Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Building history

The spectacular new Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., is tangible proof of the rise and potential of American soccer. In an exclusive interview, Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz talks about the role he played in the stadium's creation.

Building history

HARRISON, N.J . – Not too long ago, the ground here was nothing more than industrial wasteland. Now it is home to the most important thing to happen to American soccer since MLS was launched in 1996.

I really don’t think you can overstate the importance of Red Bull Arena. It is existential proof of what soccer is and can be in the United States: modern, sleek, and able to command the attention of people long preoccupied by other sports.

On many occasions when riding the train to New York, I’ve seen people look out the window and ask aloud what that silver edifice just north of Newark is. One time I overheard someone mistake it for the new Giants Stadium.

But Red Bull Arena is not a football stadium, or a baseball stadium, or a basketball or hockey venue. It’s a soccer stadium, first and last.

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When the Union played here in April, I only got to see half of the game. But even in that short span, I was hooked on the place, and knew that I wanted to come back soon for a full 90 minutes. This was the first available weekend, and it so happened that the Red Bulls were hosting Juventus. Good timing, to say the least.

I got to the stadium in plenty of time to take a walk around the place and see more of it than just the press tribune. I put together a photo gallery of what I saw, and you can check it out above.

If you’ve followed Major League Soccer for any amount of time prior to this year, you’ve surely seen crowds at Red Bulls/MetroStars games get swallowed up inside Giants Stadium. Even though Red Bull Arena hasn’t been full since the team’s home opener, a crowd of 12,000 looks a lot better surrounded by 10,000 empty seats than by 70,000.

Nick Sakiewicz knows this better than almost anyone else. The Philadelphia Union’s CEO was in charge of the New York franchise from 2000 to 2005, and was president of AEG New York from 2006 to 2007. Yes, Sakiewicz is as responsible as anyone for the MetroStars’ myriad failures during his tenure. But he also played a major role in getting Red Bull Arena built.

I spoke with Sakiewicz last week about his work on the facility, and what the place means for soccer’s future.

The first thing Sakiewicz had to do was negotiate the unholy swamp of New Jersey politics.

“Herculean would put it mildly,” he said. “Three governors in five years, [with] a lot of political scandals going on in Newark and Hudson County - a county executive, Robert Janisiewski, got indicted. The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority tried to torpedo the project on at least half a dozen occasions.”

Sakiewicz’s job was to keep everyone at the negotiating table. He watched from afar as Lamar Hunt built Crew Stadium in Columbus and Philip Anschutz built the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. All of a sudden, soccer in America looked completely different.

“The only way the [New York] team could become relevant and have an impact in that marketplace would be to have a great venue of its own,” Sakiewicz said.

Just as importantly, the Crew and Galaxy started making money. Not much, but a little profit is a lot better than a big loss.

“My cost to operate the MetroStars was anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 a game,” Sakiewicz said. “That's painful when all you have to rely on are ticket sales.”

The MetroStars’ attendances weren’t terrible compared to the rest of the league during Sakiewicz’s tenure. But there was always a sense that two things were missing in Giants Stadium. The first was a quality soccer atmosphere, and the second was a connection between the club and soccer fans in New York City who rely on public transportation.

Yes, there’s a bus from the Port Authority to the Meadowlands, and some fans took it to games. But it wasn't the same as taking the Metro to RFK Stadium or the CTA to Soldier Field.

(Speaking of which, let's hope we hear more details of the Union's public transportation plan for PPL Park soon. We know a few things already, but the clock is ticking.)

Sakiewicz told me that in his opinion, a train service to Giants Stadium would not “have changed the game” for the MetroStars.

“That’s not any panacea,” he said “In terms of moving the needle for the business, it would not have made a difference.”

But it can’t be a coincidence that advertisements in Manhattan loudly trumpet the PATH station that’s four blocks from Red Bull Arena. It certainly seemed to help the Juventus fans who crossed the Hudson from Little Italy.

A funny thing happened to La Vecchia Signora’s faithful, though: they were matched on the decibel meter by the Empire Supporters Club. That never would have happened at Giants Stadium. At Red Bull Arena, fans are closer to the field and the roof holds noise in very well.

“It creates the atmosphere that the U.S. soccer fan is craving,” Red Bulls defender and Philadelphia native Chris Albright said after. “It benefits the home team as well - it gets you up for the game and ready to play,”

If the atmosphere was surprising, the score was a real shock: New York scored three times in the second half and won the game, 3-1. Juventus’ starting lineup included Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Fabio Grosso and Diego, while the Red Bulls did not start top striker Juan Pablo Angel. Juve’s lone goal came in the 90th minute, after all their stars had left the game.

Trezeguet said afterward that the Red Bulls “surprised” his team. He gave postgame interviews in Spanish and French, and praised the Red Bulls and their fans in both languages.

“They have ambition,” he said in French, adding that his side did not match the home team's effort.

“Maybe we weren't ready to win," he said. "Maybe we were already on vacation.”

As if to prove the point, when asked what he liked most about the trip, his answer was simple: “Manhattan. It’s famous.”

But New York's soccer team has not been famous. Ever since DC United won the first MLS Cup in 1996, its fans – and others around the league – have taunted the Empire Supporters Club with a chant sung to the tune of Camptown Races:

How many trophies have you won? Doo-dah, doo-dah,
How many trophies have you won? Not a [single] one.

You can guess the word they actually use instead of single.

As I said earlier, Sakiewicz bears a lot of responsibility for all those years of failure in Major League Soccer’s most important market. It is not just coincidence that the Red Bulls' success this year has come under different ownership.

But even the most diehard New York hater would likely admit that Red Bull Arena is a trophy for American soccer. For that, Sakiewicz is due his fair share of credit.

“I think it's one of the most beautiful soccer stadiums in the western hemisphere,” Sakiewicz said. “Probably half the teams in the English Premier League wish they had a building like that.”

In just over a month, Sakiewicz will christen another soccer-specific stadium: PPL Park. If the Union succeed in their new home as much as the Red Bulls have in theirs, Sakiewicz might just build a new legacy too.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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