Size isn't everything: 7 hidden-gem soccer stadiums in the U.S.
Any bucket list of American soccer venues that just have to be experienced is going to lead to Providence Park, Red Bull Arena, Orlando City's wonderful new stadium and so forth.
That's all no-brainer stuff, like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and Notre Dame Stadium -- or Anfield, San Siro or the Santiago Bernabeu. Of course, they must be seen. But there's experience just as rich awaiting at places you'd never think of, smaller facilities that house lower-division, semi-pro or college teams. Some of them are stunningly beautiful, and a lot of them provide the kind of atmosphere all soccer junkies crave.
We've highlighted three smaller venues on our list of the country's 20 best soccer stadiums -- North Carolina FC's and the North Carolina Courage's WakeMed Soccer Park, the Charleston Battery's MUSC Health Stadium, and the University of Portland's Merlo Field -- but let's delve a little deeper into some of the nicer hidden gems.
Here are seven mostly smaller stadiums that are worth the trek:
HARDER STADIUM (Goleta, Calif.)
UC Santa Barbara's multipurpose stadium is neither new nor intimate -- it's been around 51 years and can seat 17,000 -- but there's no place more rollicking in the college game. UCSB is the University of California system's top party school, and the place to be come fall is cheering on the Gauchos, a perennial NCAA tournament team that has led college soccer in attendance the past nine years, every season since winning the 2006 College Cup.
Top 20 stadiums
They've been drawing 10,000-plus since 2004, when some among the 11,214 on hand for an NCAA quarterfinal victory over Virginia Commonwealth celebrated by grabbing a goal and attempting to carry it to the on-campus beach and toss it into the ocean, a plan quashed by campus cops. Some 15,896 people crowded into Harder for a UCLA game in 2010, the most ever to see a regular-season soccer game, and five-figure crowds gather every year, home and away, for the Blue-Green Rivalry showdowns with Cal Poly.
H-E-B PARK (Edinburg, Texas)
Orlando City SC's new home is fantastic, but save a little excitement for this jewel, a 9,700-seat, state-of-the-art stadium that Rio Grande Valley FC, the Houston Dynamo's USL affiliate, will christen with a friendly next Wednesday against Monterrey, with the USL opener four days later against San Antonio FC (which plays in a nice 8,000-seater of its own).
H-E-B Park (pictured above) has been a long time coming, but by all accounts, it has been worth the wait. The initial plan was for the stadium to open for business last year in Edinburg, one of the southernmost points in Texas. The stands on both sides are steep, a la Dortmund (or Orlando), and the front-row seats -- along with ground-level luxury suites -- sit a mere few feet from the action. Regular seating is supplemented by luxury suites, a full-service restaurant and sports bar, and the complex also contains a park with playground and a 2,000-seat amphitheater. The debate on America's finest small stadium, any sport, has to include H-E-B.
HIGHMARK STADIUM (Pittsburgh)
If you follow all manner of American sport, you're aware of PNC Park, where baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates play. It is revered as the most awesome facility in the country, in great part because of its setting, with the Allegheny River and downtown skyline beyond the outfield fence. It's that same charm that makes Highmark, the 4,000-capacity home of the USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds, such an awesome experience.
Highmark Stadium opened in 2013 on Pittsburgh's South Shore and sits adjacent to the Station Square entertainment district, the chief destination before and after matches. It's a tidy little park with a big field outfitted with the same kind of artificial turf the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders use -- best in the industry -- but what's truly special is the view.
There's a leafy hill towering over the comfortable main stand and the Monongahela River sits just a few feet beyond the north sideline, with that downtown skyline rising above. The BBC's Benjamin Zand called it “probably the most beautiful stadium I've ever seen.” There's standing room around the pitch, and it's designed so it can ostensibly expand beyond 18,000 seats, should the Riverhounds' MLS hopes reach fruition. Then we'd call it MLS' most awesome venue.
KEYWORTH STADIUM (Hamtramck, Michigan)
There's not a more inspiring stadium story than what's going on with Detroit City FC and its grassroots initiative to renovate an 80-year-old landmark in serious disrepair. The club and its followers raised $741,250 to shore up Keyworth ahead of last season's move to Hamtramck, a diverse, working-class suburb surrounded by Detroit, and they've done more work heading into season two.
It's a charming old place with quite a history -- FDR presided over the ribbon-cutting in 1936 -- and its restoration and the club's emphasis on community development has energized the surrounding area. And that's part of the charm: Keyworth sits within an old neighborhood, sort of like the great, old English stadiums, and the march to the match featuring the gloriously ribald Northern Guard Supporters, who set American soccer's smoke-bomb standard, winds through the streets from local pubs.
Some of Detroit's most storied eateries have food trucks on the premises, and the energy in the stadium is everything you'll find at Providence Park, and this for a fourth-division semi-pro side, playing in the NPSL, with the most modest of origins. There are few experiences on these shores for discerning soccer-searchers as exhilarating.
LYNN STADIUM (Louisville, Kentucky)
The University of Louisville believes it possesses the nicest college soccer stadium in America, with good reason. Lynn Stadium, which opened in 2014 and seats 5,300, is absolutely awesome. It's a gorgeous facility, sleekly designed and largely defined by the signature roof that covers the fully chair-backed main stand running the length of the south touchline. It's among the most impressive seating areas in a small stadium -- gotta love that “Louisville” is spelled out across the seats -- and the sightlines, based on those at Sporting Kansas City's Children's Mercy Park, are impeccable.
There's room for another couple thousand on the grass berms across the field and at the west end, but to get into the thick of the Cardinals supporters' passion, head to the triangular “Boyle-ing Point” bleachers behind the east goal. That's where you'll find the raucous Louiligans, who have had plenty to roar about. Louisville is among the nation's best men's programs, with an NCAA title game appearance in 2010 and three quarterfinal trips since.
MORRISON STADIUM (Omaha, Neb.)
The most spectacular of intimate settings in the college game might be found at Creighton University's 6,000-seat oasis, on the east side of campus. The field is artificial turf, but everything else is very real, starting with the Bluejays.
Since the men's program was reinstated in 1990, it has won at least a dozen games in 23 of 27 seasons and reached the College Cup final four on five occasions. That kind of success breeds support, and the students and community come out in force, making Morrison, which opened in 2003, one of the liveliest of venues in which to watch soccer. The main stand is the big attraction, with two decks covered by a roof that extends to the edge of the field, and everyone, whether here or on grass berms at each end or the grassy terraces on the other side, is right on top of the action. If you visit, make sure to rub the beak on the Billy Bluejay statue for good luck.
TITAN STADIUM (Fullerton, Calif.)
Football’s loss is soccer’s gain in SoCal. The 10,000-seat edifice at Cal State Fullerton was built for the university's football team and completed in 1992 -- right after the school dropped football. That's been a boon for the Titans' soccer programs, which have ruled the roost since, with periodic success and annually compete for the Big West Conference title.
There's a huge wall of seats on the west side, along with a press box, offices and a couple of luxury suites, terraces on the east, great views everywhere, and room for expansion should pro soccer come calling, which could happen. Chivas USA was considering the North Orange County venue before imploding, the LA Galaxy called it home for years in the U.S. Open Cup, the USL's Orange County SC used to play here (as the L.A. Blues), and it was U.S. Soccer's first-choice small venue in SoCal before StubHub arrived. The crowds aren't huge but can be lively, and the atmosphere is electric when the place is packed, only for the pros.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.