By Ridge Mahoney
It’s taken more than a dozen years and four championships for San Jose/Houston, one of the most successful MLS teams competitively and least appreciated politically, to get a viable stadium project underway.
A ceremonial ground-breaking will be held Saturday, with construction to start soon afterward in an attempt to complete the 22,000-seat facility in April of next year, (though a completion date sometime in June is more likely).
Projected to cost $110 million, the stadium will be located near Minute Maid Park, home to the baseball Astros, and the Houston business district.
To those fans and pundits who think that a team that wins automatically increases its political clout, think again. The only other team to win four league titles, D.C. United, is in a far worse situation.
Operator-investor Anschutz Entertainment Group moved the Clash/Earthquakes to Houston prior to the 2006 season after it deemed the San Jose market and stadium prospects untenable. The team’s inability to either renovate a cramped, antiquated Spartan Stadium or build a suitable replacement drove it east, but moving to Houston presented many of the same problems in different forms.
All manner of ideas of where to play had been presented. Some local officials proposed renovating the ancient Astrodome, formerly home to the baseball Astros, which sat dormant most of the year. For a while it seemed the new team would play in a multisport facility in north Houston designed for high school football and other events. The most obvious and logical choice, Robertson Stadium at the University of Houston, had been used for friendly matches and pre-Libertadores Cup qualifying games to determine Mexican representatives.
Once the first two had been eliminated, serious negotiations began with the University of Houston, whose athletic director at the time, Dave Maggard, wanted a lot of money for usage and maintenance and also for the team to pay for its conversion from grass to artificial turf. The late Doug Hamilton, president/general manager of the Galaxy and AEG’s point man in the move, and
former Houston Sports AuthorityCEO Oliver Luck – hired as team president -- objected to artificial turf, and though they got their way, they seldom got a suitable playing surface.
Players and coaches quietly complained about a dusty, lumpy field that seemingly went for months in the summer and fall without being groomed or watered sufficiently. “They don’t take care of it for us,” said one player, “and they
don’t take care of it for the football team, either.”
A new surface was finally laid at Robertson last year.
Finding a proper practice facility was just as frustrating; players told of being kicked off various fields by the football team – this during spring practice as well, mind you -- and losing out to the college women’s soccer team at another location during the fall.
Field conditions at the Carl Lewis International Complex on the UH campus, the team’s eventual home, deteriorated so badly at the start of the 2010 season the team fled to nearby Rice University.
Playing on bad fields may have caught up with the team last year; though many reasons can be cited for it missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade, a run of injuries surely played a part.
There’s no provision in the current stadium plan for an adjacent training facility, but first things first. If all goes as planned, by next season Houston will be the 13th current MLS team to play in a custom-designed home.
“Obviously, it’s a huge step. We moved six years ago to come down here and get a stadium,” said Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, who played at the Meadowlands with New York, in the Cotton Bowl with Dallas, and at Spartan with the old Quakes. “It’s taken a little while, but I’m finally happy to say it’s here.
“You can’t do anything about the past, but we are looking forward to this Saturday, and it is a huge step for this organization. This is my 10th year in the league, and I have not played in my own stadium, and there are some other guys here in the same shoes. For me, it's fun.”