Pitch imperfect: The 7 worst (and weirdest) MLS venues ever
From New York City FC’s relocation of its Sept. 23 match from Yankee Stadium to Pratt & Whitney Field – located a whopping 107 miles away in East Hartford, Connecticut – to the surreal fretting over the U.S. men’s national team daring to play a World Cup qualifier at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, soccer venues have been a hot topic of conversation.
As embarrassing as NYCFC’s Yankees-imposed exile to the outer fringes of the Tri-State area may appear, it’s hardly the worst case of awkward site selection in MLS history – far from it, in fact.
Homelessness, construction, remodeling, unpleasant cohabitants, foul weather: Many of the league’s member teams have had their schedules disrupted by a variety of factors over the years. And with more than two decades of history now in the books, MLS clubs past and present have now played games – by our best count – at nearly 60 facilities in all, with three more currently under construction.
Some of them are temples to the beautiful game. Others felt more like outhouses. Here’s seven of the weirdest, worst MLS venues of all time.
Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara, California
Some would call this a controversial place to open this list. Originally intended as a temporary stopgap when the San Jose Earthquakes were reborn ahead of the 2008 season, the shoebox-sized venue on the campus of Santa Clara University got quite cozy for the Quakes, as they spent significant amounts of money to enlarge and upgrade it over what ended up being a seven-year stay.
San Jose rolled up a 50-27-36 record at Buck Shaw as the quest for its current home, Avaya Stadium, dragged on, highlighted by a memorable Supporters’ Shield-winning campaign in 2012 where the Quakes made “Goonie Time” a certified MLS phenomenon.
But let’s not allow time, nostalgia and the flowing golden locks of Steven Lenhart to obscure our analysis too much.
Buck Shaw was simply not a top-flight professional venue, from its max capacity of 10,525 (by far the smallest in MLS and not even the biggest in college soccer) to its cramped, outmoded press box and bathrooms. And the setting sun was a notorious nightmare for goalkeepers in the south goal, such as when the Quakes’ David Bingham went YouTube-viral with this bizarre play in an exhibition match versus West Bromwich Albion in 2011:
The Earthquakes were mere tenants, too. And it effectively rendered them – and by extension MLS – a niche, mom-and-pop operation in the wealthy, influential Bay Area sports market.
“We were at an auxiliary locker room at Buck Shaw Stadium,” then-Quakes president Dave Kaval told The Olympian in 2015, Avaya’s first season. “It was just a totally different level. It was really kind of minor-league. There were players in the past who would not play here because of the facilities, and that was a challenge.”
Stade Olympique, Montreal, Quebec
Known to many Canadians as “The Big O” – or more accurately, “The Big Owe,” a nod to the rampant cost overruns over several decades that pushed its total price tag to a stunning CAD$1.47 billion, equivalent to US $1.2 billion today – Montreal’s hulking relic from the 1976 Olympics has a certain charm to it.
It sports a fascinating design and history, and it sits just north of the city’s downtown in an “Olympic Park” complex that also features a biodome – yes, a biodome (formerly the Olympic velodrome). And when the Montreal Impact pack the place for a big game, like its inaugural MLS match in 2012 or the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2015, The Big Owe can rock like few places in Canada.
In a savagely wry twist of fate, Stade Olympique may never be torn down, because doing so would disrupt the subway line that runs underneath it. However, this white elephant is the Impact’s second home by necessity, not choice. The region’s long, harsh winters impinge on the opening and closing stages of the MLS calendar, making the outdoor Stade Saputo a non-starter and driving IMFC under the dome.
The main problem, and it’s a big one, is the playing surface. A top-level artificial surface was installed for the 2015 Women’s World Cup games played in Montreal, but the Impact relocated that pitch to its training ground and replaced it with a modular system that is loathed by visiting teams. It’s hard, fast and quite worn in places, causing huge bounces and nervous players to fear for their knee and ankle ligaments:
Oh, and sometimes that famously efficient Quebec bureaucracy rears its head, like when Montreal’s playoff game against Toronto FC was delayed considerably because the penalty boxes had been drawn several yards too narrow:
National Sports Centre, Hamilton, Bermuda
Here’s a strange chapter few outside of the New England Revolution’s hardcore fanbase know: The Revs once played a home game nearly 800 miles south of Gillette Stadium.
New England faced a dilemma in 2006 when it qualified for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the single-elimination precursor to the CONCACAF Champions League. The Revs were drawn against Costa Rican side Alajuelense in the tournament’s quarterfinal round, with their home leg set for Feb. 22, right in the teeth of the Massachusetts winter.
With Bermuda already having been settled on as a setting for preseason camp, the Revolution opted to host the Costa Ricans at the small Atlantic island’s main sports complex – a nice enough venue itself, with several thousand seats and a lush natural playing surface of, you guessed it, Bermuda grass. But it was far from a home-field advantage.
The Revs partnered with a travel agency to offer their fans a package deal to escape the New England weather while rooting for their team. But Taylor Twellman, future head coach Jay Heaps & Co. could only muster a 0-0 draw in front of an announced crowd of 1,500 and were eliminated by Alajuelense’s 1-0 home win two weeks later.