Concrete Roots: Solidifying the Future of MLS with Stadiums

As new ginger doors swing open in Texas it’s important to honor who planted MLS's concrete roots and analyze their impacts
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, May 11, 2012

Concrete Roots: Solidifying the Future of MLS with Stadiums

The day you become an adult is not the day you receive gifts in a ceremony, it’s not when you pass an imaginary milestone after the day of your birth nor is it the day you do something risky and manage to live to tell about it.

No, it’s not any of that.

Rather, the day you become an adult in Western society, is when you leave the safe confines of your family nest and venture on your own into the world. And the symbolic start of it all is when you take the keys out of your pocket and open the door of your first home … and new life. It is at that point, that you are truly an adult.

Major League Soccer is no different. Conceived in 1993, it took a little longer than expected in the womb but was finally birthed in 1996. The world in which it entered was bright (see the jerseys), ambitious and crowded. The newborn league’s parents were so excited to get their prodigy started that they barely had enough time to think about long-term homes to raise this energetic litter of neon pups.

It was okay then, it was good just to be alive! After the fall of the NASL era and the gloom of the Dark Ages of Indoor that immediately followed, it was good just to have youthful enthusiasm and blind ambition again.

But after the boost from the league launch, the initial enthusiasm started to fade and hard truths surfaced. The owners and parents of MLS had to face the stark reality that their new family was to be raised in foreign lands, of which only a few spoke the language and where none of the young clubs owned anything. The party atmosphere gave way to more pragmatic thoughts of business sustainability.

Most clubs had to endure humbling gridiron football markings – to serve as a constant reminder to the young league of its place in the pecking order of the entrenched American sports hierarchy. Other clubs had steep rental fees at gigantic venues that dwarfed even the biggest crowds that the reincarnated American soccer league could muster.

This is to say nothing about having little to no ancillary revenue at some of these facilities. So sponsorship, naming-rights, concert and event hosting, concession, parking and maximizing of luxury suites were all just dreams reserved for another day.

And so the tough years began. Declining attendance, less enthusiastic owners and the joy of the birth of MLS became a distant memory – the talk in the general public and non-soccer-aligned media switched from positive to negative tones. Could MLS survive? Can soccer ever work in the USA? Why can’t it fill stadiums? Is MLS destined to the same fate as the NASL?

That was until the most dedicated and passionate of all the original owners (parents), the one who loved his kids maybe with a bit more gusto and didn’t give up on them even when they didn’t yet live up to expectations stepped forward yet again to show his faith and commitment to the young league and sport of soccer.

It was Lamar Hunt, and his family, that took it upon themselves to show what could be done. And they did this with the runt of the litter. The small-market Columbus Crew were to have a home of their own and it would be funded entirely by the Hunts.

There are several milestones and important moments in MLS but maybe none pre-Adu,  pre-Beckham and pre-Expansion 2.0 perhaps more significant than that day in August 1998 when MLS started imbedding concrete roots into the not-yet-fertile soccer soil of North America.

If the NASL tilled the land and made it ready in the 60s thru the 80s, Lamar Hunt had just planted the first seeds of a forest of multi-generational trees. Because once you plant those concrete roots, it is immeasurably harder, if next to impossible to uproot that sport. The longer those concrete roots stay in the ground, just like trees, they spread, strengthen and their seeds propagate and ensure the survival of the species.

Once Lamar Hunt made that investment in Columbus, in MLS and in North American soccer he ensured that the non-domestic species of sport – Footballis Britannicus if you will – would survive in the new world. Like Thomas Jefferson, he brought back European cultivars and set the foundation for a domestic industry.

It was ambitious, it was daring, it was bold, it was crazy … it was based mostly on passion, learnt lessons from NASL’s failures and not wanting to wait until the tide gave him the perfect opportunity. Lamar Hunt did this on behalf of the infant MLS and likely many owners who thought even this was a bit early or audacious an investment for the perennial American sport of the future.

But Hunt did it, and we can all thank him for it, and we should. His legacy is American soccer and a wisely pragmatic yet ambitious MLS. A league guided by the knowledge of the failures of its predecessors, reminded constantly of the long shadow of the NASL, whipped into competitive overdrive from its domestic sporting peers and given the intrepid spirit of the entrepreneurial culture it lives within.

The concrete roots Hunt helped plant in Columbus and pioneered for MLS led to investor/sponsor/broadcaster confidence, increased MLS owner diversification and ultimately expansion and more building of Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS) for the growing MLS clubs. Without the now unpretentious skeleton of Crew Stadium and the vision and daring of Hunt, we could not have these modern bastions of soccer’s future today.

There have been other great owners in Philip Anschutz and his critical and timely investments and overall belief in MLS and Commissioner Don Garber. And both his and Hunt’s commitment have given rise to a new crop of young visionary MLS owners who are passionate for the sport, stand by the league and already bleed the colors of their clubs in Chang, Paulson, Hanauer, Kerfoot, Saputo, Hauptman & Heineman. These owners will guide the teenage MLS safely into the third stage of its development and the beginning of its journey to become a top 5 soccer league and domestic rival for North American sporting status.

Undeniably there is still some work to be done for MLS and some of its lagging clubs. The slow, to put it mildly, moving New England franchise that is finally undisputed champions at something, having captured the ignominious MLS treble of: mediocrity, nepotism and apathy. DC United also has some work to do in order to finally get past the dating-phase with local District politicians and move into the scary but necessary area of commitments. And if they can’t get that, it will be hard to deal with like a bad-relationship, but pride must be swallowed as DCU moves into the welcoming arms of nearby soccer-adoring Baltimore. Both stunted MLS franchises will do themselves a world of good with their new homes. Homes of their own, with parents inside them who care, will make all the difference. Just ask the re-born Sporting KC.

BBVA Stadium - the new home of the Houston Dynamo (MLS)

In less than 48 hours the latest set of concrete roots for MLS will be for all to see. The Houston Dynamo will open the doors to the latest stadium built for the sport, league and its local club. The orange and silver fortress in downtown Houston will be the 13th stadium built for MLS. Later this summer Montreal will become the 15th of 19 MLS clubs that play in soccer stadiums. Within the next two seasons, San Jose will make it 16. In the coming decade all but Seattle and possibly Vancouver, who play in soccer-friendly football venues, are likely to have boutique soccer homes of their own.

The stories of how these stadiums were built will run deep in local and national soccer lore. Houston’s stadium journey alone was born from failed promises in San Jose, renewed hope in Texas and finally concrete roots set in place by AEG, a former NFL Quarterback and a boxing hero turned promoter.

In the future, when most of the MLS is built out and fully expanded and almost every club has its own home, oh what a great book the stories of this era and the building of the MLS infrastructure would make. [Grant Wahl, Paul Gardner … hope you’re on the case]

The league’s journey is just the tip of the iceberg for the long struggle of soccer in North America, but it has been no less tumultuous - from the joy of its birth, to the battle for survival, to the constant pressure to gain relevance and confidence. All of this hardship, all of this planting of concrete roots has spawned a teenage MLS that has so much promise it has to remind itself of its humbler times. And it is imperative that we remember that most of what we have today and what MLS will become tomorrow, would be impossible without these local cathedrals to the quasi-religion of soccer. It is not easy to establish a religion without local places to congregate and worship. MLS luckily is mostly beyond that phase.

Soccer is no longer a minor pawn, but a key player in local and national sports in entertainment.

MLS and its family of clubs are no longer homeless or tenants in North America, they are now homeowners.

Our concrete roots not only ensure our long-term survival, but they give our league and our clubs a platform to thrive.

It’s these concrete roots, these tentacles of stability, which in time will give the sport of soccer its due place in domestic sports and worldwide soccer.

Of course there will be famous names that finish their careers on the now fertile North American soccer fields: Donadoni, Matthaus, Djorkaeff, Stoichkov, Beckham, Henry and the ilk. But they mostly serve to harvest from North American soccer as fans continue to water in belief in the game and league and hope for joy and summer sustenance.

Yes, great players are part of the process, they’ve helped and they are assuredly the future of a world-class-seeking MLS. But it is the concrete roots of the nurturing planter of our North American game, the great lover of nature, sport and soccer - Lamar Hunt - and now his successors and stewards of soccer, which give MLS its future.

A wise commissioner, ambitious owners and an emboldened fanbase of a global phenomenon … now with concrete roots below them planted into newly fertile and friendlier lands … needless to say the golden age of MLS has not even begun.

And long after the crowds go home, after the games have ended, when the fields are full of frost, the concrete roots below ensure our sport and our league comes back next season, and the season after that, stronger still each year. With every year new fans, with every generation more passion, with every home and every growing root North American soccer becomes less foreign and more national and local.

With the opening of our newest home on Saturday, we must all say thank you to Lamar Hunt. For tomorrow his toil gives us auburn blooms.

So thank you for giving North American soccer our concrete roots and with them, our future. May your trees forever endure.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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