There’s truly nothing like the feeling of walking through the tunnel of a stadium, and emerging into the cauldron of noise and energy. I will never forget the first time I walked into a European soccer stadium. Though it was only a Hibernian FC game in Edinburgh, Scotland, it resonated with me. I had barely entered through the turnstiles when I heard the Hibs fans belting out, “Glory, Glory to the Hibees!” It was magical.
This experience can translate for others to many sports around the world. If you are an American football fan, then this could be the same for you entering into Lambeau Field, or for an NBA fan, the same as climbing the stairs to your seat in the Staples Center. But this phenomenon is lacking in U.S. soccer, and it is eating away at the game.
As a native New Englander, I have tried to follow the Revolution for some time. I think it is fair to say that the MLS simply can’t compare with the top European leagues in terms of entertainment value on television. The players are more skillful, the game is quicker, and the atmosphere is well… more atmospheric. The best hope that the MLS has for appealing to American soccer fans is by creating an impressive live experience at games.
Unfortunately, I have yet to experience this same awe inspiring feeling at an MLS game. Try going to a New England Revolution game, walking up the stairs at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA, and looking out at a 69,000 seat stadium, and seeing a little more than 50,000 empty seats… and let me tell you, you can hear those empty seats whining in the wind, begging for some company.
This is the major flaw of Major League Soccer right now. The league is starting to attract talent, teams are writing their history, and it’s even starting to put together a soccer identity in relation to the play on the field, but without the requirement of soccer specific stadiums, the games simply lack luster and allure.
With the 23 team league soon to be, there are still 7 stadiums that house MLS teams that aren’t soccer specific, although one of those, DC United, has essentially dropped itself as a baseball/football surface. Although this is considerable progress from the the 12 team league in the 90’s, which featured just one team with a soccer specific stadium, it stills shows the nativity of American soccer.
The MLS has thrown so much money at big name players coming to the states: David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Kaka… and don’t forget Nigel De Jong. But all the league needs to do is look at the model provided by European soccer. For many local clubs in Europe, what connects people to the teams is the community surrounding the organization, and the experience of going to the games with that community each weekend, not to goggle over stars, but to experience an emotional rollercoaster ride with a team they feel connected to. A big part of making this happen is creating an enthralling and rousing atmosphere.
One thing that soccer is certainly not is an individual sport. Yes, there are big stars in the game, but they cannot thrive or shine without the collective team performing. Without service, Ibrahimovic is little more than a man taking up space on the field; without his other 10 teammates, Cristiano Ronaldo would be pouting in the center of the pitch…probably on his phone sending DMs to any number of Instagram models. The MLS has tried to take the model of the NBA, a sport that can be described as the most individualistic team sport in the United States, and apply it to the beautiful game. In soccer, you can’t simply give the ball to a LeBron James figure in your own half of the field, and let him take on the entire opposition again and again.
To get back to my point, there needs to be a focus on creating an identity, community, and atmosphere around each stadium and team in the MLS. People in New England need to feel that when they go to a Revolution game, they are surrounded by a group of Revolution enthusiasts, all pumped up to see the team take the pitch, not looking up at the 50,000 empty seats wondering what it’s like to be in Gillette for a Patriots game. The same can be said for New York City FC. Yes, NYCFC are working on developing a stadium, and I know that it is a fairly new organization, but playing in Yankee Stadium, where some of the fans are so far away from the pitch that there could be vendors selling goggles on site completely destroys the experience and emotion of the game for the fans and the players.
If the MLS is to gain valuable ground in terms of world and domestic popularity. There needs to be a stadium revolution across the nation, and clubs need to start appealing to the community, not washed up European stars.