No room to breathe: Yankee stadium remains MLS' weirdest venue

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Three years in, and "circus soccer" continues to reign on the league's smallest, purportedly crooked field.

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The opening stages of the 2017 MLS season have brought great excitement about the arrival of two new expansion teams and a fetching new stadium in Orlando. So much so, perhaps, that as the second weekend of the new campaign came and went, relatively little national attention has been paid to the opening of another year at arguably the weirdest venue in the league’s 22-year history.

We’re talking about Yankee Stadium, of course.

From its Manchester City connection to its cash-fueled ambition to the old-world chic of Andrea Pirlo, New York City FC exude European sophistication and jet-set swagger. Until you lay your eyes on its home field, a cramped pitch shoehorned into the outfield and along the infield at the house that George Steinbrenner built.

It’s a purist’s nightmare, to say the least. Last year the New York Post calculated that NYCFC’s playing field is 7,700 square yards in area. Compare that to 8,250 square yards at other smallish-pitched MLS venues, and the 9,000 square-yard playing surfaces found at the nine clubs that share the distinction (according to their own reports to the league’s website) of having the largest pitches in the league (Chicago, Colorado, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Montreal, New England, New York Red Bulls, Orlando, Salt Lake).

Some more simple math: Put the same 22 players in a space that’s 15 percent smaller, and you have a recipe for frenetic, chaotic soccer. And that’s to say nothing of the awkward temporary sod laid down over the infield dirt normally patrolled by first and second basemen and shortstops.

“There are no breaks,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen, whose team visited NYCFC for their home opener on Sunday, told FourFour Two last week. “There’s less times to exhale during a game like this, because a quick turnover and you’re already one pass away from being into the final third. So there’s a sense of urgency that you need at Yankee Stadium.”

United’s extra efforts to prepare for those circumstances did little good. D.C. was comprehensively defeated 4-0, torn apart by David Villa and the rest of NYCFC’s front line, pushing United’s record at Yankee Stadium to 0-3 with 3 goals for and 10 against. Meanwhile, City is now 8-0-1 in its last nine regular-season home matches, with a plus-19 goal differential.

Trade-offs, exaggerations and illusions 

Basic geometry makes soccer fields and baseball stadiums a tricky pair even in the best of conditions. In the Bronx, it’s made even more difficult by the decision to skirt around the pitching mound, so the grounds crew doesn’t have to remove and rebuild it every time the venue is converted from one sport to the other.

It’s the awkward price NYCFC has paid for its insistence on playing home matches at a big-time venue inside Gotham’s city limits, a baked-in kiss-off to its rival across the Hudson River, the New York Red Bulls. And while some degree of normalcy has set in after two years, the baseball-first setting will continue to bedevil games for the foreseeable future.

NYCFC insist its tight pitch runs 110 yards long and 70 yards wide, exactly at MLS’ minimum standard for width. But the club refused, at least in the team’s opening days at the venue in early 2015, to allow members of the media access to the field to measure it for themselves. Alexi Lalas and Grant Wahl subsequently got that chance and found it to be accurate.

Other opposing teams have not hesitated to call the Citizens out on their measurements, however.

“It’s 68 by 106,” said Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes after his team scored a goal off a long throw-in into the penalty box to beat NYCFC 1-0 in their second-ever match at Yankee Stadium, on March 28, 2015. “We knew the field was small and wanted to take advantage. It was more like a corner kick.”

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Is this crooked? (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

A few months later, Columbus Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter threw some more shade on NYCFC’s calculations.

“We have to get the real dimensions there because we line the [practice] field right now with their dimensions and it doesn't seem that small,” he said. “We've got to figure that out. It looks a lot smaller on television.”

Toronto FC boss Greg Vanney told the Globe and Mail that the Yankee Stadium pitch “seems crooked” in the run-up to his team’s playoff series vs. NYCFC last year. Some call it a trick of the eye brought on by the outfield walls, while others contend that Vanney’s right – that the lines really have been drawn off-kilter for some games.

Either way, TFC wasn’t too bothered last fall, as it pressed NYCFC into oblivion in a 5-0 thrashing on its way to MLS Cup.

“When we first got there, the lines weren’t right; it’s almost like an optical illusion there,” said Olsen last week. “But they seem to have kind of worked out all the bugs. It’s what it is. It’s a strange venue, but over the years we’ve played in these type of venues.”

MLS denizens can take heart in the fact that Yankee Stadium is still some distance roomier than the smallest pitches in league history. That dubious distinction is essentially shared by two venues of the distant past: Ohio Stadium, Ohio State’s hulking college football palace and the original home of the Crew, and Spartan Stadium (now dubbed CEFCU Stadium), the San Jose Clash/Earthquakes’ first venue, at San Jose State University.

We might never know for certain which was smaller, as both fields have since been remodeled. But both those pitches were 62 yards wide, requiring MLS to carry more lenient pitch-size standards than it does today.

Ohio Stadium, nicknamed “the Horseshoe,” was also widely known as “the Bowling Alley” among MLS circles, adulterating the game so much that the small-market Crew was driven to make history by building the first soccer-specific arena in modern U.S. history. The no-frills facility now called MAPFRE Stadium has become revered as a cradle of American footy.

As wonky as its home field is, NYCFC remains one of MLS’ more entertaining teams to watch, fueled by the blue-chip talent of Pirlo and Villa. Head coach Patrick Vieira’s insistence on methodically playing out of the back makes its home games into something of a high-wire act, as opponents snap in and try to exploit the team’s idealism.

“Circus soccer” might sound like an epithet coined by a dismissive European, but it’s probably the best shorthand for the oddity that is MLS at Yankee Stadium.

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