For years, the stadium was a tantalizing mirage on the wetlands of North Jersey, forever on the verge of being built. Soccer fans in the New York area could either watch a second-rate team in the empty, echoing expanse of Giants Stadium, or we could wake up much too early and stumble to the nearest pub for a European broadcast. The crowd seemed bigger at the pub, the soccer was better, and the pints were cheaper.
But now, finally, we have our stadium.
MLS commissioner Don Garber calls it “the crown jewel of stadiums its size in the world.” Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl was rendered “breathless,” but recovered enough to pronounce it “the most advanced, state-of-the-art soccer stadium in the Western Hemisphere.” Germany and New York Cosmos legend Franz Beckenbauer says it’s “perfect.”
And on opening night, a 3–1 win against the second-stringers of Brazilian powerhouse Santos, and then again a week later, when the Red Bulls beat the Chicago Fire 1–0 in its first league game, the stadium felt like it really could be perfect. Not because it is “state-of-the-art” — all the technology is, frankly, distracting — but because it could become a place where you can touch the beast.
In other parts of the world, a soccer game isn’t just a soccer game. Being inside a brimming, frenzied stadium can leave you with the sense that you’re in the presence of something huge and wild. At Barcelona’s Camp Nou or Mexico City’s Azteca, you’re not just watching a game; you’re a single fast-twitch muscle fiber in the body of a giant, rapturous organism. The beast. It’s a sensation largely absent from modern life, but sports are one of the few ways that we can still get it. A stadium in thrall is today’s big-tent revival, with the bonus that you’ll get your reward within 90 minutes.
Is this what it feels like to be sitting in Section 118 at Red Bull Arena? Well, no. But the potential for it is there. This new stadium is a thousand-fold improvement over the atmosphere at the Meadowlands, where the average crowd hovered just above 10,000 but seemed much smaller because of all the empty seats. Red Bulls fans will never again go blind watching a game played on the gridiron lines of the Giants and Jets, or wonder at a fluke bounce on the artificial turf. Most important, the stadium feels and sounds full — or close to it — even when it’s not.
“We’ve had difficulty communicating, even me to Jeremy Hall, who is ten feet away from me,” defender Mike Petke said after the second game. New coach Hans Backe says the charged atmosphere could provide the team with six or seven points over the course of the season.
On Saturday night, when the Red Bulls hosted FC Dallas in their third home game, it did have that Euro feel, even though the game only drew 13,667. Fans chanted, waved flags, sent rolls of toilet paper streaming onto the field, and set off smoke bombs directly behind Dallas’s goal in the second half. It’s something you won’t see in the stands at any other American sporting event. And it’s the difference between feeling like you’re at a high-school soccer game and one played at Milan’s San Siro.
Red Bull Arena is Euro in other ways, including the roof, which covers every seat but leaves the field exposed to the elements. And it’s across the street from the Harrison PATH station, a twenty-minute ride from the World Trade Center. “It is on a rail line,” rejoiced George Vecsey in the Times. “We have finally joined civilization.”
So how to explain the empty upper deck on Saturday night? This is New York. One of our baseball teams annually poaches the best talent in the game, and our basketball team is trying to sign LeBron James. New Yorkers expect superstars, and the Red Bulls won’t draw without one–someone like Barcelona winger Thierry Henry, reportedly a Red Bulls target, perhaps.. Three years ago, David Beckham bumped Galaxy season tickets by 7,000 (the Red Bulls have sold 8,000 this year, double last season’s figure) and brought 66,000 people to his first match at Giants Stadium. Red Bull Arena can only handle about a third of that, which is okay: 22,000 fans in a 25,000-seat stadium are enough to summon the beast.