(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Sept. 28, 2011.)
I might have the longest drive to PPL Park of any Philadelphia Union season ticket holder.
It’s about a 280-mile round trip from Alexandria, Va., to PPL Park in Chester. On the way, I drive past RFK Stadium, home of D.C. United, and three baseball stadiums — two Major League, one minor (Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md.). I pass through four states and can see a fifth across the river.
In related news, I might be stupid.
It didn’t start this way, of course. I moved from Philadelphia in January to take a new job in Washington, D.C. — after I bought Union season tickets. Logic dictated I should part with tickets for some games, but I kept nearly half of them and made the drive up for games.
Amazingly, it’s been worth it.
But honestly, it shouldn’t be.
There’s no good reason anyone should drive that far past another Major League Soccer club’s stadium to regularly go see another team.
But there is a bad reason. RFK Stadium absolutely sucks as a soccer venue in comparison to PPL Park.
That is, in part, a commentary on RFK and how badly D.C. United needs a proper stadium. It should be one of the league’s three flagship teams, along with Los Angeles and New York, because it has one of the world’s great international cities and a huge regional soccer base.
This also says something about PPL Park and just how great a venue it is.
I’ve seen games at two other soccer-specific MLS stadiums: The Home Depot Center in Carson, Cal., where the Los Angeles Galaxy and some other random team play; and Toyota Park, where the Chicago Fire play. Each is a good stadium. Seeing my first MLS game at Toyota Park while on assignment for my newspaper was like no other sporting experience I’d ever had and is part of what made me an MLS fan.
But PPL Park is at another level. Every sight line is great. The Commodore Barry Bridge looms large, with its beautiful view, and the Delaware River is right there, an ever-present concept during the game as we wait for someone to kick a ball into the river, and a great place before and after the game for tailgating. Yes, the stadium needs another scoreboard with its eventual expansion, but all in all, the place is like a temple to the soccer gods, albeit on a smaller scale. Then again, that intimate scale is part of what makes it so great. You feel like you’re part of the game.
I write this now, as we look at the race to the misguided abomination otherwise known as MLS playoffs, because the season ticket renewal deadline is coming up soon, and like me, many of you have to choose to either renew or pass. I’ve held season tickets both seasons, and it’s hard to justify renewing when I’m so far away. A 4.5-hour round trip, a full tank of gas in the car (in a crappy economy), and a drive past the other soccer stadium. But boy, does that tear at the insides. So what do I do, go up for a game or two a year, watch the other games on Direct Kick, and then content myself with a few DC United games?
Few things truly instill a sense of home like sports teams. I grew up in north Jersey, and so I was a Giants, Knicks, Rangers, and Yankees fan. Then I moved to Pennsylvania and spent 11 years there. I got a lot of good things out of it. A career (sorta), a wife (hot! Latin!), cobblestone streets (but no trolley), Casa (if only Philly had proper public soccer fields), a lot of new friends.
I also got a soccer team.
My first and only Philly team.
And perhaps the best sports venue I’ve ever been to.
Can a stadium make that much of a difference? Is it really that much better to watch a game live at PPL Park than anywhere else?
Damn. I might have to renew these season tickets after all.