Los Angeles FC, New York City FC, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC probably could have shared the same pair of oversized scissors typically used for ceremonial ribbon cuttings. All four teams have opened state-of-the-art training facilities over the first few months this year, with NYCFC the latest to show off new day-to-day digs last month.
This comes on the back of Atlanta United opening a $60-million facility of its own last year, with a number of other Major League Soccer teams moving into similarly impressive training grounds in recent years. This marks something of a trend sweeping across the North American game.
It’s a training ground arms race.
Not so long ago the sight of MLS teams training on college fields, squatters in complexes that weren’t theirs, was commonplace. While there was a drive to populate the league with soccer-specific stadiums, North American soccer as a whole lagged behind in the construction of bespoke training facilities.
There has been a change in the landscape, though. Literally.
(Courtesy of NYCFC.com)
Take Atlanta United, for instance, which has made a profound impression on MLS since its 2017 expansion season. While the sight of 70,000 fans performing the Viking Clap all in unison and packed into the stunning Mercedes-Benz Stadium provides the defining image of a franchise going places, the club’s gleaming training facility is just as integral to its ambition.
“The stadium is the glamour facility because that’s where the games are played and that’s what the fans see, but the training facility bears the brunt of what makes the team what it is,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales said. “I think there should be more focus on the importance of these facilities to a soccer club.”
Before joining Atlanta United as club president in September 2014, Eales was at Tottenham Hotspur, where he helped design and oversee the construction of the Premier League side’s Enfield Training Centre, which opened in 2012. From that, Eales learned a lot, preparing him for his new job in Atlanta.
“I was coming over here to look at NFL facilities just as much as I was going to Real Madrid or Barcelona,” he said, highlighting the need to look across all sports, not just soccer, for inspiration when designing a facility like the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. Eales, for instance, pushed for the construction of a double height locker room flooded with natural light.
“Usually, the locker is buried in the middle of the building,” he said, “but we thought it would be better to make it the focal point of the training ground because it’s where the players spent most of their time.”
Beyond the locker room, the likes of MLS stars Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez and, most crucially, Atlanta United’s academy hopefuls, have six full-sized fields, dedicated chefs and nutritionists, recovery rooms, gym equipment and more at their disposal — and all under one roof. For Atlanta, that’s important.
“From a philosophical and aspirational aspect, to have the same building for both the first team and the academy is great,” Eales adds.
This sort of commitment to the creation of a distinctly modern and holistic training ground environment is becoming the norm across MLS. Real Salt Lake’s $78-million, 42-acre Zions Bank training center even includes a STEM charter high school.
While Sporting KC opened a specially-designed, modern training facility of its own back in 2007 — more than a decade before their move to the new facility called Pinnacle — the construction of Toronto FC’s BMO Training Ground in 2012 set the benchmark for the rest of North American soccer. That was widely viewed as a watershed moment in the development of MLS training grounds.
“They set the bar with the facility they built a few years ago,” Eales said, “and now you have people across the league realising that you can get an edge by having a top training facility. For us, as a new team coming into the league, it was important that we had that as well.”
Sporting KC’s latest facility, built in conjunction with U.S. Soccer, may just have raised the bar even further.
“It’s one of the best facilities in the world and that’s not an exaggeration,” said SKC head coach Peter Vermes, who was heavily involved in the design of the complex. “I’ve been to facilities all over the world myself, and this has got everything.”
The Pinnacle facility won’t just benefit Sporting KC, but the American game in a wider sense, with all age groups of the U.S. national team taking root there. There was a certain symbolism to the opening of the complex last month just as U.S. Soccer faced something of an existential crisis, plotting the way forward after a disastrous 2017 when the men’s team did not qualify for the World Cup.
Spent time today at the gorgeous new @LAFC training facility. When @MLS started we trained in parking lots. Now MLS teams have their own training facilities and their own parking lots…used for parking. pic.twitter.com/XLeN8cEVg5
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) April 29, 2018
“When the U.S. national team didn’t qualify for the World Cup, we were talking about our facility — and it’s amazing how sometimes timing is everything and things just work out,” said Vermes, who has served on U.S. Soccer’s board of directors and could be a candidate for the vacant men’s national team coaching job. “The timing couldn’t be any better to have a facility like this in American soccer.”
Training grounds are about more than just fields and recovery rooms and hydrotherapy pools now. They are about forging a culture, setting a standard and imposing an ideology.
“When you have a facility that is world class you can demand more from your players, you can raise expectations,” Vermes said.
While there is plenty positive to be drawn from the number of shimmering facilities popping up across MLS, what comes next matters most.