HARRISON, N.J. -- It's easy to exaggerate the importance of sports stadiums. The coverage of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium last year made it seem as though Jerry Jones had commissioned a modern-day version of the Egyptian pyramids instead of, you know, a really big place to watch football, eat wings and get lit on a Sunday night.
But after touring Red Bull Arena, the new $200 million-plus home of Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, I'm a little breathless myself. In the year 2010, the most advanced, state-of-the-art soccer stadium in the Western Hemisphere (at least until Chivas de Guadalajara's futuristic "volcano" stadium gets finished) is a couple of convenient PATH train stops from the epicenter of New York City.
And the key phrase is "soccer stadium." Unlike so many other MLS buildings, which have a stage at one end and double as concert venues, Red Bull Arena is built for fútbol. Not one of the 25,000 seats -- and they're all seats; no benches here -- has a bad view. The front row is a mere 21 feet from the sidelines and 27 feet from the endlines, the better for Juan Pablo Ángel to make a quick run and Lambeau Leap over the short retaining wall after scoring a goal.
Red Bull has gotten plenty of criticism for producing a woeful soccer team in recent years, but the Austrian-based company got everything right in its new building, which is modeled after the Wörthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt, one of the Austrian host stadiums for Euro 2008. After taking over the project entirely from AEG during the development process, Red Bull made several soccer-friendly design changes, removing the planned stage, choosing a grass surface over FieldTurf, opting for a full wraparound roof, reducing the number of luxury suites by nearly half and adding more seats for real fans.
"We wanted to make the building be for the soccer fan," said Red Bulls VP Andy McGowan, who wouldn't let a snowstorm prevent us from touring the facility last Friday.
It is a truly edifying edifice in a number of ways:
• Location. Giants Stadium was always a hassle to reach for soccer games. If you lived in Manhattan, you had to take either your car, an expensive car service or a bus from the Port Authority bus terminal. Red Bull Arena, by contrast, is reached easily by public transport. The Newark Amtrak station and Harrison PATH stop are a stone's throw away, which will make attending games easier not just for fans in the tristate area but also rival supporters from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston.
• Hip surroundings. There are also plenty of good food-and-drink spots for before and after the game. The famous Ironbound District is close by with its Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants and churrascarias. (Bus service from the Ironbound to the stadium is free with a game ticket.) A six-square-block redevelopment project is underway right next to the stadium and will feature restaurants, retail stores and condominiums. And the stadium itself features a cool-looking restaurant/bar called the Bulls Corner, an all-you-can-eat buffet in the club level and full catering for those willing to plunk down $65,000 to $70,000 for a 17- to 22-seat skybox.
• The little things. There are two huge HD video boards. The aluminum stands will make the place loud, as opposed to the dead atmosphere of soccer games at Giants Stadium. The grass field has a hot-water system underground that keeps the roots warm and a drainage vacuum for dealing with heavy rainfall. The section for hardcores is still called Section 101, a nod to the team's best fans. The players will enter the stadium from a dramatic midfield tunnel (see video below). And there is space for five locker rooms (the Red Bulls won't have to move out of theirs, even for an international doubleheader), an indoor warm-up room and a 4,200-square-foot media work room. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that there are 100 press seats at midfield in the lower bowl -- a stunning decision in a league that often puts the press box in a broom closet off in the corner.
Red Bull Arena is scheduled to open on March 20 with a friendly against Santos, the Brazilian club of Pelé and (these days) Robinho, but two big questions remain. One, will the MLS players decide to go on strike? (The league's collective bargaining agreement expired last week.) And will the Red Bulls have a team that's good enough to match the hype of their new stadium? Coach Hans Backe has been hired to turn around a side that finished with the worst record in MLS last year, and hoped-for signing Thierry Henry wouldn't be able to join the team until after the World Cup or, more likely, in 2011 (if he signs at all).
If and when that happens, a world-class player will find his new home is a world-class facility, the kind that tells you MLS is here to stay.