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Philly home opener a tricky call
by Ridge Mahoney, September 21st, 2009 2PM

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Put Toronto on the list of MLS teams that might be hedging on when it can open the 2010 MLS season at home. Philly, take note.

Plans to install a grass playing surface at BMO Field, at a cost of more than $6 million, are moving forward, with approval by the Toronto City Council and other governmental entities next on the agenda. The city council will meet to discuss the proposal next Wednesday, and MLS officials have been discussing the project with representatives from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment regarding a time line for completion.

The field will have the underground heating and irrigation technology necessary to stage matches in all but the harshest conditions, and in Toronto, the weather in late April can be just as treacherous as that in late March, when the 2010 season is scheduled to being, so league officials only need assurance work will be completed in time for a home opener, whenever it is.

Scenarios have been discussed by which Philadelphia, whose new stadium in Chester, Pa., won't be ready in time for a late March opener, either kicks off its debut season with a modest string of road games, or at another venue, with Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL Eagles and a Concacaf Gold Cup site in July, as a likely alternative.

The Union is already being batted about as the opponent for a March 25 opener at Qwest Field in Seattle, and so could play another game or two on the road and open at home in its own facility in Chester if completion by early April is feasible. MLS president Mark Abbott says the league has been aware for some time about the stadium delay, which is one of several issues that need to be resolved before the list of home openers for each team can be released. The full schedule isn't expected to be finalized until early next year.

Columbus opened the season with seven road games in 1999 prior to the first match played at Columbus Crew Stadium, and the Galaxy went through eight away matches before it unveiled Home Depot Center as its new home in 2003. Philly wouldn't need such a long lag time, but team and league officials are pondering the pros and cons of opening at home in another facility, or waiting until April. If more than one home game would need to be moved, that adds further complications.

This is a tricky call. Do you want to assume pent-up demand and the novelty factor will swell crowds for an opener at "the Linc" enough put a lot of bodies into a 69,000-seat stadium, or is the risk of a big facility only one-third full too great? The team has passed the 10,000 mark in season-ticket sales; so far, no statement has been issued by the team's main fan club, The Sons of Ben, of what its idea might be. The Sons of Ben have pledged a commitment to 2,000 season tickets, and will have their own section (cool!) and entrance (very cool!) to the stadium in Chester.

The Philly situation affects another expansion team, the WPS Independence, which is looking for alternatives as well, with Villanova University among the possibilities. The WPS season opens later than does MLS and the women's league is adding two teams to increase its membership to nine; with an odd number of teams, as was the case for MLS this year, scheduling is complicated by a bye team sitting out each "round" of play.

Getting back to an even number of teams - 16 - and opening a new stadium in New Jersey for the Red Bulls as well as the Union's facility in Chester pushes the MLS closer to controlling more of its costs as well as playing dates. One reason the league decided to suspend play during the World Cup is the financial hits the league takes playing in Giants Stadium, which costs approximately $250,000 per game to rent, will be eliminated.

Those new facilities will also have grass playing surfaces, as does The Linc, which makes opening the season in that facility somewhat more attractive.

Yet a team looking for a big splash, and not a half-full mega-stadium, in its market on its debut has only that one chance to make a first impression. It took a few games for TFC to score its first goal, but its rabid fans and capacity attendances quickly took on iconic stature around the league. The next expansion team, which has yet to sign a player, much less play a game, already has some tough decisions to make.

 



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