How Orlando City's stadium design has given the club a leg up in MLS

Eric Adelson
Columnist
Orlando City Stadium’s design is the first of its kind in the United States. (Getty)

ORLANDO – As soon as it showed up on television, his phone started ringing.

“We thought it was going to be good,” says Bruce Miller, a soccer stadium architect, “but then you see Opening Day and you feel it. You see it on TV. When you’re there, you feel the energy. I knew it had worked.”

It was a first-of-its-kind design in the United States – a 3,800-capacity safe standing area in the new Orlando City Stadium, which opened this year. Miller’s firm, Populous, had designed it and now he says there is “significant interest” from other MLS teams who want something similar in their buildings.

“It was breathtaking because it was so steep,” says Logan Miller (no relation), one of the local fans trained to unleash the purple smoke after goals. “The fans were right on top of the players.”

The privately funded stadium has further elevated this city into the national soccer conversation, only two years after Orlando City’s first MLS game. A region that was considered a soccer wasteland is now home to a jewel right in the heart of a sprawling state. Orlando is suddenly hosting the NWSL championship match and a World Cup qualifier later this year. FIFA rules prohibit standing areas during international matches, so U.S. Soccer and Orlando City are currently looking for seating options.

In the meantime, the setup is helping the home team. Orlando City has only lost once in the new building, after being a mediocre club during two MLS seasons in the nearby Camping World Stadium. In its most recent match, the team went down two men due to red cards against Chicago and emerged with a 0-0 draw. FOX commentator Alexi Lalas suggested the MLS player of the week award should go to the home fans.

“It’s incredibly loud,” says Orlando defender Jonathan Spector. “You hear it the throughout the stadium. All four sides.”

It’s easy to wonder: Why wasn’t this done sooner, and everywhere? The answer comes right to mind for international soccer fans: Hillsborough. That’s the name of the stadium in England where 96 fans were killed in a crush at a 1989 match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It was a national tragedy that drew concern from the prime minister and the queen, and it leapt quickly to mind when Orlando officials and architects developed the idea for the standing section.

“We had to get comfortable that we had the right design, the safe design,” says Populous’ Miller. “And then from a judgment perspective, what would feel comfortable to a fan? Their ability to access an aisle, and move past people who were on the aisle.”

Orlando City’s fans and home-field advantage have helped the club move into the thick of the MLS Eastern Conference playoff race. (Getty)

Each ticket holder in the safe standing section has a specific spot. That goes a long way to prevent crowding. There is also a bar (with a cup holder) providing a barrier to each fan’s 24-inch area.

The steepness of the stadium combined with the standing area gives the feeling of fans hovering over the field (and the opposing goalkeeper). The overhead canopy embellishes that. And the field is below ground level, which required an enormous drainage system in swampy Florida.

“In my perception, it doesn’t feel like there’s 25,000 fans there,” Miller says. “It’s an intensification of the experience.”

Logan Miller has a unique perspective of it. He is one of the leaders of the Iron Lion supporters group, so he has his back turned to the match for most of the 90 minutes. His view is as similar to that of the players as it gets. He says the standing section creates a sense of swaying.

“It’s like you can feel the steel beams start to shake,” says the UCF student. “That excitement brings almost a danger of how much the place could really rock.”

It is, by all accounts, a home field advantage. New Orlando City coach Jason Kreis has made a significant difference this season, but it’s hard to see last year’s club fighting off a two-man deficit for the better part of a second half.

“It has a huge impact,” Spector says. “You hear people say it doesn’t affect them, when you know that noise is for you, it gives you a lift.”

Unfortunately for Spector and his teammates, that lift might soon be on the other side. Populous has heard plenty of feedback from various clubs, and safe standing might be the way of the future in the MLS.

“There’s a lot of interest in standing room, yes,” says Miller, who has already designed six MLS stadiums.

That interest will likely rise again when the nation sees American Outlaws in the safe standing section. There will be seats behind them, but it’s unlikely they will be used during the match. As Dallas-based Outlaw T.J. Underwood says, “I stand for the entirety of every match anyways.”

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