New York is a place of superlatives, whether it’s the city’s skyline, its vibrant theater district or its American League baseball team.
Its Major League Soccer franchise, however, hasn’t generally been superlative. But that may be changing.
When Sounders FC visits the Red Bulls on Saturday, it will face the Eastern Conference’s top team in what may have become the league’s top venue: Red Bull Arena.
“We’re all just ecstatic,” Red Bulls managing director Erik Stover said in March, just before a crowd of 24,572 turned out to watch the first MLS game in the new stadium. “We sort of saw the design and felt that it was going to be a special place with a lot of energy.”
A move from Giants Stadium was seen as necessary for the Red Bulls to even attempt the leap from a generally underachieving MLS franchise to a true flagship in the nation’s media center.
The stadium constructed in Harrison, N.J., has 25,000 seats, the nearest of which are 21 feet from the touchline. Those seats are covered by a translucent roof, which protects fans from the weather and bounces noise toward the pitch.
“It’s a very European stadium,” Stover said. “You’ve got that roof that covers the seats and the energy that the players put on the pitch impacts the supports and fans, and then that impacts the action on the field again. It’s just what people have come to expect from the sport that are maybe from Europe or South America.”
With that international feel in the stadium, the Red Bulls also have reached out to international teams. Turkey and the Czech Republic have a match there May 22. The next day, the Red Bulls will play a friendly with Juventus FC of Italy. In late July, the place will hold the New York Football Challenge, featuring Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, with Sporting Lisbon of Portugal tentatively set as the fourth club.
However, attendance for MLS matches has fallen since the near-sellout for the opener – 13,667 for the next match against Dallas, and 15,619 for the start of the new rivalry with Philadelphia.
Through three home games, New York ranks fifth in the league with an average of 17,952. Seattle, Philadelphia, Toronto and Los Angeles average more, and the league average is 16,238.
“(The stadium) is certainly the right size for the next few years,” Stover said. “The most successful clubs in any sport in any league are ones that can fill demands for their tickets and a waiting list. Whether it’s the NFL’s Green Bay Packers or an MLS club like Seattle or Toronto, you’re really successful when you’re building demand. So we think this building will allow us to do that. But there’s also some flexibility in the design where we could get bigger in the future if we needed to.”
The league clearly believes there is an untapped market in New York, since commissioner Don Garber recently indicated that the league would like to put a second team in the area, perhaps in a 2013 expansion that would bring the league to 20 teams.
For now, the Red Bulls have the massive market to themselves, the league’s newest stadium and a team that has won five of its seven games.
However, the Red Bulls matched the Sounders embarrassment for embarrassment last weekend, when both teams lost 4-0. And that sets up an important game Saturday with the Red Bulls trying to create some breathing room at the top of the table, and the Sounders trying to claw out of the Western cellar.
“It’s going to be a game where two teams want to bounce back,” Sounders forward Steve Zakuani said. “And we’re confident. We’re going into the new stadium and stuff. Maybe on the road there’s a bit less pressure. Teams open up more. We think we can score goals on the road. It’s going to be a good game for us, I think.”
The Sounders finally signed defender Jeff Parke on Thursday. Parke had been selected by the club in the 2009 expansion draft, and seemed close to signing on a couple of previous occasions. He spent last season with Vancouver of the USL. He also trained with the Sounders earlier this season, but left without signing. Now that the deal has been struck, he will be added to the roster pending receipt of his International Transfer Certificate. “We’re excited to have Jeff Parke finally join the Sounders,” coach Sigi Schmid said through a club release. “He is a very tough, hard-nosed defender who should help our team’s defensive efforts.” Parke – 28, 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds – is expected to begin training with his new team Tuesday. He originally was drafted in 2004 out of Drexel University by the Red Bulls, and played 132 matches for them.