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Sunday, February 21, 2010
Red Bull Arena opening to little fanfare

Steve Davis

The most important soccer stadium opening in the United States since the Home Depot Center is nearly upon us, so the enthusiasts and the stadium nerds among us should be shaking in excitement.

If you to fall into both camps (as I do), perhaps you should sit down. You don't want to hurt yourself once the hysteria kicks in.

Champagne corks will be pop as Red Bull Arena opens just outside New York in less than a month. The facility, in Harrison, N.J., is destined to immediately ensconce itself as royalty among the land's professional soccer facilities because of its grandeur and its location in the nation's most important media market. It really does look like a gem, a 25,000-seat beauty replete with more bells, whistles, advanced technology, modern amenities and general fancy-schmancy than all the others.

So the nation's soccer supporters should be giddy with delight, and media horns should be honking fiercely.

But are they?

The truth is, I am feeling uneasy about a hype machine that seems a little slow to crank -- and may yet prove difficult to tug out of port. Lots of good soccer supporters out here, people who know their Robinhos from their Ronaldos, seem to have missed the news that such an important moment is unfolding in domestic soccer.

If I compare this to the 2003 Home Depot Center christening, I just don't sense the same overall understanding that something momentous is upon us.

It could simply be a (somewhat flattering) symptom of soccer's arc of interest in the United States. In 2003, truth be told, there weren't nearly as many storylines to debate and dissect as today. A fairly minimalist stage included just 10 MLS sides and only one other soccer-specific stadium. Today's swollen arrangement features 16 teams (with two on deck), designated players, and new grounds that seem to be sprouting like spring wildflowers. There's also labor strife to fret over. And it's a World Cup year to boot.

So maybe the comparison isn't quite fair. The Home Depot Center opening stood out like a beauty queen at a rotisserie baseball convention, not just because it was such a meaningful, brick-and-mortar metaphor for soccer's progress, but also because there just weren't as many evocative plot lines unfolding.

I also have a feeling there is one other significant element at work here: The Red Bull organization is working against the flow of history. The MLS franchise in New York has gotten it wrong over the years in so, so many ways. Targets for success were arranged at a comfortable and friendly distance in those early years, and yet the organization repeatedly fired high and wide.

None of that is the current regime's fault -- but that doesn't matter to the here and now. The Red Bull suits from Salzburg inherited what poker players might call a "crappy hand," but it is what it is. Red Bull officials prefer that fans focus today on what the organization has done right, such as acquiring two designated player slots and building a spectacular stadium with no public money. But they also acknowledge a hard truth: No matter what they do, some of the jaded fans simply aren't going to buy into the franchise brand.

Some supporters can be won back, which is precisely why this is such a critical moment for the franchise.

The opening of this majestic park in Harrison will be such a watershed moment for professional soccer in the New York area that it, and perhaps it alone, has the ability to cleanse the regional palate, washing away the bitter tastes of 15 years. That's not to mention all the usual reasons that any soccer stadium opening is so important around here -- the fiscal advantages and the stabilizing empowerment of greater community permanence, etc.

That's why I expected the hype machine to be cranked up to 11 already. So I am a little concerned, for instance, that plenty of seats remain available, apparently, for the historic March 20 friendly against Santos of Brazil. Same for the MLS opener a week later. (Red Bull vice president of communications Andrew McGowan said club policy is not to release information regarding tickets sold, so specific numbers are not available.)

McGowan did say the organization expects both matches to sell out, with every seat filled beneath that very cool translucent roof. I hope he's right.

But what about reports that say the number of season tickets sold is somewhere just north of 6,000? That's not bad, exactly. But just down the road, outside Philadelphia, officials have sold 9,000 season tickets for their new grounds in Chester (a stadium that might not be as highfalutin as Red Bull Arena, but one that will rock in every other way).

True, the expansion Philadelphia Union is riding the strong winds of new-product bliss. On the other hand, Red Bull Arena sits just outside one of the world's glamour cities and population mega-centers. This stadium is a 20-minute train ride from Manhattan, for goodness' sake. So the fact that Philadelphia is kicking the Red Bull can up and down the street in season-ticket sales only underscores how much work New York has to do. It will be a tough slog, loosening all those tourniquets that have squeezed the life from this franchise for so long.

Then there's another little alarm bell going off for me, one that I can't quite get my arms around -- but I wonder whether it says something.

The United States national team traditionally likes to play a couple of friendlies along the Eastern seaboard before the World Cup. There's usually a stop in the New York area.

Well, how convenient! Look how swell everything was lining up. This should have been the best pairing since Ben and Jerry, the U.S. national team playing one of its final pre-South Africa matches inside this brilliant new edifice. Sure enough, word came out last week that one match would be in Philadelphia and another most likely in the New York area -- but in Connecticut.

What happened?

U.S. Soccer officials said Saturday that site discussions are ongoing but that Red Bull Arena had been all but removed from the candidate list. They say the new grounds in Harrison will definitely be a future stop. And while it's true that Turkey and the Czech Republic will meet in a May friendly there, I can't help but feel that an opportunity has been squandered.

None of this is a deal killer. I am hardly declaring this thing a failed bit already. Far from it. But the moment is now, and I hope everyone realizes as much. Red Bull finally has everything leaning its way. So let's hope officials there can do the carpe diem thing and seize the day, properly, with the flourish it all deserves.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.




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