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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

LAFC’s downtown stadium sets new benchmark for U.S. soccer

By Greg Beacham Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – The grand lobby inside Banc of California Stadium resembles the atrium of a luxury hotel, with burnished gold walls around the elevators and spacious staircases leading well-to-do patrons throughout the brand-new building.

The arena’s dozens of spacious suites would fit perfectly in an upscale Vegas casino or Hollywood nightclub, particularly when they’re filled with partygoers popping bottles and dipping their feet in the wading pool.

But outside on the echoing concourses and in the steep grandstands, Banc of California Stadium is an unmistakable soccer shrine. The arena feels bigger, taller and grander than its 22,000-seat capacity, and the entire structure was built to create an indelible atmosphere from the moment its first ball is finally kicked Sunday night.

“When you put people and noise and energy and passion in here, it’s just going to be incredible,” Los Angeles FC coach Bob Bradley said.

Los Angeles’ first new outdoor sports arena in a half-century is opening for business a mere 18 months after construction began. It sits on the former site of the famed Los Angeles Sports Arena, just south of downtown on Figueroa Street and next door to the fabled Coliseum in Exposition Park.

LAFC will host the Seattle Sounders in the latest landmark in a remarkable 3 1/2-year journey for the Major League Soccer expansion team that now has a home worthy of its lofty ambitions of global prominence.

The stadium’s rapid rise is a testament to the power of vision and planning – and most of all, to the deep pockets of LAFC’s ownership group. The $350 million Banc of California Stadium – the most expensive soccer-specific stadium in U.S. history – was privately financed, which freed the designers and workers from many of the usual restrictions on projects with less ambition and less money.

Jonathan Emmett, the design director at LA-based Gensler Sports, and his associates saw Banc of California as an opportunity to raise the bar on soccer stadiums on this continent and beyond.

“One of the main messages that the ownership group put out on Day One was this idea of bringing the world’s game to the world’s city, and having bigger aspirations than this being just about an MLS team,” Emmett said. “How do we get people talking about LAFC along with the Liverpools, the Manchester Uniteds, the Real Madrids, the Barcelonas? They had a real aspiration to be one of the big boys. And so we realized, ‘OK, we need a world-class stadium that’s going to live up to that expectation.’”

The designers and architects believe they’ve done it.

The field is 22 feet below street level, creating a momentous aspect to the mere act of entering the stadium. The stands are compact and tall, with no seat more than 135 feet from the sidelines.

The North End supporters’ section begins 12 feet off the pitch and is set at a 34-degree angle, with foldup seats and standing rails that should create an imposing presence behind the goal. The section’s capacity is 3,252, and that number was later chosen as the name for the combined supporters’ groups, which are already going strong in Los Angeles before the team’s first home game.

The front row of the west-side stands is just 16 feet from the field, and there is no advertising between the players and fans. That feature – similar to an NBA arena – was insisted upon by LAFC co-owner Peter Guber, a part-owner of the Golden State Warriors and longtime Lakers fan.

The canopy roofs over the stands are angled to direct sound onto the field. On the northeast corner of the bowl, the stands part to create a postcard-perfect view of Los Angeles’ downtown skyline.

“That framing view, that’s the money shot,” Emmett said.

Upstairs, the stadium contains well-appointed luxury suites and club areas designed to attract well-heeled fans to the hot new thing in downtown LA. They’re also intended to be used on days when LAFC isn’t playing, turning the stadium into an everyday draw for businesses and tourists alike.

Banc of California Stadium is personal to many of the stadium’s designers and workers. For instance, Emmett and Gensler senior associate Demetra Thornton both became LAFC season-ticket holders.

Thornton’s favorite part of the project was “getting to work with the team and seeing the progress as it came out of the ground. We don’t always get to do that. Being sports architects, many times we’re traveling, so you see it every week, every three days or something like that. Here, we got to see it every day.”

LAFC is off to an outstanding start to its inaugural season despite playing its first six games on the road while its stadium was completed. Bradley’s team won four times with an exciting attack and a roster of intriguing talent from around the world.

Those talents will be in downtown LA for six games in the next 4 1/2 weeks, and the players already feel they’ve got a home-field advantage. “This is a different class,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, an MLS veteran.

“You walk in and you immediately feel the professionalism. You feel how much detail has gone into this place. For us, it makes our job easier, because we’re just focusing on one thing, and that’s playing. And honestly, they give us no excuses to fail.”