St. George’s Park: Inside England’s soccer shrine — can U.S. learn from it?

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Set in the leafy countryside of middle England, there’s a soccer facility starting to become known as one of the world’s best.

The headquarters of England’s 24 national teams features 12 full-size soccer pitches (five have under-soil heating and floodlights), an altitude chamber, a Futsal pitch, indoor running track, four gymnasiums, two Hilton hotels, 500 seat conference center and a purpose built sports hall are just some of the highlights of the English Football Association’s epicenter. Completed in 2012, it is also home to the League Managers Association (LMA), England’s center for coaching education and has become a business conference destination, where soccer and business leaders collaborate.

That is St. George’s Park.

The goal was to bring all levels of the game together in England, — professional, grass roots and coaching eduction — and give it a home. They’ve done that. But having a world-class facility is only a first step. That’s why I decided to go behind the scenes to see the people who are shaping the future of the game in England and how U.S. Soccer could learn lessons from the English, as the allure of St. George’s (SGP) spreads across the pond.

THE LOWDOWN: A DAY AT ST. GEORGE’S PARK

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Yours truly struggling away in the altitude chamber, as humidity levels rise and oxygen levels decrease.

As you drive into the idyllic Staffordshire countryside, thatched cottage reminiscent to the ones you’d see on English Fudge boxes are replaced by field after field. Then you arrive. Nestled on the edge of the National Forest, SGP is big on spectacular entrances. That’s exactly what you get.

First up: check out the incredible sports science equipment and have a go at recreating the humid atmosphere both the England and U.S. players will be facing in the Amazonian city of Manaus at the World Cup this summer.

Hopping onto a bike and peddling my little heart out in an altitude chamber isn’t usually how I spend my Wednesday mornings, but how can you not have a go? After enduring 14 percent oxygen levels for almost half an hour, I started to become slightly light-headed as my workout came to an end. The incredibly informative Ian Aylward — Strength and Conditioning coach for Perform who run SGP’s sports labs — guided me through the treadmills designed by NASA, the ‘Batak’ reaction center, which measures perceptual awareness. Signs on the wall showed that both Dider Drogba and Radamel Falcao scored 101 on the test. I got 75 on my first and only attempt, apparently Didier and Falcao had several shots at it… just saying. During the week, these labs are helping players from across the English soccer spectrum, and regular members of the public, recover and regain fitness with the latest and greatest technology.  I learned throughout my trip to SGP, that this center isn’t just about the elite level athletes.

Then it was onto an underwater treadmill – which Olympic Gold medalist Mo Farah apparently swears by – and after that, into the icy cold waters of the plunge pool to cool down. Shivering in the freezing waters, I then jumped straight into a warm Jacuzzi to recover, properly, as pins and needles overtook my body. ‘This SGP experience is pretty intense’ I thought to myself. Turns out, this was only the start.

Touring gyms which make most airport terminals look miniscule is a bizarre feeling. All the rehab and workout areas look out onto the main indoor and outdoor Wembley replica pitches to act as a carrot dangling in front of the players returning to fitness.

It was specifically designed that way to keep the motivation levels of returning players high, as they would still feel part of the team, even when they’re recovering from inside glass-windowed luxury gyms overlooking the pitches. Little things like that are what make SGP special.

(MORE: Why NASL’s Minnesota United flew 4,000 miles for 10 days of practice)

With English soccer’s new HQ gleaming in the afternoon sunshine at St. George’s, many revel in the beauty of the wonderful high-tech facilities inside the facility. But let’s get onto this most important components of SGP, and the reason the vast oasis of soccer empowerment was built in the first place: the soccer pitches.

Boasting 12 state-of-the-art pitches; five with undersoil heating and floodlights and two exact replicas of the pitch at Wembley Stadium (inside and out) SGP doesn’t shirk its responsibility as a world class soccer facility when it comes to the grass the game is played on.

The man tasked with organizing the upkeep and condition of the pitches is a wily old Scotsman, Alan Ferguson. As I wandered towards the outer reaches of SGP to get a word with Ferguson, a tractor in the distance begins to speed towards me. Surely not? But it was. In stereotypical fashion, Ferguson arrived by tractor and parked up next to myself stood smartly dressed in a suit. Priceless. So what has been the biggest changes in pitches Ferguson has seen over the years, and how do these pitches at SGP fare compared to others?

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An aerial view of St. George’s Park.

“The big differences are sand dominated root zones reinforced with artificial fiber, which is the Wembley stadium pitch, two of which we have here. Phenomenal surfaces. I call them the ‘Rolls Royce’ of surfaces,” Ferguson laughs. “They cost over 1 million pounds each ($1.6 million), but you get what you pay for. You get a surface to die for, as a player or a coach you’ve got a billiard table like level. They are unbelievable.”

As he tells me about the ins and outs of preparing each pitch and how the exact replica of Wembley on the site is identical in the texture, dimensions and every single facet imaginable, I had a thought. “Can you replicate the pitches that England will be playing on in Brazil?” With no hesitation, this was Ferguson’s reply.

“When they get down to Brazil, they will be playing on similar surfaces but the reinforced grass will be rye grass and Bermuda. We can recreate that no problem at all,” Ferguson said. “However, what we can’t create is the effect of the humidity on the grass, but as far as the way the ball will move we can give them 100 percent replication of that here, before they go.”

How many other nations can say they’ll have pitches from Brazil in their own backyard? During my tour, all day long I’ve seen Ferguson and his 14 staff hurriedly going about their business. They always seem to be busy, and according to the Scotsman helping to shape the pitches England’s national team play on, the future will be even busier.

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An exact replica of the pitch at Wembley sits at the heart of SGP.

“It is acknowledged that we don’t have enough pitches. We need about 20 pitches here to satisfy the business plan,” Ferguson said. “I think that is the one big surprise for everybody here. We all thought we’d be pretty busy with England teams, but I don’t think anybody could’ve imagined the demand from teams beyond the UK for the facilities here at St. George’s Park.”

Those teams from overseas that Ferguson is alluding to, are starting to stream over the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S.

THE USA: HOW SOCCER IN AMERICA RELATES TO SGP

Up to my neck in water, pounding away on a treadmill below and watching a sport scientist analyze my running style on two plasmas screens that are relaying an underwater video recording of my endeavors, the last thing I expected to hear were some American voices at SGP. But I did.

The week before my visit, Minnesota United became the first-ever professional soccer team from America to use the splendid soccer-specific facilities on offer. Now another U.S. side were at it, as teenagers from Ashland High School in Oregon were touring the place.

“We wanted the kids to see the nuances of the game and how it started here in England,” their club coach at Chillers FC, Garin Coster, said. “We want them to be able to play, watch and experience all that they can. Hopefully it will sink in and make us better players…. and better people in the end.”

The allure of SGP is spreading far and wide, right across the U.S. That intrigue works both ways, as Associate Director of Football Development, Education and Operations at SGP, Dani Every, explains to me over a sandwich in SGP’s bustling cafeteria which overlooks the sprawling national forest that encompasses the grounds.

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West Ham and Minnesota… United: NASL and PL club meet up at SGP.

“Various people involved in the project had experience of going to American universities and it’s fair to say we admire the way America structures their facilities, especially for college sports,” Every explains. “Personally I had a look some of the facilities in Dallas, both professional and at a collegiate level. I was fortunate enough to go to Nike’s HQ in Oregon, and even that campus when you look around, you see things and bring those back. There is a drive for continuous improvement at this facility. In terms of what we have, it’s beyond our wildest dreams if you look back to five years ago when we started to plan it out.”

Jamie Robinson is England’s Head of Youth Coach Development, and his role is to help educate the coaches sent to monitor every English side involved in the Elite Player Performance Program (EPPP) and his team of 16 have four to five pro teams each to look after.

Instead of trying to force the FA’s ideals onto each club, they aim to assist the way the clubs are currently working and help produce the best ‘decision makers’ they can produce. That seems to be the way England are heading, in terms of player development, as creating a new generation of gifted ‘decision makers’ are the aim for English soccer’s greatest minds.

Earlier this year Robinson, and other coaches who help to shape England’s future, visited the U.S. to share their ideas and hold lectures on the English FA’s philosophy of player development.

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Could U.S. stars benefit from a centralized facility for soccer in the USA?

“I went over to the NSCAA conference in Philadelphia at the start of the year and spoke there,” Robinson explained. “There were 8,000 coaches there, all hungry to learn and get better, plus have a few beers with their mates at the same time, it was interesting.”

What does Robinson, in his expert opinion, predict for the future of soccer in the U.S.?

“It will be interesting what they will do. If they ever un-tap their resources they will be an unbelievable footballing nation,” Robinson exclaimed. “But if soccer only gets a tiny bit of press and is on never on TV, you struggle to see how it is going to gain momentum. Who knows. The interesting thing about America is the different sports and the way they influence the fabric of society. Places like, what am I reading at the moment… Friday Night Lights? … places like that, it is just bizarre and miles away from anything we can recognize here in a soccer nation.”

Switching the conversation from FNL country in Odessa, Texas back to the visiting team from Oregon, their players continue to wander around the vast halls of SGP in awe at this soccer mecca. Could a centralized facility like SGP ever flourish in the USA?

“We do big things there, but it would probably end up being in Texas… because everything is bigger in Texas!” Coster laughed. “Or it could be in California or somewhere like that, it would be cool. Eventually something like this could happen, or even a few smaller scale facilities, similar to this, in different spots around the U.S.”

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The entrance to the SGP complex, set in the idyllic English countryside.

So, after seeing SGP for myself, and hearing plenty of buzz from Minnesota United and the other U.S. individuals who’ve visited the site, here is my proposal: why not build three soccer-specific facilities in California, the Midwest and the South East? U.S. Soccer already does a great job with the Bradenton residency program in Florida, where it has nurtured young U.S. talent such as Michael Bradley, Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez to name a few. But with the sheer size of the USA geographically, it seems too difficult to centralize the entire development program like they have at St. George’s. Currently, some of the ODP programs take place at Nike’s HQ in Orgeon, as well as Bradenton and many other sites.

One of those players who came through the Bradenton program is Minnesota United midfielder Jamie Watson, who was previously with both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas in Major League Soccer. He believes the U.S. would benefit significantly, if a center like SGP was set up and the Bradenton center was expanded.

He saw first hand how current USMNT star Michael Bradley arrived at Bradenton bottom of the pile out of 30 guys, and within two years he’d been transformed into a started in MLS at 17 and has become one of the best midfielders the U.S. have ever seen.

“When you’re in a setting like SGP and Bradenton, that is set up for you to only succeed, it only makes you better,” Watson said. “Literally everyday you get better. Having a place like that means you get better, if you bring the top quality players at Bradenton it will breed better overall talent for your national team. There are all the expenses that go into, but for a soccer standpoint, any player that goes through those doors will become a better player every single day.”

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Two exact replica of Wembley’s pitch sit inside and out at SGP.

It is just an idea, but having three centers spread across the country could help the development of Klinsmann’s ideals as technical director and help promote the national teams message in a centralized approach. Of course with college sports and the varying success of different MLS academies, the next few years will be key in the future of how young soccer players are developed in the USA. Seeing the benefits of SGP and how people from all walks of the game work together for the betterment of their national team is inspiring, and something which would be incredibly helpful, if implemented properly, in the U.S. Finances would be an issue, but having a similar center in the U.S., or expanding the existing ones, would surely help in the long-run.

Manny Lagos, Minnesota’s head coach, was keen to take his American squad overseas to spend their preseason in England at SGP. He explains why a team from the U.S., which has access to phenomenal facilities on their doorstep, would fly 4,000 miles to prepare elsewhere.

“There are a lot of good facilities in the U.S. but one of the things I loved about SGP is the nostalgia of it being the home to the English national team,” Lagos said. “Combined with the technology they’re using with the fields, the physio and regeneration areas and then you have a hotel that is soccer-centric right there. That was a very unique experience for a lot of the guys on our team, especially the Americans, who aren’t used to so much focus on just soccer for a facility.”

THE FUTURE: HOW WILL SGP HELP ENGLAND WIN TROPHIES?

As you wander around the vast SGP complex, you see plenty of people either in suits or tracksuits, all wearing large smiles and all seemingly working towards the same cause. I was led over to the coaching education wing, this place was a shrine to the great minds of the game. Each meeting room was named after inspirational figures in the English game.

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History oozes from the foundations of SGP, in every direction you look.

On the wall behind a coffee and tea unit were pictures of eight framed pictures of legendary figures in the soccer world. Sir Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly, Jose Mourinho and Sir Matt Busby were amongst them.

Etched onto the other walls were the rules of the game, with some of the more obscure ones listed from the original Association Football handbook codified in 1863. “The goals should be changed after each goal is won,” reads one of the original rules. So, that one slipped by the wayside…

Sat down on a fancy leather sofa, sipping coffee from a St. George’s Park mug, and kitted out in full England training gear from head to toe, Head of Youth Coach Development Jamie Robinson lives and breathes the game. In his thick Scouse accent, you can tell he genuinely cares about helping to foster a positive environment to educate new coaches at SGP, which will then in turn help the national game prosper.

St. George’s arrival has, in Robinson’s opinion, been monumental in the progress of English soccer and allowing the different facets of the game to mesh together.

“It has been amazing,” Robinson said. “What people can do now, is that people like Les Parry from Manchester United comes in to talk about his vast array of experience, and walking down the corridor he meets people like Mike Rigg who is our head of talent ID. The facility has got all the people here in one place.”

Then Robinson points out the window towards a vast courtyard with a perfectly manicured garden, complete with soccer inspired monuments, as one of the reasons why England’s soccer operations are now centralized became more apparent.

“See, there’s Matt Payne, our psychology researcher wondering around the grounds… trying to figure out all the answers!” Robinson chuckled. “Building a place like this, means all kinds of people are here. You bump into people and the environment dictates that we get together and meet. Before, without a home, everyone was going off doing their own thing.”

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Can England start to churn out talents such as Joe Hart from SGP on a regular basis?

But with such a monumental challenge ahead of Robinson, his coaches, plus the sports scientists, psychologist, directors and every single person involved in the English FA, what is the key to pulling the fabric of everyone’s work at SGP together?

“We need to make people feel as if they’re part of something bigger. People call me the head, I’m not the head, I just try and bring people together to talk about this stuff. We’ve all got a responsibility to work together for the greater good of the game,” Robinson said, then squeezed his paper coffee cup tightly before rubbing his chin reflectively. “Obviously, at some point down the line, if people are working passionately around the game and dealing with players in the right sort of way, to empower them to be the best decision makers they can be, then we’ve got good players. We will just get more of them. If we get environments that can do that, and can interact with players in the right way then players will come through.”

Before joining the FA, Robinson was involved in the professional game with lower league side Shrewsbury Town. That’s when he retells the story about how he helped Joe Hart continue his journey as a soccer player, as the man who is now England’s no.1 goalkeeper almost walked away from the game.

“My goal is about long-term player development. My group of coaches who are working at football clubs and dealing with players from 9-21. Any of those players that any of those guys come into contact with could play for England,” Robinson said excitedly. “I was at Shrewsbury as a youth coach, when I had Joe Hart as a 14-year-old, I persuaded him to not be a cricketer and come and sign for us at 16. You don’t know, any of these kids could play for England. So we have to make sure we develop the best environment for kids, is our interaction and practice for these kids as challenging as they can be to try and strain them to be decision makers who are desperate to be footballers.”

The progress SGP has made in the last 15 months since it opened is astonishing, as expanding the 330 acres of land has already been discussed.

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Set in 330 acres of land on the edge of England’s National Forest, SGP offers stunning facilities in sensational surroundings.

“We have long term goals, some of the really encouraging signs are that the hotel is full and vibrant, the England teams have visited 80 times,” Every said excitedly. “We’ve had 70 plus other teams stay here, Minnesota United, Galatasaray, Steau Bucharest, Monaco, West Ham, that is brilliant and enhances the vibe and buzz about the place. We’ve already had over 12,000 coaches physically come and use the center, plus 240 grass root teams.”

Despite all the glowing references about the facilities being magnificent, the wider community benefiting from its creation, the star-studded athletes using it year-round and its prestige, the purpose of SGP mustn’t be forgotten: it must be the hub of a successful England set up, across the board.

“It is a fantastic facility and the idea was to use it for a catalyst to change and improve our coaching education and drive performance in our England teams,” Every explained. “That said, it is a facility. So where we get the real benefit is the people who work inside the facility, the buzz, collective energy and drive. We are using St. George’s Park as a catalyst to achieve our stretching goals because, obviously, we want to see winning England teams at some point.”

Finally, I ask Every to sum up the meaning of St. George’s Park. Slightly flustered, she took a minute to compose herself before delivering a sentence which encapsulates what soccer’s home in England is all about.

“It is our training home for England teams and coaching education. And the catalyst to improve performance in English football,” she says with a nod and a confident smile.

Just over a year in, the future looks bright for SGP and English soccer.

Now, can the U.S. mirror this facility, if they need to, in order to help the national teams flourish in the future?

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

‘ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.

Report: Crystal Palace to build new stadium

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Crystal Palace may have a new home in the next few years.

That’s according to reports out of English, which state that Crystal Palace owner Steve Parish is set to make a major stadium announcement before Christmas.

Crystal Palace’s home stadium, Selhurst Park, is nearly 100 years old, and the club has looked over the last few years at either new locations for a stadium in South London or ways to renovate the current ground.

“When I came into this thing, the aim was to bring something for all of us to be proud of on the pitch and very importantly off the pitch,” Parish told the Croydon Advertiser. “We want to give everybody in Croydon a south London stadium that we can all be proud of and not lose our atmosphere and uniqueness.

“That’s a dream for me, a lifelong dream and one that hopefully everybody will share when they see what we’ve put together. It’s fantastically exciting times for us to look forward to.”

Unlike in America, where many sports owners demand a new stadium every 20-25 years or so, in England, there are many stadiums still in use across the Football League and Premier League that were initially built in the 1800s.

It’s unclear who would pay for a new Crystal Palace stadium, what it would look like and how many seats it would hold, but perhaps a new stadium and facility could help

FOLLOW LIVE – MLS Conference Finals, Leg 1

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There’s never been more on the line in the latest Trilliam Cup matchup.

For the first time, Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew will meet in the MLS Cup playoffs, kicking off at 8:00 p.m., with both teams taking different paths to the Eastern Conference finals.

Toronto FC battled the New York Red Bulls to win on away goals, after a 2-1 win in Red Bull Arena in the first leg, but tempers flared and the Supporters Shield winners will be without both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore on Tuesday night. The Crew meanwhile survived an incredible 120 minutes at Atlanta United to win in a shootout, and then carried that momentum into a 4-3 aggregate victory over New York City FC.

[FOLLOW: MLS Conference Finals Play-by-Play]

Now, with the Crew’s status in Columbus still up in the air, Crew fans have one chance to pack MAPFRE Stadium to support their team and prove to the league they can support an MLS franchise.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the upstart Houston Dynamo host a sold-out crowd as the defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders visit, with kickoff set for 9:30 p.m.

The Dynamo stunned the injury-riddled Portland Timbers in the last round and the Dynamo has lost just once at home in MLS action this calendar year. On the other side, the Sounders are getting a major boost, with Osvaldo Alonso and Jordan Morris close to returning, either in this game or next week, and Clint Dempsey remains fit and raring to go back in his home state.

Follow all the action from tonight’s MLS Cup playoff matchups.