Standing is the new sitting, at least for some MLS supporters.
The growth of supporters culture in Major League Soccer over the years has brought with it a change to the stadium sections they call home. There are four more safe standing sections debuting in 2020 alone with the LA Galaxy becoming the latest MLS club to launch one at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Galaxy's home since it opened in 2003.
In the case of the Galaxy, the fans who occupy the north end of the stadium had a role in making the new "Victoria Block" happen.
“It started with our supporters, who wanted it for a long time, and the club finally found a way to move forward with it,” said Galaxy VP Brendan Hannan.
The transformation happened quickly over five weeks, with Galaxy players helping to put the finishing touches on the section. While the design allows for seats to be locked into position to make Victoria Block a safe standing section for Galaxy matches, they can be folded down to create a seated section for other international soccer and sports events, including the XFL season.
The other three stadiums debuting safe standing in 2020: D.C. United have transformed a portion of Audi Field into safe standing for the new season, the New York Red Bulls have done the same at Red Bull Arena, and the Inter Miami Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, on the site of historic Lockhart Stadium, will debut with safe standing for fans of the new club.
Join @Jorge__Mas and David Beckham in the Safe standing supporters section located in the North Stand of #InterMiamiCF Stadium.— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) February 7, 2020
Built at a 34 degree incline, the section is the maximum steepness permitted by MLS- ensuring an intimidating experience for visiting teams.
Rise of Safe Standing in MLS
Standing at stadiums used to be commonplace throughout the soccer world, and now are making a comeback through the construction of safe standing sections.
German clubs in particular are known for heavy utilization of safe standing sections, including in Borussia Dortmund’s “yellow wall.” Scottish giants Celtic debuted rail seating that can be converted to safe standing in 2016 in its home stadium. Premier League stadiums, meanwhile, have opted for all-seated stadiums per league requirements, though there is talk that may change in the near future.
The San Jose Earthquakes' home, Earthquakes Stadium, technically has a standing zone for supporters dubbed the “Supporters Terrace,” between the southwest goal and a seated section which holds between 500-600 people. But Orlando City created the first large-scale safe standing section in North America when Exploria Stadium opened in 2017.
OCSC chief operator officer Fred Pollastri notes that the team’s supporters clamored for a safe standing section from the outset to create a better home-field advantage. From there, the front office researched existing stadiums, talked to league officials, and created a steeply-graded safe standing section with rails and cupholders for nearly 4,000 fans (photo below).
“Our supporters, they scream, they chant, they play the drums for the whole 90 minutes,” Pollastri said. “We just made sure they all had the cupholders for their beers, and for their water, to stay hydrated.”
Orlando City fans enjoying their first-of-a-kind safe standing section | USA Today Sports Images
Why Safe Standing matters
For supporters, the added space from taking out seats and the rail features allow them to cheer with more physicality than they could in more confined areas. Dark Clouds capo Nach Karnik, part of the contingent cheering on Minnesota United in Allianz Field, notes considerable contrasts from their two prior homes.
“It makes you feel better in the space,” Karnik says of Allianz Field’s safe standing section. “It makes you feel more like you’re in the game. Your attention’s not being taken away by … this person behind me might fall over. You feel freer to express yourself.”
Allianz’s section is the steepest in the league, at a 34.9 degree incline, and its Wonderwall nickname — from the song Loons fans sing after home wins — might be the best in the league. And while Justin Borrell, general manager of Allianz Field for MNUFC, is happy with how the section has served fans so far, he’s in contact with fans and front office colleagues to improve the collective experience.
“I think we’ve been pretty good on the club side to make sure people are taking up just the right amount of space, to make room for everybody so they can join the thunderous noise that comes from that area.” Borrell notes that supporters helped make them aware of how to better involve ADA patrons, with widened promontories in the middle of the section allowing wheelchair users to be more part of the action.
Though Audi Field didn’t start off with a safe standing section, it has converted two north end sections of the stadium to safe standing for the 2020 season. For D.C. United’s chief business officer Andy Bush, the conversion was essential. “We’ve got a very great, passionate fan base. It just made sense to get them something they really want and deserve.”
James Lambert, president of the Screaming Eagles supporters’ group that has backed D.C. United for its entire history, is happy about the “safe” part of safe standing section. He notes, “The bones of the stadium, what they’ve built, are very good,” and feels the move to safe standing will be a welcome change for fans who help close down venerable RFK Stadium and helped fete the club’s new home.
He sees the move as contributing to a renewed optimism fans are feeling for the club. “They’ve picked up a lot on club history, bringing back the Hall of Tradition, having those individuals displayed prominently in the stadium.”
He added, “There’s also just a lot more emphasis on connecting with the culture of the city.”
New stadiums adding safe standing
The safe standing section will continue with Austin FC. The stadium’s design principal, Jonathan Emmett, held the same role for LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium, and the front office has already reached out to the team’s growing supporters group, Austin Anthem, to discuss what will be a 3,500-person section with rails and lockdown seats.
“The concept of standing within a supporter section is a deep-rooted global ritual which we are excited to safely enable,” said Austin FC president Andy Loughnane, who added that seats could be unlocked to satisfy FIFA requirements for U.S. men’s or women’s qualifiers. “The energy produced from our supporters section will serve as the heartbeat for our crowd and our players, and we want to provide the best possible solution for those who will stand, chant, sing, wave flags, and loudly cheer from start to finish.”
Austin FC’s stadium will be one of three projected to open in 2021 with safe standing sections. FC Cincinnati’s West End Stadium should open along with Austin’s in Spring 2021, with Columbus Crew SC’s new stadium following closely behind in the summer.
As proud Orlando fans might tell you, though, only one MLS team can call itself first.
“We’re really happy about it,” Pollastri says of pioneering safe standing in North America. “Sometimes, we’re not the biggest team or the best team, but we try to look ahead, and move things forward, create a better environment for soccer here and develop the sport in the U.S. more and more.”
“Nobody can steal this from us,” he laughed. “This trophy is ours.”
MLS stadiums with Safe Standing Sections
- Allianz Field (Minnesota United FC)
- Audi Field (D.C. United)
- Banc of California Stadium (LAFC)
- Dignity Health Sports Park (LA Galaxy)
- Earthquakes Stadium (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Exploria Stadium (Orlando City SC)
- Inter Miami FC Stadium (Inter Miami FC)
- Red Bull Arena (New York Red Bulls)