COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Major League Soccer is using this year's All-Star game to showcase not only its premier players but its model stage for the sport.
With plans to expand by two teams in 2002 and existing teams looking for cozier venues, the league hopes the national attention given the $28 million Crew Stadium will inspire others to build soccer arenas.
The league's investors will be among an expected capacity crowd of 22,555 on Saturday.
''It is the model for what we hope to achieve with the construction of soccer stadiums in this country,'' league commissioner Don Garber said. ''This sport suffers from not having enough places like Crew Stadium where people can be proud to be a soccer fan.''
He said Crew Stadium has encouraged a grassroots soccer movement in Columbus.
The city of about 700,000 has the only MLS franchise to surpass 9,000 season tickets, in 1999 and again this year. The allure of a new stadium attracted a league-high 17,696 fans per game last year. Columbus is fifth this season with 14,672.
Garber said most MLS facilities are too large and don't seat fans close enough to the field. Sharing a stadium with an NFL or college team leaves some MLS teams playing on fields marked by football lines and not in control of their schedules.
Some seats at Crew Stadium are only 8 feet from the field. Fans can also get a close-up of the action on a large video screen. The tilted light banks at each corner of the field and the open-air loges -- with bars and TVs -- give the stadium a European feel.
The only stadium that comes close to offering the intimacy and amenities of Crew Stadium is the home of the Miami Fusion. Lockhart Stadium is a former high school stadium that was expanded and renovated.
The next city to build a soccer-specific stadium will be Los Angeles. The Galaxy are scheduled to move from the cavernous Rose Bowl by 2002.
Former commissioner Doug Logan said the league's goal was to build one soccer stadium a year, but Garber, who replaced Logan last year, said it's tough finding both investors and the right locations.
''We have been making progress in a number of other cities including the New York area, Chicago and Denver,'' he said. ''Although no commitments have been made this year, we are encouraged by the progress of discussion over the last couple of months.''
The Crew had to move out of Ohio Stadium -- where an average of 93,000 fans watch football games -- when the Ohio State began renovating the 78-year-old structure. In its first three seasons there, the Crew averaged 12,200 a game. Even with dividers to cluster fans into tighter formations, the crowds looked and sounded small.
Most of Crew Stadium's price tag was picked up by team owner Lamar Hunt and his partners after voters repeatedly refused to finance a soccer stadium downtown or in the suburbs.
Hunt, also the owner of the NFL's Chiefs and the MLS' Wizards in Kansas City, said that when he first looked into bringing an MLS team to Columbus, he was told by then-Mayor Greg Lashutka that the community had plans for a stadium.
The city had a site available along Interstate 71 at the state fairgrounds, with adequate parking, access roads and freeway ramps, where Crew Stadium eventually was built.
Without that kind of help, Hunt said, he understands why investors haven't moved as quickly as the league would like in committing to stadiums.
''Our stadium only opened 14 months ago and it took us three years to decide to take the step,'' Hunt said. ''It is a big risk, but I think soccer has great potential for the future.''
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