AMERICA’S NATIONAL SOCCER STADIUM: THE TOPCONTENDERS

The Rose Bowl hosted 1984 Summer Olympic soccer matches via KCET The Rose Bowl hosted 1984 Summer Olympic soccer matches via KCET http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/PSN-Rose-Bowl-Olympics-1984-Soccor-game.jpg

US Soccer needs its own home park – its cauldron, its Azteca, its Maracanã, its National Stadium, to match the magnitude of recent international fixtures, to intimidate the visiting side and for the US to be taken seriously as a World Cup contender. As a young soccer nation without a tradition of big games being played on our soil, such a stadium has yet to emerge… or has it?

On March 22, the US Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) hosted Costa Rica in the final round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying at Dick’s Sporting Goods (DSG) Park in Commerce City, CO. A huge game for the USMNT but unfortunately, at just 18,000-seats, DSG Park is undersized and the Colorado Rapids’ home lacks the gravitas needed for the qualifier.

Great moments, like Brandi Chastain’s famous celebration of the US Women’s 1999 World Cup victory at the Rose Bowl, Bernie Feibaher’s 79-minute strike in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field and the 1994 World Cup begin to paint a portrait of a nation with a genuine history of big games played at big venues, suggesting a National Stadium might already be somewhere out there.

American Soccer fans are as passionate as the best of them, via US Soccer
American Soccer fans are as passionate as the best of them, via US Soccer

So, here are the top five contenders for the title:

1. The Rose Bowl. Pasadena, CA

Why it works: Already the de facto National Football Stadium, home to the UCLA Bruins and the annual Rose Bowl Game, could the Rose Bowl also fill the bill for soccer? It has hosted many big international matches, including the 1994 World Cup Final and the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final. The Pasadena climate is wonderful year round and the natural grass surface meets US Soccer standards. The lack of a regular tenant would make the Rose Bowl readily available and its location within metropolitan Los Angeles provides a large fan base.

Why it doesn’t work: The Rose Bowl might just be+ too big. With a capacity of nearly 100,000, filling the Rose Bowl, even for a match as big as USA v Costa Rica might be difficult. While playing such a match before a crowd of 18,000 might not be enough, playing in front of a two-thirds full Rose Bowl could be worse. In addition, although 12.8 million people live in the Greater LA area, the population is so diverse that getting a core group of American soccer fans out to regularly support the US team might be easier said than done.

The Rose Bowl, via guatemalo Flickr

2. Jeld-Wen Field. Portland, OR

Why it works: Jeld-Wen Field, home of the Portland Timbers, is fast becoming the most intimidating home field in the MLS. Although small in comparison with its Pacific Northwest neighbor to the north CenturyLink Field in Seattle, the former minor league baseball stadium that backs onto the Multnomah Athletic Club in downtown Portland was converted into a soccer-only venue in 2011 and it is spectacular. The opening game of the 2013 season between the Timbers and the New York Red Bulls was a scintillating 3-3 draw and TV viewers can attest to the energy and passion in the stands. Although it is a new venue for soccer, Jeld-Wen is nearly 85-years-old and this history, along with its rabid fan base, create an atmosphere and patina to the stadium that makes it feel bigger than its 22,000 seat capacity.

Why it doesn’t work: Two words: artificial turf. US Soccer has made it quite clear that their home matches will only be played on the natural stuff and Jeld-Wen is outfitted with Field Turf – admittedly high quality but nevertheless artificial grass. The Northwest’s extended rainy periods keep the Timbers and many of Oregon’s facilities from using natural grass surfaces. One alternative might be the Desso Grassmaster surface, currently used at the Emirates Stadium in London and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, that blends natural with artificial grass to get the best of both worlds.

Jeld-Wen Field, via i’m not giving up

3. Soldier Field. Chicago, IL

Why it works: Along with Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Soldier Field is one of Professional Football’s great shrines. It is home to the Chicago Bears and – until its 2003 renovation – its neo-classical facade and single bowl seating gave it an aura of pure Americana dating to its opening in the 1920s. The Wood + Zapata renovation significantly modernized the building, giving it a kind of rebirth. Like few other US stadiums, Soldier Field is now an aggressively modern, exciting building that could be the perfect home base for the New World’s full embrace of the Old World’s traditional pastime. In addition, at just 61,500-seats and located within the soccer hotbed of the Midwest, loyal American soccer fans could easily fill Soldier Field for the big matches. 

Why it doesn’t work: The aura of Bronco Nagurski, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka and Walter Payton might just be too much to overcome. This is an American Football stadium and always will be. Additionally, the severe Chicago winters would take Soldier Field out of contention to host matches for nearly half the calendar year, much of it the exact time the National Team plays its qualifying matches.

Soldier Field, via Skyscraper City

4. RFK Stadium. Washington, DC

Why it works: It’s a no-brainer – locate the National Soccer Stadium in the Nation’s Capital. Simple. Done. The 40-year-old RFK Stadium has aged and is rough around the edges but we kind of like that – it gives visitors an unsettled feeling. DC United fans regularly fill the lower bowl of its two tiers and the stands literally bounce when the Screaming Eagles are in full force. With a capacity of 45,000, RFK might just be big enough for the grandeur of a qualifying match and small enough to easily fill for a big game in this soccer-rich region.

Why it doesn’t work: RFK’s age means it lacks the modern amenities of luxury suites and club seating to make it a viable competitor with  more modern buildings. Barring a very unlikely renovation, given the Washington Redskins already abandoned it for the 90,000-seat FedEx Field, RFK Stadium is only going to get rougher with age. A new stadium for DC United is likely in the near future, making RFK’s run certain to end. Shame – if only the money was there, it could be the perfect spot for Jurgen Klinsmann & Co. to call home.

RFK Stadium, via Screaming-Eagles

5. MetLife Stadium. East Rutherford, NJ

Why it works: MetLife Stadium – home of both the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets – stands just feet from the former Giants Stadium, the site of some of the greatest moments in American Soccer. Home to the New York Cosmos of Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, five matches from the 1994 World Cup including the famous battle between Ireland and Italy, several of the 1999 Women’s World Cup matches, as well as a long list of other big soccer matches, Giants Stadium was arguably the unofficial American National Soccer Stadium until it was torn down. So, the bigger, glitzier, $1 billion MetLife Stadium took its place in 2011 and is ready to fill its shoes. Although neither building is special architecturally, both feature three tiers of seating – unforgivably enclosed, blocking views to New York City. However, being located in the New York City metro area, home to so many Americans with roots in soccer-mad countries, MetLife Stadium could easily take over where Giants Stadium left off.

Why it doesn’t work: Like Jeld-Wen Stadium, MetLife Stadium uses FieldTurf and although the USA’s near sell-out game against Brazil in 2010 was played on a temporary grass pitch laid atop the artificial surface, US Soccer prefers a permanent grass pitch for their big matches. Like Chicago, New York is awfully cold in the winter, leaving much of the calendar year unplayable. Also, having been to MetLife Stadium, it is extremely banal and lacks the essential atmosphere national teams require from their home field.

MetLife Stadium via A Big Juicy Van

All of these buildings have their positives and negatives. So, as none of them fits the bill perfectly, could the answer be a rotation between all five? Such a solution would give each region of the country access to major matches and ensure that all games were played in historically significant buildings packed with hostile crowds.

So there you have it – a five-headed monster of a National Stadium befitting our diverse, expansive – and growing – soccer-mad nation. Or we could just play it at Dick’s.

Main picture credit: KCET