When you watch a sellout crowd witness the Houston Dynamo's first game at the newest facility built specifically for an MLS team, pause a moment to remember the late Doug Hamilton.
The opening of BBVA Compass Stadium comes more than six years after the death of Hamilton, whose hard work behind the scenes had helped create yet another MLS success story.
While the Galaxy was rolling to its 2005 MLS Cup title, Hamilton – the team’s general manager -- was also serving as Anschutz Entertaiment Group’s point man in moving the San Jose Earthquakes to Houston. Rumors were rampant that Hamilton would leave his Galaxy post and take over AEG’s soccer operations, a job formerly held by his good friend, Kevin Payne, now president of D.C. United.
After the champagne stopped flowing and flying in the jubilant Galaxy locker room, Hamilton couldn't stop beaming. Aside from some wet, matted hair and a few bubbly stains on his tan suit he looked relatively unscathed by the celebrations. I asked him about his supposedly impending move upstairs, and he replied, "I'm not going anywhere."
In the sense that he kept his job as Galaxy GM he was right, but his travel schedule as newly appointed soccer CEO intensified as he jetted back and forth between Los Angeles and Houston repeatedly during the coming months to facilitate the move. Hamilton worked long, hard hours to smooth the transition and disseminate information on housing, schools, training facilities, and countless other details.
With the assistance of Hamilton, former Dynamo president Oliver Luck spearheaded the efforts to ramp up the Houston market and community for the arrival of the Dynamo. Initially, a high school stadium in north Houston still under construction was to house the team, and once that idea had been rejected, serious negotiations began with the University of Houston, which proposed installing artificial turf to better hold up under the increased use.
Hamilton and Luck objected to artificial turf, and Hamilton especially disliked the idea of a searing Houston summer driving field temperatures well above 100 degrees. Perhaps he remembered that Galaxy players, having played the Dallas Burn on a scorching surface at Dragon Stadium in 2003, wore sandals on the trip home. Their still-burning feet couldn’t tolerate socks or shoes hours after the season opener April 12.
Instead of over-heated plastic, the Dynamo labored on rutted, bone-dry grass at Robertson, prompting complaints from just about every opponent who played on it as well as the home team. During a particularly arid summer, Coach Dominic Kinnear went so far as to day, "You’d think they’d at least water it."
When Timbers coach John Spencer called the field at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium “atrocious” two weeks ago, he spoke from experience. As a Dynamo assistant coach he’d witnessed years of agricultural atrocities at Robertson. Yet still the Dynamo captured back-to-back MLS Cups in its first two seasons in Houston, and though the political wheels needed a few years to start turning in favor of a soccer stadium, eventually AEG’s belief that a facility could be built in Houston came to fruition.
AEG, of course, had abandoned San Jose in the firm conviction that the market just didn’t measure up, and gave Doug Hamilton the task of getting Houston off the ground. He never saw the rewards of his labors. About a month before the Dynamo’s first game at Robertson, Hamilton was on a plane flying home from a Galaxy game in Costa Rica when he died of a heart attack.
Thousands of people attended a memorial service at Home Depot Center for Hamilton, who was a standout soccer player at UNC Greensboro before starting his career in sports marketing with adidas. (He’d also done a lot of work for AEG on HDC.) One of them, a woman, said, “I’ve never seen so many grown men cry.” Those men included most of the major figures in the American game, for in his 43 years Hamilton had discussed, negotiated, dissected, and celebrated the game at all levels.
Eight months after he died, Houston replaced the Galaxy as MLS champion. A repeat the following season established it as one of the league’s elite teams, and though the political wheels didn’t start turning for another couple of years, eventually began the process by which more than 22,000 fans can watch their team in their own home. They and countless others owe some thanks to Doug Hamilton.