11:13 am Jun. 9, 2011
Citi Field’s first night of soccer on Tuesday seemed to occur in an alternate universe. A soccer field replaced the baseball diamond. 39, 656 fans replaced the sight of half-empty seats, and filled the stadium with the unfamiliar sound of cheering. And a game between Ecuador and Greece ended in a tie, 1-1.
It was a successful night in its own right, but also one that could affect the area’s sporting events for years to come.
Soccer should have been a perfect match for Citi Field all along, and until recently, Major League Soccer seemed determined to make it happen. The league wants to add a 20th team—a rival for the New York Red Bulls, who play in Harrison, NJ. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber mentioned the Wilpons as potential new owners seemingly every chance he got, and the Wilpons discussed building a soccer-specific stadium next to Citi Field.
Obviously, things have changed. As the Wilpons struggle to simply hold what they already have, investing in a new franchise—estimated by Garber to cost around $75-$100 million—doesn’t appear realistic. Nor does financing a new stadium like the one the Red Bulls have.
And in terms of the expansion, there are other options out there the league can consider that have nothing to do with the Wilpons or Citi Field or even New York.
Now, it’s up to the Mets’ ownership to make this thing happen. They’re the ones in need of revenue, which they could conceivably get from another team playing at Citi Field. As Mets executive vice president David Howard told the New York Times, “We’re excited about hosting events like this, but we certainly intend to make money. That’s all part of the motivation of doing events like this.”
It is possible to envision a New York team playing its games at Citi Field, especially after last night’s initial run. Howard said another “friendly” match would be announced for later this summer between a prominent European club team and one from Central America. (The announcement came shortly afterward that the match would take place on July 26, between Juventus and the Mexican team Club America.
Obviously, the dimensions of a field created for baseball are not perfectly suited for soccer, and unlike Red Bull Arena, Citi Field will never get soccer fans right down on top of the action.
At the game this week, one goal was placed in foul territory a bit beyond the third base bag, right about where David Wright made this catch back in 2009. The other goal was located out in right field, approximately on the spot where Andrew McCutchen made this catch last week.
The far sideline stretched along left field, approximately 20 feet from the wall at its closest point. That provided the fans in what are normally the worst baseball seats with the best view of the soccer match.
The real problem, from a sightline perspective, comes along the near sideline, which runs from around the spot Jose Reyes dances off third base to the right field corner. Most of the fans along the first-base line are quite removed from the action as a result—an unavoidable consequence of baseball field geometry. The tradeoff is a remarkable proximity for the fans near the right field corner to the corner of the soccer field, almost like in a European stadium.
The crowd itself certainly added to that ambience. Well over an hour before the match, huge throngs wearing the yellow of Ecuador and the white and blue of Greece gathered, though Ecuador fans seemed to outnumber the Greek supporters by roughly four to one. Songs, drums, and the ever-present vuvuzuelas made the exterior of Citi Field festive for the first time since it opened.
Inside, food and drink vendors managed to get fans back to their seats during halftime. This is a consistent problem for any soccer venue to address: how to serve a huge crowd during a short break. Unlike during a Mets game, when Citi Field’s corridors are pretty crowded no matter the inning, the walkways were empty during the match itself, then jammed at halftime. By the start of the second half, most fans had been served and returned to their seats.
The attendance of 39,656 isn’t predictive of a routine MLS turnout—friendlies usually outdraw MLS matches, in the New York area and around the country. And MLS is no closer to having a finalized ownership group in New York today than yesterday.
But as venues go, Citi Field is far superior to other converted stadiums, such as Giants Stadium or Detroit’s Ford Field, which hosted a Gold Cup match between the United States and Canada Tuesday night at the same time. (Just 28,209 showed up for that match, and the turf appeared to come apart during play.)
As time wound down in the game, and Ecuador pressured the Greece goal, the noise from the crowd demonstrated decisively that Citi Field can actually get loud, when there’s something to get excited about.