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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

Soccer-specific stadiums are crucial to future of game in U.S.

(Monday, July 31, 2000) -- Most observers of the game agree that the future of American soccer is intrinsically linked to the building of soccer-specific stadiums.

Fans want to watch the game in stadiums suited for soccer, not in half-empty cavernous arenas, and clubs want to generate the revenue that comes with owning their own facilities.

Since Lamar Hunt built the soccer-specific 22,000-seat Columbus Crew Stadium 15 months ago in Ohio, a flurry of soccer clubs have initiated plans to build their own facilities. According to an article in the May issue of Stadia magazine, eight clubs, including four Major League Soccer teams, are proposing to build stadiums in the next two years.

The $28-million stadium in Columbus has become a model for many teams to follow. The Charleston Battery of the A-League -- a division below MLS -- opened a small 5,000-seat European-style soccer stadium last year, following league rival Hampton Road Mariners who opened a soccer-specific facility several years ago. The A-League's Rochester Raging Rhinos, hoping to be an MLS expansion team, will break ground in March on a 20,000-seat, $48 million facility.

"We will build a stadium regardless of whether we get into MLS,'' said Rhinos spokesperson Steve Rossi.

"These soccer specific facilities will be built for our game and our crowd to experience the sport in the best way,'' said MLS vice president Ivan Gazidis.

The Los Angeles Galaxy appears to be the next MLS team likely to have its own stadium. Billionaire Phillip F. Anschutz, the owner-operator of the Galaxy, is planing to build a 30,000-seat stadium on a 87-acre spot in Carson just outside L.A., which will also include a United States national team training center.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s MetroStars have approached the city of Newark with plans of building a stadium there. The A-League's Milwaukee Rampage, Minnesota Thunder and San Diego Flash are all working on plans to build stadiums with hopes of joining MLS in the future.

In the lower levels of the soccer pyramid, the Utah Jazz of the third-tier D3 Pro League will open a 5,500-seat soccer stadium next year and the city of Des Moines, Iowa, is discussing building a stadium which would house the Des Moines Menace of the fourth-level Premier Development League.

"Developing stadiums is critical to the future of the game,'' said D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne.

The possibility of MLS’s United playing in its own soccer stadium could depend on the club’s future owners or if baseball ever comes to RFK Stadium in Washington. District of Columbia officials have gone on the record promising United a stadium if the club is displaced from RFK by the arrival of a baseball team, provided United signs a long-term lease with RFK in the interim.

But Payne said the building of a stadium for United was "not predicated on baseball.

Once we get new owners we will definitely start serious discussions with the District and other municipalities that want to talk to us about building a stadium,'' he said. "I think there will be one in a few years.''

For the time being the District is pumping money into renovating RFK to please United which is its primary tenant, but Payne would much rather see that money go into the building of a new soccer stadium for the three-time MLS champion which draws an average of 17,000 per game.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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