how big the Crew’s move was.
But now Columbus faces a dilemma over their groundbreaking stadium. Because it's spartan, because so many clubs have passed the Crew by with buildings possessing the latest bells, whistles, and luxury suites, Crew Stadium is now painfully obsolete.
At the time, Lamar Hunt’s decision to personally fund the stadium's construction was the smart one. That the venue was not much more than a full-size erector set hardly mattered; it was a home, just for soccer, in a country that had very rarely made that kind of investment. But because the Crew were so far ahead of the soccer-specific stadium game, the building has not aged well. The clock is ticking, with the club’s financial position directly tied to what happens next. Oddly, it’s almost as though the Crew are being punished for being ahead of the soccer-specific curve.
While discussing the likelihood of the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier returning to Columbus, president Mark McCullers briefly outlined the issues with Crew Stadium.
"The stadium is 15 years old now," he said. "We don't want to throw good money after bad. We need to start having the discussions about a longer-term facility solution for us and that could take a variety of forms.
"We always want to stay competitive. We don't want to give anybody any opportunity to think that USA-Mexico should be anywhere but our stadium for any reason," he added. "That would be a return on an investment to do some things to make sure we continue to be the frontrunner for this match."
The club has also found it difficult to sell naming rights, in large part because it is spartan and aging. It's not so sexy to throw your corporate brand on a glorified collection of bleachers, especially when the new MLS is embodied by stadiums like Sporting Park in Kansas City and BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.
The Crew will always be recognized for being the first MLS team to build its own stadium. There's some irony in it, but if the club is going to remain relevant in the new MLS, it will need to follow the lead of those MLS franchises lagged far behind them.
Meanwhile, fellow MLS original New England Revolution are still stuck playing in an NFL stadium far from the bulk of their potential fanbase. If the Crew were trendsetters way back in 1999, foreshadowing the wave of stadium building that would happen over the course of the next 15 years, the Revolution are the stubborn neighbor, refusing to budge from a less-than-ideal situation because it's comfortable.
For years, both the Revolution fan base and outside observers have lamented the club’s lack of action on the stadium front. Season after season, New England appeared to stand idle as other MLS clubs either made progress on building their own homes or openly discussed efforts to do so.
American soccer owed a debt to Robert Kraft as an original investor in MLS, but the goodwill only extends so far; because of Kraft’s ownership of the New England Patriots and the cherry deal the Revolution had in sharing Gillette Stadium with the NFL team, the perception was that the Kraft family didn’t care enough about soccer to give the club a proper home.
If you believe Revolution president Brian Bilello, the Revolution's foot-dragging is more prudence than apathy. Despite remaining in a venue that portrays the club as more out-of-date with each passing season, Bilello claims finding a location to build a stadium is the club’s number one priority.
Speaking to the MLS website, Bilello identified the most important factors in zeroing in on land while claiming he never gets tired of being asked when the Revolution will have a place of their own.
“We're extremely committed to it, but -- what I've always said and will continue to say -- we've chosen and will continue to stay on the tougher path,” Bilello said. “We think having it in a greater Boston, urban location on the T [subway system] is critical to the organization. That is more expensive. It takes longer. It is more difficult. But it is, we feel, the only way to get this club where it needs to be.”
On the one hand, Bilello’s comments on the difficulty of the process sound like more hemming and hawing from New England leadership on the stadium issue. On the other, it behooves the Revolution to make the right decision on where to put a stadium, likely to remain the home of the club for decades. The club must balance the damage done by remaining in Gillette Stadium for another season or three against the time needed to locate an urban, public transit-accessible location that will serve them well for years to come.
The Revolution probably deserve the benefit of the doubt. But 18 years in, with new stadiums popping up across the country and the image of MLS fully shifted away from the cavernous football stadiums of the past, they’re very unlikely to get it. It rings hollow when MLS Commissioner Don Garber declares Jonathan Kraft, Robert’s son and the current principal owner of the Revolution, as “one of the biggest soccer fans on our board,” as he did in his state of the league address in February.
As we’ve seen in Dallas and Denver, it’s not just about erecting a stadium with soccer in mind. Location matters, and the Revolution appear to be willing to wait rather than put a venue where its impact could be limited. The “comfort” of sharing a stadium with the Patriots makes it easy to see the issue as a matter of institutional disinterest, but (assuming the $2 million Bilello says the club has spent on the effort is accurate) the question deserves asking: Is is better to have any soccer stadium at all than spend another year in a stadium that doesn’t fit?
One would like to think that at some point, the Revolution will have to cut bait and erect a custom-built venue whether it meets the “urban and accessible” criteria or not. That might be the best thing for the club in the long run -- or help the American game make a significant dent in an important city like Boston -- but no grace period should last forever.
The Revolution never moved beyond MLS 1.0 and remain the most striking example of a team failing to keep up with the changing times. The Crew wrote the beta of the second version in a way, but now find themselves in no-man’s-land between the old MLS and a new, flashier, version.
It’s strange to consider the very real possibility -- if the Revolution follow through on their promises and the Crew struggle to find a solution to their problem -- that apathetic, disinterested New England could zoom past proactive, trailblazing Columbus into the era of MLS 2.0.