Yesterday afternoon, a friend of mine texted me, saying he had tickets to tomorrow night's clash between the Union and German Bundesliga team FC Schalke 04. I considered for a minute before turning him down, and the only reason I took as long as I did to mull it over was because I hadn't seen this friend in a while, not because I had any interest whatsoever in the game.
I'm not a person who really gets off on seeing live sporting events, despite being an avid fan not only of soccer but of sports in general. I'm not a stand-and-scream-like-a-lunatic-for-90-minutes type who gets off on being part of a crowd as much as he gets off on the game itself. Any team needs fans like that to create a good atmosphere, and the Union, to its credit, has plenty. I'm just not wired to be one of them. Going to see every game requires a substantial investment of time and money, and when all is said and done, I'd just as soon watch the game at home, or at the corner bar, as drag myself to the stadium week in and week out.
With that said, I've made a point to get to a big international friendly in each of the Union's previous two seasons of existence. And because the Union seem to be having trouble unloading tickets to the midweek affair, it might be useful to see why someone who catches a handful of games live each year might not make a point to see this one. Some of these reasons are within the control of the Union and MLS, and others aren't, but all of them factored into my decision to pass up my seat for Schalke, and I suspect others feel the same.
It's often said that the fastest, most entertaining soccer anywhere in the world is played in the German Bundesliga, where more fans, on average, turn out to watch matches live than any other league in Europe. But most American soccer fans--including me--follow the English Premier League almost exclusively. It's probably smart for the Bundesliga to start building ties with American clubs and fans, in a very wealthy and very rapidly-expanding American soccer market, but there will be growing pains.
Schalke is almost certainly a better team than Everton, which drew 18,500 fans to PPL Park last summer, but because Everton is an EPL team that has a history of employing Americans, the brand is well-known here, certainly more so than any Bundesliga team apart from Bayern Munich. Schalke is supposed to be showing off former Real Madrid captain Raul, the all-time leading scorer for Madrid (impressive enough on its own) and in the UEFA Champions League (doubly so). I'll admit, part of my desire to see Manchester United two years ago was to be able to tell my kids I saw Ryan Giggs live, and the reason I suffered the most unpleasant heat I can remember to see Real Madrid last summer was to see Cristiano Ronaldo in person.
If there's a reason to catch Schalke tomorrow night, Raul is it. He's a legend, but because he 1) spent his prime in Spain, a league in which I have no interest personally and 2) he was on his way out by the time I started following the European game seriously, he's not as big a draw for me as he might be for others. If you feel differently, I have no counterargument. Unless you believe in this Raul-as-DP malarkey, in which case, you'll have ample opportunity to watch him play.
Then there's the growing integration of American and German soccer.
Of the 18 Bundesliga teams, eight, including Schalke, employ at least one American or Canadian player in the senior team, ranging from Hannover 96 captain Steve Cherundolo to Bayer Leverkusen backup goalkeeper David Yelldell. Even clubs that don't run Americans out there every week still have ties to the United States. Mainz has an American player who figures to feature in the squad soon (Jared Jeffrey), while Stuttgart has a player who could have represented the United States but chose not to (Vedad Ibisevic), and Borussia Dortmund has one of each (Terrence Boyd and Neven Subotic, respectively).
With the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann to manage the American national team, and a generation of German-born American players (including Boyd and, again, Schalke's Jermaine Jones), American soccer culture has perhaps never been more closely tied to that of a European nation before.
That still doesn't mean I want to see the Union field a reserve team against a side that 1) will most likely do the same and 2) will probably beat the Union.
American fans flock to the English game because it's the highest quality of play anywhere in the world, apart from the two-team Spanish league of Real Madrid and Barcelona (if you consider what Barcelona does to be entertaining), because there's no language barrier and because the teams (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and so on) are familiar to even the most casual American soccer fans. This is not true of the Bundesliga, no matter how much German is spoken at USMNT practices, and no matter how much fun it is to say "Gelsenkirchen."
The Stadium is in the Wrong Place
This has been true from the get-go, and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. PPL Park is an excellent place to watch a soccer game. I've seen matches from just about every vantage point in the park, from down near the River End to the luxury boxes, and there's not a bad seat in the house. The seats are comfortable and accessible, the view of the river and the bridge are fantastic, and give the stadium character, particularly on television. The overhangs on the two sideline seat banks not only provide limited protection from the elements, but they make the stadium itself an interesting attraction--it's sort of like Newcastle's St. James' Park re-imagined by Santiago Calatrava. Sort of. But it's a nice bit of stadium architecture.
So we've got this beautiful, comfortable, simple, fan-friendly stadium, and we appear to have parked it in the middle of a neighborhood that resembles nothing so much as Hamsterdam in Season 3 of The Wire.
PPL Park needed to be at the Broad Street sports complex. But at eight figures of expense to the taxpayers of Delaware County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, PPL Park is up and running in an area that has plenty of vacant lots to park in, but no infrastructure to speak of.
Building a stadium within the city limits would have been more expensive, but it would allow residents easy access via public transportation. Getting to PPL Park via public transit from Temple University, where I work, takes one hour and $7.50, one way. Getting to the Linc from Temple costs about a third as much, in terms of time and money. From my home in South Jersey, I'd have to invest $17 and nearly three hours in a round-trip public transit ride to PPL Park that would take as many as five connections, roughly doubling my investment in the game in terms of both time and money. I'm aware that most people drive to these games, but a car-only culture of live sports viewership only exacerbates traffic and congestion issues, particularly when there's nothing in the area to incentivize sticking around after the game is over.
PPL Park is (was?) to be the cornerstone of a redevelopment project aimed at bringing business and nightlife to the waterfront area of Chester. We've yet to see the fruits of that effort, if any are to come at all, and when they do, it will most likely come courtesy of an already-strained tax base in Delaware County. The publicly-funded stadium is perhaps the greatest con going in the United States right now. Sports teams--or, in this case, leagues, as MLS generally refuses to expand to any market without a soccer-specific stadium--are subsidized by state and local governments on the faulty premise that stadia are a vanguard for economic growth and urban renewal. This is flatly untrue, certainly not to the point where the local and state governments can expect a nine-figure return in taxes. And if it hasn't worked with football in Cincinnati, baseball in St. Petersburg, or ice hockey in Newark or on Long Island, it won't work that way for soccer in Pennsylvania. I'm not a Pennsylvania taxpayer, and I'm glad, because, frankly, y'all got taken to the cleaners when PPL Park was built. And while the public investment for PPL Park was relatively modest compared to, say, that very public stickup job going on in Minnesota as we speak, look around Chester and tell me that money wouldn't have been better spent elsewhere.
The Union could have played at the Linc for a fraction of the cost of building a new stadium, and given its fans convenient subway access and, now, nightlife with Xfinity Live. I've been to four soccer games at the Linc, and while it lacks the intimacy of PPL Park, it's a perfectly fine place to watch a soccer game. But that's unacceptable, because MLS doesn't like the optics of playing to more fans in a less-full-looking park. And don't give me the natural grass argument--we've played World Cup matches on worse surfaces than the Linc's, and anyone who watched Arsenal's Champions League match against AC Milan at the San Siro, or the home leg of Bosnia's Euro 2012 qualifying playoff, or read about the problems with the surface at Wembley, and still says artificial turf isn't a viable option for top-level soccer is fooling himself.
PPL Park is a decent venue, all things considered. The location, while inconvenient, hasn't appeared to deter fans on the aggregate level, but on a marginal case like tomorrow's game, having to travel might tip the scales one way or the other.
One last note: other sports use the All-Star game as a coming-out party for a new stadium. In some cases (Pittsburgh, MLB, 2006, being the first example that comes to mind) it's a rousing success. In this case, it's hard to imagine such rave reviews given the scenery on the drive in to the stadium.
It's a Midweek Game that Doesn't Matter
In the end, it's an inconsequential friendly on a weeknight, when the Union games that matter are rather troubling, eliminating any sort of carnival atmosphere that existed during the high-profile friendlies of the past two seasons. When your team is on an obvious slide (or perhaps "drift" is a better word), and non-MLS sporting considerations (For me: the Flyers being on the brink of elimination, Arsenal's very real chance of missing out of the Top Four, and the Phillies' inability to win a close game late) weigh heavily on your heart, sometimes taking the long drive down to the park to watch a game of no consequence just doesn't seem like much fun.
Like the stadium situation, there's nothing that can be done about this now, but because MLS plays its schedule inverted from the rest of the world, these friendlies--an important part of legitimizing American soccer worldwide--must be played between regular-season and cup games. In a vacuum, there's no good reason not to flip the schedule--it would put MLS on the same page as the rest of the world (except countries like Russia, where the weather prevents winter outdoor soccer from being a practical possibility), but if they did, it would bury MLS behind the NFL and the MLB playoffs in the fall, early-season baseball in the spring, and the NBA and NHL year-round. So we've got to live with a regular season interspersed with friendlies. It's just that in the absence of preseason excitement or a massive draw as an opponent, it's hard to get up for an exhibition match. Particularly when, as some people have done, you're stretching your soccer budget already with a trip to the All-Star Game.
I hope it's a great game, and I'm sure the atmosphere will be in line with what we've come to expect from Union fans. If you go, I hope you have a blast. I just can't be bothered.