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Three for Thursday: Memorable MLS stadium debuts

One of my favorite moments in MLS history came way back in the summer of 1998. It was an ESPN2 game between D.C. United – the two-time defending MLS Cup champs – and expansion side Miami Fusion.

It was a midday game played at the newly renovated Lockhart Stadium. It looked like it was about 1,000 degrees, but it didn’t matter. The players were flying around the field, and a near-capacity crowd cheered the home side on against United.

I don’t remember what the score was, or even what the result was. I just remember the atmosphere and the halftime interview with then-D.C. coach Bruce Arena.

“So, what do you think of the stadium and the crowd?” the ESPN reporter asked.

“It’s perfect,” Arena said. “Now we just need a dozen more of them, and we’ll be fine.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone in MLS publicly identify the soccer-specific stadium as a league-wide solution. We all knew Columbus Crew Stadium was going to happen – groundbreaking on it was in the summer of 1998 – but for the rest of the league? No one “official” had said a peep.

But Arena did. And that made it ok for all of the fans, bloggers (before that was even a word), forum trolls and journalists to start imagining a league where every team had a home like Lockhart. When Crew Stadium opened a year later, it became pretty clear that the SSS was not only perfect for the business model, but for the fan experience as well.

MLS owners have taken the lessons of Lockhart and Crew Stadiums to heart over the past 14 years. This weekend, the Houston Dynamo will open the 12th purpose-built soccer facility in the league, BBVA Compass Stadium. And it’s a beauty.

So while the Fusion may have folded (Lockhart, for what it’s worth, is now the home of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL), the lessons from that first properly sized stadium live on each weekend all across MLS. Including – very soon – Houston.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three of the more memorable stadium debuts in league history:

3. BMO Field: Toronto FC vs. Kansas City Wizards, April 28, 2007

OK, it didn’t have the happy result the home fans that day surely deserved, as KC spoiled the day with a 1-0 win courtesy of an Eddie Johnson goal.

But it was a watershed moment in MLS fandom as more than 20,000 fans packed the brand new stadium and screamed for the entire 90 minutes. There were loud and proud supporter’s groups in MLS before 2007, but this was the first time the entire crowd seemed to get in on the passion that previously was reserved only for pockets of hardcores scattered amongst the more docile attendees.

It was the first crowd, really, that looked and sounded like the crowds we have today. Or in internet parlance, it was the beginning of MLS 2.0.

2. JELD-WEN Field: Portland Timbers vs. Chicago Fire, April 14, 2011

Like Lockhart, JELD-WEN was a repurposed stadium that ended up being perfect for soccer. Unlike Lockhart, JELD-WEN had the dual advantages of being right downtown and having a long, storied soccer tradition before MLS even arrived.

Timbers Army sing the anthem

There were the Timbers teams of the old NASL of the 1970s and early '80s, teams with players who became a part of the sporting fabric of the city. Then there were the years the Timbers logged in the USL in the 1990s and 2000s, drawing crowds of 10,000 or more on a regular basis.

And, of course, there was Tab Ramos’ crucial goal in 1998 World Cup qualifying against Costa Rica, one that brought the (completely packed, insanely loud, 99 percent pro-US) house down.

So everyone knew this opener was going to be special. But somehow, it actually surpassed expectations.

It started with one of the all-time MLS goosebump moments as the Timbers Army sang the national anthem. A 4-2 shootout, with the home side victorious, followed.

And the night finished with captain Jack Jewsbury leading his side for some celebratory bows (and log slices) in front of a crowd that simply didn’t want to leave. This was tradition, passion and performance, all with a nice big bow on it for the whole league to see.

1. LIVESTRONG Sporting Park: Sporting Kansas City vs. Chicago Fire, June 9, 2011

This one’s my favorite. Not because of the game – a choppy scoreless draw between two sides that were struggling mightily at the time – but because of what it meant for a franchise that had spent so much time as one of the league’s black sheep.

Whether it was miniscule crowds at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, or the years spent at a minor league baseball park with weird sightlines, or the constant threads on fan forums that all basically came down to one thing – Move Kansas City! – KC were a team and fanbase that’d had more than their fair share of hurdles.

The opener at LSP put that all in the past. The stadium was packed and loud. The ownership was (and is) active, local and committed. The Cauldron grew almost overnight from about 150 to 2,000 members. MLS went from an afterthought in Kansas City to the front page of the sports section.

That momentum continues to this day, and a market many had written off is now one of the league’s most passionate. Nobody would have predicted that five years ago.

Or 14. But our league has learned its lessons well – and we’ll get to see evidence of that on Saturday.