by Scotty Smith
The next photo in our series of favorites from the USL announcement is one that was featured prominently on the day of the event. Not only was it displayed on a massive board in the room, it was actually displayed along the outfield wall. This photo was well received, in large part because it eased the minds of many in attendance.
Let’s face it: the NYCFC set up in Yankee stadium is less than ideal. In the years the team has been playing there, the phrases “postage stamp,” “poor sightlines,” and “too far from the action,” have been tossed around ad nauseam. When one watches an NYCFC match on TV, it looks…different.
As the rumors began to swirl about a potential pro soccer team in Auto Zone Park, many — including those who were extremely excited — were skeptical about playing soccer in a baseball stadium. Some had seen the USMNT play in St. Louis, where the Cardinals used a similar set up to the Yankees. The verdict was in on soccer in a baseball stadium: it was going to be, to borrow from Men in Blazers, sub-optimal.
As we were standing near the blow-up of this photo on the day of the event, I heard several comments like “huh,” “I see,” “Well, that’s much better than I thought,” “That might work,” “Okay, I get it now,” and “I was worried, but that looks great.” And it did look great. It may not play well nationally to have a team in a baseball stadium, but let’s take a closer look.
At first glance, this photo looks like it was taken in a soccer stadium. Peter Freund, Craig Unger, and especially Jake Edwards all mentioned that in their podcasts interviews. Jake Edwards said that he hates soccer that looks like it is crammed into a baseball stadium. He and his board of directors were convinced that Peter and Craig were willing to invest in making Auto Zone Park look like a soccer stadium on game day. That starts by having fans close to the action.
But how can fans be close to the action without having a big honkin’ pitcher’s mound at the edge of the eighteen? Well, the owners have a plan. They are going to invest in technology that will actually lower the pitcher’s mound into the earth. Such an investment is a statement to fans. The owners want fans to know that soccer will not be a lesser entity, or “whipping boy,” compared to baseball. They have said on several occasions that they see the two teams as equals. Their investment in the pitcher’s mound removal system is evidence of that.
But creating the desired look and feel does not stop with the mound. Sod from a local sod farm will be brought in to cover the infield. There will be signage around the exterior of the pitch that will be familiar to those accustomed to watching soccer on TV. There will be plenty of food and drink options, and the soccer team will have space in the pro shop. And for those who think that portions of the field are a tad too far away, the humongous video board in the outfield is highly visible from any of the seated areas. If you want a really great feel for how it will look, check out this match between Louisville City FC (who also plays in a AAA stadium) and FC Cincinnati.
The supporters group will be thrilled to discover the smoke coming from behind the goal. This is a clear indication that smoke is allowed. That is extremely important to the crazy people who populate supporters groups. SGs (as they are known in the soccer world) are rabid fans who, in America at least, emulate what they see and hear in Europe and South America.
In Dortmund, Germany, for example, the supporters group — loosely translated as “the yellow wall” — stands behind one of the goals. They chant, sing, and wave flags for the entire match. Smoke and flairs are a big part of European and South American soccer, and provide an extra layer of atmosphere to the match. Here in the United States, having a special section dedicated to the SG is unique to soccer. The rabid fans are usually spread throughout the stadium in other sports, depending on where they purchased tickets. Having a specific section for the SG is a big deal, and a great PR move by the front office.
Another element of the picture I really like is the proximity of the bluffs to the corners. Having the bluffs in corners makes that area really close to the action. It’s always fun to sit on the bluffs, and it should be even more fun for soccer than it is for baseball. Fans on the bluffs will have a particularly close view of corner kicks, and will certainly be able to “make suggestions” to opposing players taking the kick.
This picture is also an indicator that the pitch is plenty big enough. We saw one diagram that put the numbers at 115 x 75, which is really ideal. As baseball stadiums go, Auto Zone Park is uniquely qualified to host soccer. I am not saying this to be “rah, rah, go team.” I am saying this because I also had my doubts, but this photo has put my mind at ease. If the finished product looks like this photo, I’ll be really impressed on game day.
Finally, I love the amount of red, white, and blue. From the players on the video board and field to the signage and smoke, there sure seems to be a theme around the park. Are the owners trying to tell us something? In the city of Memphis, where all teams are shades of red or blue, a newly launched team could certainly do much, much worse.
Tell us what you think about this photo and the field at AZP on Twitter (@901soccerpod), or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org).