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Pitch imperfect: The 7 worst (and weirdest) MLS venues ever

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Cardinal Stadium (now Benedetti–Wehrli Stadium), Naperville, Illinois

The Chicago Fire got evicted from Soldier Field in 2002 and 2003 thanks to the downtown colossus’ two-year, $632 million overhaul, prompting an offseason scramble to find a new home. The Fire’s then-general manager, Peter Wilt, and his staff eventually settled on the home stadium of North Central College in the western suburb of Naperville, 30 or so miles from downtown.

Though fate had played them a tough hand, the Fire worked industriously to make Cardinal Stadium a decent MLS venue. The club added seats over the course of that first season to bump the capacity up to north of 15,000, built solid relationships with the local community and guided fans towards nearby bars and restaurants.

But this was a distant and fundamentally small-time venue, with mostly bleacher seats and a narrow artificial-turf surface marred by permanent gridiron markings. At the time, MLS was a vastly different creature from what it is now, and the humble setting of Naperville in some ways underlined the league’s turn-of-the-century shortcomings.

Some would argue that the forced relocation did major long-term damage to the team’s branding and recognition on the crowded Chicago sports landscape. That’s hard to gauge, given that such concerns have persisted since their move to Bridgeview, even in spite of Toyota Park’s soccer-specific charms.

Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

Many Ohioans know this hulking college football coliseum as “The Shoe,” an allusion to its former horseshoe shape, but to early MLS it was the “Bowling Alley.” That’s because the pitch at the first home of the Columbus Crew, hemmed in by a running track, was so narrow (field dimensions: 62 yards wide by 106 yards long) that the game played on it only tangentially resembled a true soccer game.

The most absurd example of this was the assist notched by goalkeeper Bo Oshaniyi on one of Brian McBride’s goals in the team’s inaugural MLS match in 1996, a punt that flew from one penalty box to the edge of the other, where McBride headed it up to himself before volleying home (at 5:05 mark of the video below).

But that was only one issue. Perhaps even more pressingly from a business point of view, Ohio Stadium’s enormous scale – it held nearly 100,000 spectators at that time and holds even more now – dwarfed even a big MLS crowd, making fans look like ants in a cereal bowl. And Ohio State’s tradition of day football games meant no permanent lighting back then, another headache for the Crew.

All that drove the famously frugal Lamar Hunt, Columbus’ owner at the time, to bite the bullet and pay the full cost of constructing Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds in 1999, setting off the era of soccer-specific stadiums that continues to this day.

Dragon Stadium, Southlake, Texas

Like the Fire, the Dallas Burn – we now know them as FC Dallas – was a founding MLS club that departed its oversized downtown home, the Cotton Bowl, in 2003. And like Chicago, they decided to forge west in hopes of connecting with new fans in a more intimate facility.

At the time, Dragon Stadium was a relatively new venue, home to the legendary (within Texas, at least) Southlake Carroll High School football team, who’ve won more state championships than any other school in the gridiron-crazed state.

But it made a dodgy pro soccer stadium, with its harsh synthetic surface – dominated by large swatches of black end-zone turf – and long distance from the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s urban areas. It was nearly 30 miles out from downtown Dallas, and as the Dallas Observer later chronicled, perhaps the most costly legacy of that year in exile was the rift it created with the team’s Hispanic fanbase – which some would say still persists today.

The Burn languished both on the field and in the attendance category and made a hasty return to the Cotton Bowl before its own permanent home, Toyota Stadium, debuted in 2005.

CommunityAmerica Ballpark, Kansas City, Kansas

How many pro soccer teams on earth have the opportunity to share a ground with a team called the T-Bones?

That was the questionable gift furnished to the Kansas City Wizards, now Sporting KC, when they chose this minor-league baseball stadium for their temporary home from 2008 to 2010.

In many ways, it made sense: Even the Wizards’ largest crowds rattled around Arrowhead Stadium, the enormous NFL venue that was their first home, and their time at CAB helped prepare their supporters for the later move across the state line to the Kansas side of town, where their current home, the lovely Children’s Mercy Park, was eventually built. But it wasn’t quite so clear and strategic at the time.

Kansas City was long seen as one of MLS’ weakest markets in the early years, and the Wizards were very close to being relocated on more than one occasion. When Hunt Sports Group sold them off to a local investment team dubbed OnGoal, LLC, it kept the club in KC, but it made the search for a new stadium all the more urgent.

CAB was supposed to be a two-year stopgap, but it ran to three, and during that time, the wonkishly-configured venue was one of the league’s oddest. Unlike Yankee Stadium, you had the combined drawbacks of a baseball-first field in a minor-league setting, and visiting teams hated having to adjust their tactics to the tight pitch dimensions.

In retrospect, it was a painful but necessary transition to the halcyon Sporting days that followed, but at time, it was painfully awkward for all parties.

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