Having the biggest match of the MLS season played on an adapted pitch in a baseball stadium is a disgrace.
Not so long ago, Major League Soccer teams were squatters. They lived as nomads, setting up camp wherever there was a free sports field and scoreboard. This made for a league without much in the way of a community rooting. So hasty was MLS’s foundation, its member clubs had no choice but to home share.
The Columbus Crew played at Ohio State University’s cavernous football stadium, while DC United called RFK Stadium, a former ballpark, home for 11 years. Over the past decade, though, MLS teams have embarked on a concerted program of stadium construction, building a series of venues specifically designed to host soccer.
Yankee Stadium as current MLS stadium, however, stands as a relic of an otherwise bygone age. ‘The House That Ruth Built’ has been home to New York City FC since 2015 when the Manchester City/New York Yankees-owned club became New York’s second MLS franchise. Back then, the idea was that Yankee Stadium would be a stopgap solution until a permanent home was found. Four years later, there is no plan in place to leave. In a throwback to the way MLS used to be, NYC FC are squatters in somebody else’s home.
The number of issues with playing soccer at Yankee Stadium are many. New York City FC are one of MLS’s most globally visible franchises, yet their home games, which are broadcast around the world, give a false impression of the North American top flight. Indeed, MLS matches played at Yankee Stadium look dreadful on TV.
And for visiting teams, a trip to the Bronx poses a unique challenge. At just 7,700 square yards, the Yankee Stadium playing surface is the smallest in the league. It runs exactly at MLS’s minimum standard for width (70 yards), although some managers believe it is even narrower than that. “It’s 68 by 106,” insisted Peter Vermes after a Sporting KC visit to Yankee Stadium two years ago. “We knew the field was small and wanted to take advantage. It was more like a corner kick.”
Some visiting teams adapt to the conditions better than others, but a common by-product of Yankee Stadium’s unusual dimensions is a high number of topsy-turvy games. It could be argued that this is frequently the cause of a greater level of entertainment, but the pitch is not conducive to high quality soccer. Many have made this point from the moment Yankee Stadium was announced as an MLS venue.
More recently, Matias Almeyda, the former Argentina international and Guadalajara boss now in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes, expressed his disgruntlement at having to play on a pitch some have even called “crooked.” “In other countries, if you don’t have a regulation field, you don’t play,” he said after the Quakes’ defeat to NYC FC last weekend.
“The system of play changes and we play football. We don’t play baseball or basketball, so we need football stadiums. The measurements are different. It’s a great stadium, but it’s a small-sided field. It’s not real. It stops being realistic before the game even starts. I think if this league wants to be the best in the world, they shouldn’t allow this when there are other wonderful structures.”
The problem for NYC FC is that there is nowhere else in New York for them to play, at least not if they intend on sticking to their original commitment to play in one of the city’s five boroughs. Proposals for a number of sites have been mooted over the years, but finding a suitable plot for a 25,000-seater stadium hasn’t been easy.
Regardless, New York City FC’s stay at their current home can’t be sustainable. Yankee Stadium might well be a globally renowned sporting arena, but it is an embarrassment to MLS. It could still host this season’s MLS Cup, with NYC FC currently top of the Eastern Conference (the Yankees’ play-off dates could pose a scheduling problem). As a soccer venue, the Bronx stadium is unpopular with supporters, players, opposition coaches and TV viewers. The longer it remains on the MLS circuit, the more damage it does. Having it host MLS Cup would be a disgrace.