By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (June 25, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The New York Red Bulls had a lot to be proud of on Sunday night, including finally filling Red Bull Arena for a League game. Credit the home crowd for waiting to show up in numbers for an Eastern Conference matchup rather than becoming yet another club that saves the big show of support for when LA is in town. Then again, what does it really say that it took so long to see the best purpose-built stadium in MLS filled?
Make no mistake, Red Bull Arena is a showplace even with its widely publicized flaws. Pay any attention since it opened in time for the 2010 season and you know about the parking issues, the public transportation problems, the concessions, and everything else that has provided an excuse for fans not showing up.
We can’t leave winning out of the conversation. That’s something the Red Bulls haven’t done with the consistency necessary to put together a string of sellouts. They didn’t open Red Bull Arena with a clean slate. This is an original MLS team, with all the obstacles of their history that includes.
Still, this is an MLS venue like no other. For one thing, the entire seating area is covered. For another, there’s no stage setup for that summer concert business that has yet to displace the amphitheaters built with ease of access in mind. Red Bull Arena is uniquely about soccer, something that isn’t necessarily accurate when describing the League’s other purpose-built venues. It’s what MLS fans dreamed about in the late-90’s, a stadium on par with what a club might build in Europe. So why isn’t New York playing to capacity every time they open the gates?
If you’ve spent any time in northern New Jersey, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the problems the Red Bulls face aren’t unique to just that area. Across the old industrial areas, attempts at building new infrastructure aren’t clear successes. There’s the massive shopping mall that has yet to open next to the National Football League stadium. There’s the hockey arena in Newark that lacks the kind of nightlife that turns an area into a destination. There’s the soccer stadium in Harrison surrounded by empty lots.
When what became Red Bull Arena was still in the planning stages, the idea that major construction projects would stall, that expectations would change, and that the commercial and housing markets might shift weren’t dampening anybody’s enthusiasm. Now we know better, but at the time predicting a revival in property values anywhere in the United States seemed like a safe assumption. That was especially true in an area just across the water from the most expensive real estate in the country.
Now? Red Bull Arena finds itself in a similar situation to places like Commerce, Colorado, Bridgeview, Illinois, and Frisco, Texas. It’s not a flattering comparison by any means.
In the meantime, the push not only for specific but brand new has dwindled. While keeping their drawing power in mind, Seattle plays in exactly the kind of stadium MLS spent years encouraging their clubs to move out of. Vancouver rebuilt BC Place with two professional teams in mind. Portland rebuilt as well, as did Montreal. The only new stadium built from the ground up by an expansion team since Toronto entered the League in 2007 is Philadelphia, and like the older model of soccer-specificity that venue is in an outlying suburb. San Jose is set to follow the same model, even as we have ample indication that it’s not a one size fits all solution.
That’s what makes the next stage of Major League Soccer’s version of specificity so interesting. Already, we have competing models. The versions in the heart of major metropolitan areas are either not soccer-specific or are repurposed venues. Enough of the stadiums at the extremes of urban areas have faced challenges to call that model into question.
Where does MLS go from here with the 20th team and perhaps more? What has the League really learned?
I don’t have a quick and easy answer for you, and I doubt anyone else does either. That isn’t helped by the League’s own insistence in telling a story that focuses on recent and future success. That’s not at all unusual for North American professional sports, but it’s also not necessarily a strength. DC United’s situation is our working example of how MLS will limit a problem to a specific club while making success a League accomplishment. Yet that’s too specific to answer our question. This is a complicated set of issues, exacerbated by the same big picture issues the entire economy is facing. What happens next is tough to call even in the vaguest of terms. What has happened isn’t as tricky.
MLS attempted to define a model based on purpose-built construction in areas that were cheaper than building closer to the center of cities. Since then, they have significantly altered that model. Where that leaves the teams that lived up to the original MLS vision for soccer-specificity is another very good question.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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