By now you've probably heard the news that Major League Soccer and the Philadelphia Union are looking into alternative venues for the expansion side to play their inaugural home opener; with the Chester Stadium behind schedule and the club's options limited, Lincoln Financial Field appears to be the logical place.
But the issue is larger than just finding a place to play; there's momentum behind the Union with their vocal and established supporters group, the Sons of Ben, and some worry that forcing the club to open somewhere other than Chester, and in an American football stadium no less, would sap much of that enthusiasm. Even if the Union manage to sell the same number of seats it would take to fill up Chester Stadium, the vastness of the Linc will swallow up the crowd. It's exactly the type of image that MLS is trying to avoid with soccer specific facilities, and one wonders if the league might not be better served to avoid it at all costs.
Ridge Mahoney addressed the tricky question today at Soccer America, and seems to come down on the side of waiting for the new stadium to be done, using the example of Toronto, who was able to create excitement through their initial sold out games at BMO Field in 2007.
Ben Berger of Footie Business has been adamant since the news broke that the Union might be forced to play at Lincoln Financial that it would be a "mini-disaster" for the club. He suggests sending the Philly team on the road to start the MLS season, as the league did with the LA Galaxy prior to the opening of the Home Depot Center. Ben points out that the nature of the sports media and fans in Philadelphia will not be friendly to the club if they open in a half (or worse) filled NFL stadium.
I'm of two minds on this, though the real issue is how well the Union might do in the Linc. If the club was able to attract significant attention leading up to an opener there, and if they were able to fill stadium past the capacity of their future Chester home, it could actually be a coup for the club. It would take creative marketing, as massive a media blitz as an MLS club could pull off, and perhaps even drastically cutting tickets prices (or hell, giving them away). The capacity of Lincoln Financial Field is 68,000+; it would take a gargantuan effort, the right opponent (say, New York), and an ungodly amount of luck, but if the club was able to bring in two-thirds of that number, Philly would have an amazing introduction to top-flight American soccer.
All of that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely. As strong as Philadelphia is as a sports town, and as great as the Sons of Ben and the Union have been at creating buzz in the city, it's simply too much to ask for a niche-sport organization to pull off a job that big. So, it's with some hesitation that I must half-heartedly agree with Ridge and Ben; no stadium, no opener. Send Philly on the road, let them play in places like Seattle and LA, and give the builders of the Chester Stadium all the time they need to get the place together. As Ben wrote, there's only one shot to get this right, and it's imperative that the Union and the league do the smart thing.
Mahoney wrote that the Sons of Ben (perhaps on the advice of the club) have yet to take a stance on this issue; if we have any SoBs that read this blog and would like to chime in, please do. I'd love to hear what the supporters are saying about potentially opening at Lincoln Financial Field.