By Paul Gardner
It is greatly to be hoped that the gala opening of the Red Bull Arena next month does not get upstaged by the ongoing dispute between MLS and the players union.
This stadium marks a tremendous step forward for the sport in this country. For two reasons. Firstly, it will surely be the best soccer-specific stadium that has ever been built in the USA -- a terrific stadium by any standards, in fact. Secondly, because of where it is being built: not quite New York, but near enough. Harrison, New Jersey, can qualify as near-New-York.
Of course, I have a personal angle here. In nearly 50 years of covering the sport in this area, I’ve been subjected to some pretty primitive stadiums -- the likes of Randall’s Island, Hofstra, Roosevelt Stadium Jersey City, Croke Park, Boilermaker Field, Metropolitan Oval, Farcher’s Grove, Eintracht Oval, Hinchliffe Stadium, and -- within a few hundred yards of where the RBA now glistens -- Harrison’s Kennedy Stadium. Uniformly awful fields, and as for press accommodation ... enough said.
So, finally, the metropolitan area, the site of so many lousy stadiums but also the scene of so much that has been significant in the history of the American game, has a first-class soccer venue. It doesn’t have a first-class team, but the Red Bulls are working on that, we are told.
Having prowled around the RBA site from the days when it was a barren waste lot, through the beginnings of the construction on to my latest visit about a month ago, I’m totally convinced that this will be a wonderful venue for the sport. Why? Because, even though I have yet to experience it with any spectators in the seats, or with any action on the field, it feels right. Nothing more complicated than that, the place has a genuine soccer atmosphere to it.
The Red Bulls have been emphasizing the point, reminding us that this is a stadium where soccer comes first. It is not, for instance, built with concerts in mind -- as was Pizza Hut Park, home of FC Dallas, where one end of the stadium has been left open to allow for a stage.
And now for the bad news. Not so much bad, as sad. What, I’m wondering, will the RBA’s lovely Kentucky bluegrass field look like on the morning of Sunday June 20? I ask because, despite all the soccer-comes-first talk, it has taken no time at all for the RBA to be booked for a non-soccer event. That will take place on Saturday June 19 when the final three games of the Churchill Cup will be played there.
Should you not know (I did not), that’s a rugby tournament. So three adult rugby games in the middle of the soccer season. Rugby? It makes me wonder if anyone at the Red Bulls has ever seen a rugby game, never mind three. Those three games will not be kind to the field.
I suspect that the Red Bull people are vaguely aware of this -- this date, as it happens, has been arranged during the MLS World Cup break, and the Red Bulls will not play a home game until July 10, allowing nearly three weeks for any damage to be dealt with. Maybe the RBA’s state of the art technology, its drainage system, and the fact that a groundskeeper is employed full-time to look after the field, will avert any problems.
Yet, there have been too many examples where the attempt to turn stadiums into multi-use venues has wrought havoc with the playing surface for one to feel comfortable about this. In California, the Home Depot field has often looked threadbare, while London’s $1.2 billion New Wembley is a spectacular example -- the turf has been dug up and relaid six times since the stadium opened in 2007.
Let us hope that all goes well at the RBA. Then again, maybe that’s not what I wish. For success with adult rugby today would surely be the thin edge of the wedge. It would mean, inevitably, high school football tomorrow. Lighter players, yes, and no conflict with the pro soccer season. But still not turf-friendly occasions, not even when it comes to the field markings. Those markings, for instance, would appear to be a problem that ought to be easily solved by modern technology coming up with some easily removable form of paint. But, perhaps for lack of effort, the problem was never solved at Giants Stadium, where successive soccer teams had to play on a field where the football lines were much more prominent than the soccer markings, hideously so.
Maybe there’s some gratification to be found in the fact that soccer is now strong enough to reverse the old role. It used to be soccer, cap in hand, going to baseball and football venues, seeking playing dates. Soccer was never that welcome, and one of the reasons given by the baseball stadiums, one of the stated reasons anyway, was that ... soccer would damage the field.
I recall, back in 1972, turning up at Yankee Stadium for a Cosmos game -- only to find the gates locked, people hanging around outside. This was some years before the Cosmos became a glamour team, and the Yankees had peremptorily decided, at the very last moment, that there would be no game. There had been some rain, and Clive Toye, then the Cosmos GM, told me that the Yankees feared that soccer playing would make the field unusable for baseball. “Well, what do they think the field would look like?” I asked him. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied, “Maybe like the moon ...” Things even got to the point where the term “soccer divot” entered the baseball lexicon, a convenient excuse for infield misplays.
Now the shoe is on the other foot, but the Red Bulls are being accommodating. I hope they’re getting this right, for there are also four mystery events coming up, dates which are allocated by contract to the city of Harrison. What those events will be is unknown at the moment. We must hope that the Great Harrison Demolition Derby is not about to make its debut.