Photos courtesy Steve Sirk unless otherwise noted. He wrote the book on the Crew.
Dear MLS owners, especially the one in Columbus (I mean, Austin or San Francisco) …
You may be asked in the next year to decide whether to put an MLS club in Austin. That’s a great town, of course. From Austin City Limits to SXSW, Austin has long been right up alongside Nashville, New York and Los Angeles as one of the country’s music capitals. I’d even have to rank it ahead of my hometown, Athens.
So if you want to figure out how to expand to Austin, that’s great. Find ownership. Find land for a stadium. Easier said than done, sure, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.
The problem is this — the club that you may be asked to place in Austin already has a home.
See the man in the hard hat? That’s Lamar Hunt. He built that club. He paid for their stadium to be built. When one location was shot down, he stopped by a local McDonald’s and stared at a map, figuring out the next place to try until they found it. Read Steve Sirk’s account.
Yes, the club is the Columbus Crew. Note the first word: Columbus.
Maybe you didn’t know Lamar Hunt. He passed away 11 years ago. MLS has seen rapid expansion since then.
And so maybe you don’t understand why MLS is in Columbus in the first place. It’s a smallish city with a giant university known for American football, American football, and a marching band that dots the “i” before each American football game.
MLS is in Columbus because the club’s founders sold 12,000 season-ticket deposits before the league existed. It’s in Columbus because they built the first stadium whose primary tenant would be an MLS club.
And it’s not the only soccer team that has proudly made that stadium its home stadium …
Dos a cero. Dos a cero. Dos a cero. Dos a cero. USA over Mexico. Four World Cup qualifiers. No, it didn’t happen again this time around, but blame Jurgen Klinsmann and his disorganized team, not the fans.
And this stadium hasn’t just hosted World Cup qualifiers. It hosted an actual World Cup.
So how, exactly, has this stadium suddenly become obsolete for MLS games? This isn’t RFK Stadium in Washington, which has plenty of history but looks like it’s about to collapse at any moment.
Oh, it’s not downtown, like your wonderful Cascadian paradises? For a lot of Crew fans, that doesn’t matter — they’ll gladly pay $15 to park and tailgate. If you prefer English traditions, allow me to share one from my travels: If you go to a match at Reading’s Madejski Stadium — like Mapfre Stadium, not downtown, a couple of miles from a university — all you need to do is take the train to Reading Station and hop on the F1 bus. We stayed in London (near Arsenal, actually) and had enough time to grab a nice snack as we worked our way back through bus and trains back to our Airbnb place.
Which is cheaper — running a few buses from favorite downtown watering holes or relocating a team to a city that seems a little ambivalent about finding a stadium for it?
Not convinced you can have a competitive team in a town that might not attract the best Designated Players? You may have missed out on Guillermo Barros Schelotto, one of the most skillful players ever to grace an MLS field. He came to Columbus in 2007 and … didn’t hate it.
A lot of players love Columbus. See the mini-Nordecke above? The guy who started it is Frankie Hejduk. He’s the walking embodiment of a California surfer dude. But when he came back to MLS after a stint in Germany, he went to Columbus, and it’s fair to say he liked it.
If you really, really want a downtown stadium, fine. Keep working with the folks in Columbus. Maybe it’ll happen at some point.
In the meantime, may I remind you that the Columbus Crew have a stadium? The team, which just upset Atlanta in the MLS playoffs, seems happy. The fans are happy. If you can provide a few more amenities to make them happier, great.
No, you might not get 40,000 people to each game or 70,000 to the occasional big one. It’s not Seattle or Atlanta. Guess what. Neither is Austin.
And if you want to go to Austin down the road — or San Antonio or even Miami — what message do you think it sends to abandon the first stadium built by and for an MLS club? You think they’re going to bulldoze a few blocks downtown and chip in a few million to help you build it?
The most convincing argument you can make on behalf of Major League Soccer is that it’s stable. That’s an accomplishment in a country where the history and sociology are not on your side. You’ve made it through 21 years with only three teams going under, and few people shed tears at the demise of Chivas USA. Leaving San Jose was controversial, but that team was in dire need of a stadium and local investment, and now you have it.
If we were talking about a club that averaged less than 10,000 fans by any reasonable attendance count, had no stadium that looked like it could survive until 2020 and was generally unloved by anyone, fine. Move that club to Austin. But you’re a victim of your own success here. You don’t have any clubs meeting that description. Not even Colorado, where fans sometimes wonder if the owner even remembers that he owns the team. (Hey, I don’t know the name of every investment I own. Some sort of mutual fund?)
If you move the Crew, you undermine Major League Soccer’s major achievement — building a fan base for the long term.
And that’s what you signed up for. This isn’t the old NASL, where a bunch of rock stars thought it’d be cool to have a team and go party with Pele at Studio 54. This is a league that’s built to last. It’s why the dude who wrote the book about you called that book Long-Range Goals. (Honestly, he was never wild about the subtitle.)
You want to toss all that away and leave one of the most important cities in U.S. soccer history? Fine. You’re going to create a lot of EPL fans. Maybe even some fans of NASL or NISA or whatever survives the legal system and U.S. Soccer’s sanctioning process.
I haven’t been to many MLS games in recent years. Nothing personal. It’s youth soccer and women’s soccer, in that order. D.C. United only has a couple of home games each year I can attend.
But maybe I’ll spring for a “flex pass” or something. I empathize with the nice guy who’s been calling me from the front office. Cold-calling is one of the worst parts of being a journalist, and we’re actually offering people a chance to speak. Gotta be tough when you’re asking people to hand over money.
It’s about time D.C. United got its own stadium. I still refuse to set foot in Nationals Park because Major League Baseball extorted more than $600 million out of Washington’s government. I can go to Audi Field with little hesitation.
But while the Crew’s owner flirts with Austin, I find myself having a bit of trouble finding my wallet.
I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
Think about it.