With the regular season winding down and teams in each conference jockeying for position, attention is beginning to shift toward the MLS playoffs. And a look at the calendar reveals that the MLS Cup Final on December 1 is 50 days away and counting. The location is still to be determined — that won’t be decided until each conference yields a champion — but the event itself looms large.
On the morning of the 2011 final, with a squall of rain and wind battering The Home Depot Center, scores of fans huddled together as part of the Supporters’ Summit to hear a keynote address from MLS Commissioner Don Garber. With anticipation and optimism at the full house expected at that evening’s match swirling around MLS officials like the gusts of wind in that morning’s storm enveloping those in attendance at the summit, Garber revealed that starting in 2012 the MLS Cup would be hosted by one of the participating teams.
That the LA Galaxy were going to be represented in that evening’s final and their supporters would provide the type of atmosphere in the stadium that had been missing the previous year was irresistible to the MLS brass, and Garber’s announcement was geared toward ensuring that environment at all future finals. Let the match be hosted by the better of the two contestants in their home stadium, and the visual spectacle tailor made for television and craved for by MLS would be virtually guaranteed.
As the collective supporters that morning cheered the announcement, and the most ardent of their clubs envisioned an MLS Cup Final in their own stadium, a question rang out from the crowd, rather snarkily, as to whether tiny Buck Shaw Stadium would garner hosting honors if the San Jose Earthquakes earned the rights to represent the match.
Over the murmured laughter, Garber responded in the affirmative, and all but the most dedicated fans of the Earthquakes had a good chuckle. After all, San Jose had finished another disappointing MLS regular season and was at no time in contention to make the playoffs. The club had snuck into the postseason the season before as a wildcard — in the Eastern Conference — but to no one was it reasonable to believe that the 2012 Earthquakes would storm to the top of the MLS standings. The "what-ifs" of Buck Shaw hosting the Cup Final were bantered around like hypotheticals reserved more for the world of fantasy sports than the real deal.
However, and prudently so, Garber amended his comments to state that Buck Shaw Stadium would be considered as the host site if it came to San Jose earning the privilege, but it was not a foregone conclusion that the Earthquakes home field would present the 2012 MLS Cup Final. With the LA Galaxy on the doorstep of capturing that year’s championship, and looking built to make a run at a few more, many presumed that a repeat trip to the Southland was on tap for 2012.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: The San Jose Earthquakes surpassed the expectations of virtually the entire MLS soccerati and stand poised to capture the 2012 Supporters’ Shield and first overall seeding in the MLS Cup playoffs. A very high probability exists that the Earthquakes, if they handle their conference opponents in the postseason in the same vein they have in the regular season, will be the host team for the final. And Commissioner Garber, boisterous nearly a year ago at the Supporters Summit announcement, now deals with a scenario that falls just short of a nightmare, but definitely causes fits — a visage of Buck Shaw Stadium as the background for his league’s championship game.
So a conversation started months ago between league headquarters and the Earthquakes front office about what to do in anticipation of San Jose earning the top seed and making it to the Cup Final. Should they move the game to Stanford Stadium, site of the very successful June 30 California Clasico attended by over 50,000 local fans, or perhaps AT&T Park in San Francisco, host to the Earthquakes second regular season match back in early March — both options that better suited MLS wishes for sufficient event infrastructure and matchday television appeal?
Stanford Stadium always emerged from debate as the logical venue, but that stadium’s primary host, Stanford Cardinal football, had a potential match scheduled the evening before the MLS Cup Final December 1 date. It was unfeasible to expect that Stanford Stadium could be turned around quickly enough between events for both to happen. The argument against AT&T Park centered primarily on the suitability of the facility, designed with sightlines ideal for baseball, to adequately meet the needs of soccer fans in attendance. And besides that, AT&T was located in downtown San Francisco, far from the home city of the Earthquakes and well removed from their core South Bay supporters.
And then a new candidate emerged, one that had been undeservedly forgotten in the near term, but housed a tremendous amount of San Jose soccer history. Much maligned Spartan Stadium was brought forth as an option to Buck Shaw if the Earthquakes made it to the championship game. The home of the San Jose Clash/Quakes from the inaugural MLS season until the franchise was moved to Houston, Spartan was the site of many an important league moment — the first game in MLS history back in 1996 and the All-Star game in 2001 were just two events that make up Spartan Stadium’s place in MLS history. Is the aging facility a viable option for hosting the 2012 MLS Cup Final?
The 79-year old stadium has recently seen a number of upgrades completed, and the current configuration holds a shade over 30,000 fans, but the field itself is now a football-friendly artificial turf surface. Furthermore, the stadium design still puts constraints on the dimensions of the soccer field that can be contained within its tight structure. The latter deficiency is not that too much different than would be faced at any other local football-specific stadium, but the need to place grass over the artificial turf surface poses a significant expense and is not always an outcome viewed as favorable by players.
Meanwhile, tried and true Buck Shaw Stadium gets overlooked. Earthquakes players and coaches have remarked on how much they would want to play on their familiar field, but the decision as to where to host the MLS Cup Final rides on what the league wants. The "worst stadium in the league" sits under 11,000 fans as currently configured, and the infrastructure to hold the media and dignitaries expected to attend is woefully inadequate. MLS Cup is as much about the game on the field as it is about the event as a whole, and no matter how much Earthquakes fans wish to fill Fortress Buck Shaw and create an intimidating environment for the match, the stadium falls short in satisfying the needs of the league. Garber’s quip about The Buck hosting MLS Cup seems certain to remain within the purview of sarcasm.
But the postseason rapidly approaches, and the MLS Cup final is only 50 days away. Time is running out to select a host stadium — officials have stated they want to have the site determined at the start of November — and a consensus on a location still seems far from certain. Should the league back down and let it be Buck Shaw Stadium? Is a temporary grass field at historic Spartan Stadium the way to go? Do the Earthquakes gamble that Cardinal football will fall flat and make Stanford Stadium available? 50 days to the Cup Final will become 40 days, will become 30 days not long after that, and a decision will need to be made.
The proposed Earthquakes stadium, slated to open in 2014, will one day make all the current hand-wringing unnecessary, but that is a little consolation to those tasked with solved this season’s conundrum. Until then, the debate will continue, and concessions will be made. Winning MLS Cup is never easy, so why should hosting MLS Cup be any different.