By Michael Lewis - NEW YORK, NY (Mar 11, 2010) US Soccer Players -- With a whimper, certainly not with a bang, Red Bull Arena opens this Saturday when the New York Red Bulls Academy Under-18 team hosts the United States Under-17 Men's National Team. The Red Bulls have dubbed the match the soft opening of the stadium. As managing director Erik Stover aptly put it, the team wants to know that all of the toilets flush and that the hot dog grills, well, grill.
The 25,000-seat, soccer specific stadium, which costs about $250 million, give or take a couple of million, is not only the newest in generation of MLS stadiums, it is expected to be the jewel of the league. What's not to love?
It's a state of the art facility, with two video boards. Because it is an enclosed bowl with a roof - a translucent one at that - fans should have the feel of a European soccer game. "It's an absolute game-changer for the New York Red Bulls and the history of this club," Stover said.
The late Lamar Hunt put $31 million of his own money to build a home for the Columbus Crew when the were left looking after Ohio Stadium started renovations. His team needed a stadium, so he built one. His choice literally changed what it meant to be a Major League Soccer club. Since Crew Stadium opened in 1999, the League has slowly, but surely, evolved when it comes to stadiums. Clubs have learned, adding some new wrinkles here, some amenities there.
In 2002, I was quite fortunate to run into Hunt while he was making a tour of all 20 stadiums in Korea and Japan during the 2002 World Cup (he wanted to find ways to improve Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Kansas City Chiefs of that other game of football. Our flight had been delayed and we sat down and spoke - on the record - for nearly an hour. We talked about a myriad of subjects, including one of his favorites, stadiums.
Hunt understood what it was all about for the League's survival: stadiums that gave the fans of the beautiful game a much more intimate experience. He felt soccer already had been a success in the United States. But there had been something missing.
"Where it has not succeeded is in building soccer-specific stadiums, which is much more important than I realized--certainly than I believed it to be 20-30 years ago," he told me almost eight years ago. "I thought, well, it's the same shape as an American football field, so you play in the same stadiums and it will succeed. But that's not quite it. This sport needs to be intimate. Spectators need to be close to the field. That's one area in which we took a risk in Columbus and Phil Anschutz took a large risk with his new stadium in Los Angeles."
Hunt realized his stadium was only a start. Some people have called Crew Stadium the "Erector Set," because it had the bare necessities. But someone had to take the risk and start the process.
In '02, Hunt said that the Home Depot Center "will revolutionize soccer stadiums in this country. We'll see a lot more of these larger facilities built. This is a $60 or $70 million stadium. The Columbus Crew Stadium was $31 million, which is a lot, and it's very, very nice. Phil's is also a larger, more important market. If something happens in Los Angeles, it's beginning to happen in America. Columbus doesn't quite have that cache. Crew Stadium attracted officials and architects who came to inspect it, and Phil's stadium in Los Angeles is going to accelerate that sort of interest. It will act as the new blueprint."
Indeed, it did.
The Home Depot Center in Carson, CA, home to the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, opened in 2003. That was followed by Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, TX (FC Dallas) in 2003, Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL (Chicago Fire) in 2006, Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO (Colorado Rapids) in 2007, BMO Field in Toronto (Toronto FC) in 2007, Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, UT (Real Salt Lake) in 2008 and now Red Bull Arena.
Add PPL Park in Chester, Pa., which will become the home of the expansion Philadelphia Union in June and you have a majority (11) of the 16 MLS teams in their own home stadiums.
The ones looking in from the outside? The Kansas City Wizards, whose stadium in Kansas City, Kansas (not Missouri) is expected to open next year. The Houston Dynamo, trying to get a stadium built despite local obstacles. The San Jose Earthquakes, who are trying to get one built west of the local airport. DC United, which has endured more obstacles, problems, and headaches trying to find the right site than we can list. then there's the counterpoint, the Seattle Sounders leading the League in attendance as an expansion team last year despite playing in one of those old fashioned American football stadiums.
At the time I spoke with Hunt, Red Bull, the Austrian energy-drink producer, was four years away from purchasing the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Say what you want about the Red Bulls. Sure, they've continued the struggle for MLS respectability in the region, trying to find the key to MLS success and glory (seven coaches during that span should say it all). But they have gotten the stadium right, if not perfect.
While Saturday's encounter won't register much on soccer's Richter scale of interest, two more Saturdays this month certainly will grab more than its share of the spotlight and headlines
On March 20th, the Red Bulls will host Santos (Brazil). On March 27th, the first game that really matters will be played, when the Red Bulls host the Chicago Fire in their season opener. The Red Bulls would love to have the season-ender at RBA -- MLS Cup on Nov. 21st, but that will be up to the League decide that.
Three openings for the same stadium. Only in New York, huh? From all indications, Red Bull Arena deserves such an introduction and debut.
I have had the opportunity to watch a game and practices from original Red Bull Arena in Salzburg. It is slightly larger than the one in Harrison, NJ But if the new version is anything like the one in Austria, the fans are going to be in for a treat.
"It's going to be the best small stadium in the world," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
Red Bull Arena should be a difficult act to follow, setting the bar higher for future stadiums. But that’s what it’s all about, right? Getting it right and making a better and improved product.
Of course, other questions loom, such as whether the Red Bulls can assemble a team worthy of playing in their new house in wake of last year's 5-19-6 finish. But that is another story for another time.