Major League Soccer’s newest stadium opened Saturday when the New York Red Bulls beat Brazil’s Santos. Amazingly, the Red Bulls won (AP Photos).
By all accounts, Red Bull Arena surpasses Home Depot Center as the finest soccer-specific facility in the United States, although considering it cost twice as much as the Carson stadium that’s to be expected.
But as writer Michael Lewis points out (in this piece written before the canceled March 13 international youth game that was to act as a “soft” stadium opening) the venue owes a a massive debt to the Anschutz Entertainment Group-built (and paid for) edifice.
Here’s more on Saturday’s opening:
HARRISON, N.J. (AP) — On a picture-perfect night many fans longed for, the New York metropolitan area finally got its own soccer stadium Saturday.
The long-suffering Red Bulls even got a win, and Major League Soccer ensured five years of labor peace by signing a new collective bargaining agreement before the match.
The sky was cloudless blue, and the first evening of spring felt more like early summer. A sellout crowd of 25,000, many in shirt sleeves on a 73-degree night, filled long-discussed and much-delayed Red Bull Arena and watched the Red Bulls roll over Brazil’s Santos — Pele’s old team — 3-1 in a chippy exhibition.
Joel Lindpere scored off the rebound of his own free kick in the 11th minute, Mike Petke added a goal in the 43rd and Dane Richards made it 3-0 two minutes later. Germano headed in Santos’ goal in the 90th, just before the lights were cut and a fireworks display was shot off from the center circle.
Fans filled the $200 million, two-deck oval, and league officials immediately proclaimed the nation’s eighth soccer specific stadium its finest. The arena had been planned for a decade, but construction repeatedly was pushed back.
“It was six weeks away, six weeks away,” said Petke, the Red Bulls’ captain. “These last 10 years have been the longest six weeks of my life.”
Franz Beckenbauer, a World Cup champion for Germany as a player and coach, was on hand to mark the moment along with Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn. When Der Kaiser played for the Cosmos from 1977-80, they filled up Giants Stadium in nearby East Rutherford with crowds of nearly 80,000. But with MLS mostly lacking the biggest stars, the Red Bulls averaged just 12,491 fans for league home games last year, 12th among 15 teams.
And they were forced to play on artificial turf that was slightly too narrow. Now they’re in a gleaming stadium that looks as if it could have been transplanted from a wealthy regional club in central Europe, with a translucent glass roof over the seats to protect fans from rain.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, almost no one in the country played the game, and it takes time,” Beckenbauer said. “Also, it’s a question of tradition. So it takes time to get used to, to compete with the best teams in world, which you are doing now.”
In a league that will miss its biggest draw, Los Angeles midfielder David Beckham, for most if not all of this season because of his torn Achilles’ tendon, the Red Bulls hope to add a star later this year. Barcelona’s Thierry Henry and Real Madrid’s Raul Gonzalez often are mentioned as possibilities.
“It should be the beginning of a new era in New York soccer,” said Dietmar Beiersdorfer,
sporting director of parent Red Bull. “For sure we are also working on one other player maybe to strengthen our team.”
The biggest stars were missing from this match because of injury — Santos’ Robinho and New York’s Juan Pablo Angel. Beiersdorfer knows what sells, especially in the Big Apple.
Neymar, the biggest star on the field for Santos, gave his jersey to Red Bulls defender Jeremy Hall at the half. Many fans wore yellow Brazilian national team jerseys, and Santos coach Dorival Junior called it “a party atmosphere” even though he was disappointed with the result.”
“We could feel the love from the crowd,” Neymar said through a translator.
The field needs a little work — sand kept kicking up.
“We’ve always talked about getting away from the turf at Giants Stadium and how bad it was,” Petke said. “What I played in tonight, you could put concrete down, to be honest with you and I would have been, you know, thrilled.”
While PATH commuter trains go directly to the stadium, allowing fans to travel in the same manner as most European supporters do, those who took shuttle buses from Newark’s Penn Station were caught in a 45-minute bottleneck to the nearby stadium, which looks like a silver spaceship on the shore of the Passaic River.
“We would have been better off walking,” said Suzanne Becker of Bethlehem, Pa.
Now that there won’t be a strike, up ahead is the first official match, New York’s MLS opener against Chicago next Saturday. The Red Bulls were 5-19-6 in the league last year and 6-21-7 overall.
“Even friendly games are important games,” new coach Hans Backe said.
Now that they have a top ground, they need to build an equal team.
“There really is no excuses,” Petke said.
It was almost exactly 10 years ago – and I know because I wrote the story – that the Daily Breeze became the first newspaper to break the news AEG were looking to the South Bay to build a new stadium for the Galaxy.
Just for fun, here’s that story as it ran on Feb. 28, 2000:
The campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills, has emerged as one of “three leading contenders” the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer is considering as the site for a new 30,000- to 35,000-seat soccer stadium, the Daily Breeze has learned.
“They actually brought an architect out here last week, so I know we are one of the three,” said George Pardon, the university’s vice president for business and administration. “They’re going to do some renderings and sketches to know whether we have enough buildable room.”
The other two sites being looked at are a vacant parcel in Carson near the Kmart store off Torrance Boulevard between Figueroa and Main streets and an unidentified tract in Los Angeles, said Sergio del Prado, the Galaxy’s general manager.
But the campus near Carson may be the preferred site for what del Prado describes as a $50 million to $70 million soccer complex that would include a stadium, soccer academy and practice fields suitable for the Galaxy and U.S. national teams.
“That’s the one that gives us the easiest ability to do all those things,” he said Friday of the Cal State Dominguez Hills site. “We’d like the one that gives us the most opportunity to really succeed.”
In other signs the campus may have the inside track, del Prado said architects are looking at the design of the 70-acre tract at the university before other potential stadium sites. And the weekly magazine Soccer America reported last month that billionaire Galaxy owner Philip Anschutz particularly liked the campus parcel after taking a Jan. 14 helicopter tour of possible locations.
The Galaxy plays at the 92,000-capacity Rose Bowl in Pasadena but is seeking to construct a smaller venue more suitable for the average crowd of 18,000 it attracts to its 16 home dates annually.
At Cal State Dominguez Hills, the soccer facilities would be built at the site of the cycling velodrome constructed for the 1984 Olympics. The cycling facility, although considered a world-class venue, has little connection to the university and in the past has been a money-losing endeavor.
On the other hand, a soccer stadium would be an ideal fit, Pardon said.
The university needs a stadium large enough to accommodate the 16,000 people who attend graduation ceremonies; last year the university spent $70,000 to rent chairs and erect temporary bleachers for commencement, he said.
The Galaxy would lease rather than buy the land needed for the stadium so the university would retain control in what Pardon called a good example of a public-private partnership.
Moreover, becoming a major center for soccer with its widespread and growing appeal, rather than a niche sport like cycling, is attractive to an institution redoubling efforts to reach out to the community.
“One of the main thrusts of our new president is for this campus to be more widely known as a `communiversity,’ ” Pardon said. “We have a really strong soccer program and it really fit with what we are doing educationally.”
Area has broad appeal
For the Galaxy, the South Bay and the campus have several appealing characteristics, said del Prado, a former Parks and Recreation commissioner in Hawthorne who lives in El Segundo.
For one thing, Cal State Dominguez Hills is accessible for spectators with its proximity to the Harbor (110), San Diego (405) and 91 freeways, he said. And the area has the right demographic mix, ranging from the Latino communities in cities like Carson and Hawthorne that the Galaxy has traditionally relied upon for the bulk of its support to the middle-class soccer hotbeds of the South Bay and Orange County.
“We’re looking for a site that attracts both the youth soccer suburban crowd as well as our Hispanic hard-core soccer fans,” del Prado said. “Sometimes that’s a challenge, but I think to maximize the potential for the MLS in Los Angeles you need to appeal to both fan segments.”
Cal State Dominguez Hills has become a serious contender for the stadium with surprising speed.
The Galaxy has long sought a soccer-specific stadium of its own — the Rose Bowl doesn’t even have adequate practice fields.
But the project has received renewed attention following the completion of the Staples Center that Anschutz’s corporation owns in addition to such properties as two other MLS teams, the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey league and the Forum in Inglewood.
In recent weeks more than a dozen potential sites in the Los Angeles area have been winnowed to three.
It was the university that extended feelers to the Galaxy initially, Pardon said, adding that the school was not interested in being a site for an NFL stadium and the hassle of having 100,000 people flood the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. But officials did make preliminary overtures about locating a possible training facility for the franchise on campus, he said.
Soccer a better fit
When the idea collapsed along with the NFL proposal, it was resurrected when officials heard the Galaxy was searching for a new home.
The idea quickly evolved into a serious proposal after Anschutz’s January helicopter tour when several high-ranking executives with the corporation visited the site and asked for a copy of the university’s master plan, its blueprint for growth, Pardon said.
On Friday del Prado called the campus location one of the three leading candidates. The team needs to move quickly because the team’s lease at the Rose Bowl expires at the end of this season. Ideally, the team wants a new home by the start of the 2002 season, del Prado said.
“Mr. Anschutz is committed to doing whatever he can to make soccer work here in Southern California,” del Prado said, adding that no commitments have been made. “Hopefully within the next two to three months we’ll find out one way or another.”
A soccer stadium that would provide an appropriately exciting atmosphere — something often lost in huge stadiums designed for football — is seen by most observers as essential if the game is to progress.
Galaxy officials consider it no coincidence that the team finished second in league attendance last season to the Columbus Crew, which opened the nation’s first large stadium — capacity 22,500 — designed specifically for soccer.
Carson officials have responded positively so far, noting as they did with the NFL proposal that the soccer stadium would help put the city on the map.
“I don’t know of any problems associated with the site itself,” said City Manager Jerry Groomes. “The concern would be to try to minimize traffic impacts on the surrounding residential area.”
University officials believe that can be done, since the proposed site in the center of campus would help shield surrounding neighborhoods that contain some of the city’s most expensive homes from what would be relatively modest crowds compared to the NFL.
But an environmental report that would include a traffic analysis would have to be performed, Pardon said. And adverse community reaction would quickly kill the idea.
“If the city doesn’t want it here we’re not going to push it,” Pardon said. “That would run right in the face of our whole communiversity objectives.”
But for now, officials with the Galaxy, city and university believe the idea of a professional soccer team in Carson is worth investigating further.
“It’s an opportunity for (Carson) to get a lot of recognition not only in the city, but around the country and even internationally if we do build a new stadium and it does become the West Coast home of U.S. soccer,” del Prado said.