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Ugly turf mars the beautiful game

As the ball bounced and skipped all over the Rice-Eccles turf last Saturday, I was happy to hear that the new RSL Stadium in Sandy, Utah, is on track to open soon. When you’re building an entire first division soccer league from scratch there are a lot of details to be worked out, but by now MLS should have figured out how important it is for their playing fields to be “major league.”

(Insert another cheer for the pitch at Buck Shaw Stadium here.)

The report I saw said RSL plans to open their new stadium this October. Good News. Not only will that move another MLS team from a college football stadium into a beautiful, 20,000 seat soccer facility, but it’ll get rid of the worst playing surface in the league.

Yep, it’s even worse than the Meadowlands.

Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of (good) stadium construction news floating across my computer screen lately. May 19 saw the opening of Saputo Stadium, the new home of USL1’s Montreal Impact. Named for the team’s owner, Saputo Stadium is privately-financed, has 13,000 seats (expandable to 17,000), a real grass field, and is the second USL1 stadium (after Rochester, NY) to be MLS-quality. Also, for anyone who’s ever spent serious freeway time looking for Frisco, Texas, or Bridgeview, Illinois, the stadium sits just two blocks from a subway stop in Montreal’s Olympic Park. Beautiful.

(Quick question: how close does the streetcar that goes from downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy get to the new RSL stadium?)

I also got word from Vancouver that the British Columbian government has announced major renovation plans for their 60,000 seat BC Place in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and beyond. Currently the world’s largest air-supported domed stadium, BC Place will get a face lift before hosting the Olympics’ opening (and closing) ceremonies. Afterwards, say good bye to the dome, to be replaced by a retractable roof.

The USL1 Whitecaps will move in during the summer of 2011 as part of a five-year lease (with renewals after 2016). Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi says “the move to BC Place will allow us to pursue the opportunity for a MLS franchise.” (Hopefully, the retractable roof will also mean the current turf will be replaced by real grass.)

Vancouver’s a strong soccer market. BC Place opened in 1983, and the NASL Whitecaps drew over 29,000 a match playing there that year. Later in ‘83, a crowd of over 58,000 showed up to see the Tulsa Roughnecks beat the Toronto Blizzard in the last NASL Soccer Bowl.

Even if Vancouver doesn’t get into the league right away, (MLS “aims to have 18 teams by 2012,” and 16 of the spots are taken) for folks looking forward to that day when the sport’s infrastructure will maybe, just maybe be strong enough to support the idea of relegation and promotion (similar to European leagues), the fact that USL First Division teams are moving into major league digs is great news.

Ten years ago, there weren’t any soccer specific stadiums in the U.S. and/or Canada. Three years from now, we’re looking at 11 of them in MLS alone. If your keeping score at home, RSL’s new home will be the seventh soccer-specific stadium in the league. Beyond that, Red Bulls Park is planned to open (finally!) in 2009, the new stadium in Kansas City as well as expansion Philadelphia’s should be done in 2010, and the Quakes own ballpark will be good to go soon after that.

And they’ll all have beautiful, major league, grass fields. I can’t wait.