The metro area’s soccer team named after an energy drink (the franchise is Red Bull New York, the team is the New York Red Bulls — if you think this is confusing, don’t even try to wrap your brain around the two competing Manchester Uniteds) held their first official league game at their brand-new stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, drawing a capacity crowd to the souffle by the Passaic. Your intrepid Voice reporter was on the scene, braving the frigid temperatures and a near-complete absence of familiarity with live soccer to see how the tristate’s latest new sports facility stacks up.
The first impression — after arriving on the PATH train and making your way past the vacant lots that are supposed to signify redevelopment in some unspecified future — is of a place that feels a bit chintzy for a $200 million sports palace: While the partial roof is impressive and attractive (and helped shield fans from the worst of last night’s arctic gales), the seats are thin plastic, and the seating bowl itself is aluminum. Once the match started, however, the brilliance of that design decision became clear: 25,000 crazed soccer supporters (soccer lingo for “fans”) all stamping their feet at once on metal flooring creates a sound unlike anything else, including that of 57,000 crazed Yankee fans at the late, lamented ballyard in the Bronx.
Compared to the Mets’ and Yanks’ new pleasure palaces, in fact, Red Bull Arena (it’s really a stadium, but in Europe they call stadiums “arenas” — again, don’t ask) is a populist paradise, its requisite wall of luxury boxes notwithstanding. We were seated in the top deck in a corner, but still had a good view of all the action on the field. The real action, meanwhile, was off the field, as any failure of the match to provide that innovation that other sports know as “scoring” (the Red Bulls won, 1-0) was more than offset by the chanting, singing, flag-waving, playing of brass instruments, and lighting of smoke bombs that went on in the seats, primarily from the Empire Supporters Club section behind the south goal. “It’s like a parade!” my son remarked as we made our way out after the game amid a sea of banging drums and waving flags, and it certainly felt more like that than like a typical 21st-century sporting event.
Red Bull Arena is part of a major push by Major League Soccer to get soccer-only facilities for all of its 16-and-counting teams (commissioner Don Garber is currently trying to shake down either Washington, D.C. or some neighboring suburb for a new home for D.C. United, one of the league’s keystone franchises), and after a game at one, you can see why: Unlike baseball or football, the whole point of soccer is the communal fan experience, and that’s something that doesn’t translate well to non-soccer-specific architecture.
Whether the stadium ends up being a good deal for Harrison remains to be seen. The city spent about $80 million on land and infrastructure for the new stadium, and right now has little redevelopment to show for it other than some construction fencing and a lot of standing-water-filled lots where vacant factories once stood. It’s certainly possible that once the housing crash runs its course, condos will sprout like dandelions around Red Bull Arena — though the experience of neighboring Newark, where the new Prudential Center hasn’t done anything notable to spruce up the surrounding low-rent commercial district, isn’t exactly promising. At the same time, New Jersey is on the hook for a $173 million upgrade to Harrison’s PATH station — something that the Red Bulls desperately need, judging from the crush of fans who jammed the station’s handful of turnstiles on the way out (and contributing to our two-hour-plus return trip to Brooklyn), but that will only be useful to Harrison if a ton of new construction emerges elsewhere in town.
Perhaps the new stadium’s biggest problem, meanwhile, is a little-publicized one: It has no water fountains, and the bathroom taps dispense only hot water. Since stadium rules limit fans to bringing in one water bottle apiece (security is supposed to remove the caps, to forestall the age-old soccer custom of flinging stuff at the opposing team), this means the only way to quench your thirst is with the $4 bottled water available at the concession stands.
While this wasn’t much of a problem on a freezing night in March, it’s likely to be a different story when it’s 100 degrees in July, and the concession lines are as long as they were during halftime last night. (That sound you just heard was the salivary glands of New Jersey’s personal injury lawyers kicking in.) The public gave you free land and a brand-new train station, Red Bull; is it too much to ask for access to non-caffeinated water in return?