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New U.S. soccer stadiums changing the design game

The growing popularity of the beautiful game has fueled a new generation of urban sports stadiums

Orlando City Stadium during a soccer match between the Orlando City Lions and the NY Red Bulls on April 9, 2017.
Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While they’re both football stadiums, the two venues couldn’t be more different. In Los Angeles, the forthcoming indoor-outdoor stadium for the NFL’s Rams, part of a massive 300-acre development, will have a price tag estimated at $2.6 billion, seating capacity for more than 100,000 fans, and aims to reshape the surrounding neighborhood. It’s simply a colossal, cutting-edge development.

Contrast that with the recent stadium proposal advanced for a hoped-for Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in Miami, headed by British star David Beckham. The 25,000-seat stadium concept, with an airy, open-roof design, wouldn’t require parking, and would be designed to fit into the city’s Overtown neighborhood (it also wouldn’t require any public funding).

“We view this as a paradigm shift for the county as to how people get to large events,” said Spencer Crowley, a lawyer and lobbyist representing Miami Beckham United, according to the Miami Herald.

Football and soccer are in two different levels in the U.S. when it comes to popularity and physical footprint. But soccer’s smaller size has its advantages, especially when it comes to architecture. The growth of the MLS has led to a boom in soccer-specific stadiums, ones with more connection to the game, better integration into surrounding neighborhoods, and a more intimate experience compared to those being built for American football and top-flight soccer clubs in Europe.

U.S. soccer stadium design is having a moment, according to Bruce Miller, an architect with Populous, a firm that specializes in stadiums and has designed new facilities for MLS teams.

“For the last three decades, we’ve heard that soccer is going to be the next big thing,” he says. “But now, it’s truly a great time for soccer in the U.S. There’s a whole new generation of participants, and the MLS has really started expanding.”

Orlando City Soccer Stadium home of the Orlando City Lions.

Miller is known for incorporating European design into MLS stadiums, including canopies and steeper seating. But since the game has developed a bit differently here, and has a smaller market and fan base than it does elsewhere, architects have an opportunity to do thing differently. U.S. soccer stadiums are generally much smaller (average capacity is about 21,600 fans), and the seating is much closer to the boundaries of the playing field, unlike layouts in European mega-stadiums. That means seating right next to the pitch. And, with lower rooflines and more seats in-between aisles—soccer’s continuous play and lack of TV timeouts means less reasons for fans to leave their seat—these new soccer stadiums create a more dense, engaged, and hopefully energetic, crowd.

MEIS Architects created this design proposal for a stadium in downtown Las Vegas.
MEIS Architects

Miller’s recent design for the 25,200-seat, $132 million home of the Orlando City Lions exemplifies this new generation of stadiums. It boasts both the steepest seating bowl and the closest seating to the field of any comparable stadium, and has the first dedicated standing-only section in the MLS. The aluminum canopies over the stands not only block the Florida sun, but reflect crowd noise back onto the field.

The MLS has come a long way in terms of design. In 1999, Columbus, Ohio, built the first soccer-specific stadium for the league, MAPFRE, which lacked a canopy (at the time, most teams shared time at college or pro stadiums).

Now, many of the new generation of MLS stadiums, such as Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, which opened in 2011, include club sections, as well as different tiers of premium seating, something Americans expect out of their sports venues. New or refurbished stadiums are on the way in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. A proposal by Allied Works Architecture to expand Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, home to the Timbers, adds four vertical layers of seating, since there’s little room to expand outward, and concept from Rossetti would create a new stadium district near downtown Detroit.

Many of these designs also reflect what Miller believes will be the real legacy of new MLS facilities, the way they fit into and serve their communities. Due to their size, especially as compared to other mega-stadiums, they’re more integrated with the urban fabric.

“They really become catalysts for development, and integral parts of neighborhood life,” he says.