|Nope, no telephoto lens - we were that close.|
[For those who don't follow MLS or the stadium situations of the teams therein, the Union played their first ever home match and a bunch of others at Lincoln Financial Field - home of the NFL Eagles - until PPL Park was ready].
Going in, I was pretty excited for a few reasons:
- First Place - The Union are surprisingly at the top of the table in the Eastern Conference of MLS in their second year. That Peter Nowak sure knows how to get results.
- Sons of Ben - I've heard great things and am excited to see how they compare to other MLS crowds/supporters groups and also to crowds in other countries.
- Close to Home - I grew up about 5 miles from where the stadium is and my parents still live in the same house - very interested to see it and find out what it is like to have that short a commute to a game.
- The Stadium and the Setting - RFK Stadium (the home of DC United) is pretty close to the water as is Nationals Park but from inside the stadium, you'd never know it in either case. RFK is also pretty nasty and old. I was very interested to see what a Soccer Specific Stadium and how well they were able to show off the river from inside the stadium.
- Taking my Dad - My father has seen a lot of soccer games in his life but they mostly consist of the ones I played in when I was a kid (and once or twice as an adult). He has never gone in much for watching soccer on TV picking up an interest in the professional game despite my obvious obsession with it. The proximity and a successful home team to show off is an opportunity to create a convert.
I grew up going to the Vet to watch the Phillies (and very rarely the Eagles). My first experience with a "new style" baseball stadium was going to the second game ever at Camden Yards in Baltimore (where I was in college at the time). I could have cared less about the Orioles but the stadium was a revelation at the time and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia was even more so when I first went there because it housed a team I cared about. Now, I'd rather go to a crappy stadium to watch a team I really like than a great stadium to watch a team I'm indifferent about (more on that relative to the Union later). That said, in comparison to the RFK/DC United stadium experience, PPL Park was a complete revelation.
What was so great about it?
It was easy to get to. 15 minutes from door of my parents house to entry gate at the stadium). No lines of traffic or ugly parking situation despite the fact that the match was sold out. Pretty amazing stuff. I know others come from farther away to get to the matches but the local situation in Chester was far better than I could have expected.
Walking up from the concourse was spectacular. When you walk up from the concourse you're AT FIELD LEVEL. It actually looks and feels like you're coming out of a locker room and on to the field rather than going to your seats. I'm not sure I've experience this sort of thing anywhere but at the Phillies old Spring Training stadium in Clearwater. Even Phillies Spring Training isn't as intimate in this respect and Spring Training is supposed to be all about that vibe. Just excellent.
The View. The stadium is RIGHT on the river which is nice but even more impressive was the Commodore Barry Bridge looming over the opposite stand from where I was sitting. You couldn't see the river per se but the bridge view certainly made you aware it was there.
The Seats. My sister hooked me up with excellent seats - I don't remember if they were a Christmas or birthday present or what but she outdid herself. I was just on the away bench side of midfield and about 10 rows up. It felt so close to the action I was contemplating whether to mention to RSL coach Jason Kreis that I'm pretty good friends with the captain of his college team from Duke (who was an MBA classmate of mine).
As I've mentioned, I've been to games all over the place. The best atmosphere I've ever been in was the US draw with Italy in World Cup 2006 followed surprisingly by the Women's Olympic Gold Medal match in Athens, GA in 1996 and then the "Beckham Game" at RFK. Given the enormity of those events, it isn't fair to compare a regular season match in any league with them.
As far as regular season games go, the best I've been at was San Lorenzo hosting Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires - you just have to experience Argentine soccer to believe it. The Union match was a solid second place. If you think this is faint praise, it isn't. The atmosphere was definitely better than the Manchester City vs. Spurs match I was at in early May and that one clinched a Champions League spot for City (and featured about 30,000 more spectators). I've seen and heard the DC United supporters groups do excellent work and the rest of the fans support their efforts extremely well but it tends to get lost in cavernous RFK. The combination of a tireless SoB group, a passionate overall fanbase, and a stadium built to maximize both was amazing.
In case you're wondering, the list of places I've seen matches that didn't (ahem) match up includes the Emirates Stadium, Craven Cottage, Selhurst Park, City of Manchester Stadium, and the Amsterdam Arena.
DC, if you're wondering why (aside from luxury box and parking revenue) United is so hell-bent on getting a new soccer-specific stadium, head up to Philly and you'll find out.
So, here was my chance to test my feelings toward the Union. My point of comparison was a recent (and first) visit to Fenway Park in Boston. I loved experiencing Fenway but at the end of the day, despite the game between Oakland and the Sawx being a good one, I really didn't care much about the outcome. Would PPL Park be the same thing - a cultural and architectural experience only or would it be all that PLUS a game I found myself caring about?
I have to say, the Union made it really easy for it to be the latter. They came out on fire against one of the better teams in the league. They completely dominated the first half. They were taking shots all over the place. Passing the ball nicely through midfield. Their crosses were strong. LeToux's corners were excellent. Williams' throw-ins were very close to Rory Delap quality and really caused some problems. These efforts led to multiple balls off the post. One goal called back (wrongly) for off-side. And one excellent headed goals off of a nice sequence and a great cross from Farfan to Daniel.
The fact that the Union are doing it with a bunch of young players and no real budget busters is even better. It fits Philadelphia. It fits Nowak. And the fans seem to love it.
I'm not sure where my head will be if the Union and United square off in a playoff match but what I do know is that despite the fact that I had the guys that created and scored RSL's goal on my fantasy team, I was pissed that they scored. Given my addiction to fantasy, that's pretty high praise. We'll see who ends up being 1 and who ends up being 1A in my heart and mind but at this point it could go either way and that's a tribute to both the stadium experience and the team the Union are putting on the field.
My Dad's Reaction
Despite all of the praise I've heaped upon the experience so far, I'll leave it to the skeptic to put the cherry on top. My Dad, despite his life-long apathy toward professional soccer, ended the day with genuine enthusiasm for it and said "You may have yourself a convert." There isn't much more a stadium experience can offer than that.