Just back from Chicago, where I was able to squeeze in a trip to Toyota Park to see the Fire beat Philadelphia 2-1 Saturday night. If you (or the Earthquakes brass) haven't been to Toyota Park, I'd suggest a trip to the Village of Bridgeview, IL for a quick look around, and some pointers on how to build a quality MLS stadium.
Toyota Park, opened in 2006, seats 20,000, with a permanent stage behind one goal. The stadium includes 42 Executive Suites and 6 Event Suites (note to ‘Quakes management: it's difficult to find premium sponsors when you don't offer them a premium game day experience), and, judging by all the pre-game partying in the surrounding parking lots, a liberal policy on tailgating.
The stadium's location could be better, but even without a car I was able to get to Toyota Park easily. My original plan was to join Section 8 (Chicago's supporters group) on one of their busses to the game, but when I called that afternoon they told me they were sold out. So, I took the "L" Orange Line from downtown to Midway airport, then transferred to an express bus that dropped me at the stadium's front door. After the game, I simple retraced my route. Total round trip transportation costs: $8.
Once inside, you know you're in a soccer specific stadium. There's not a bad seat in the house, with the stands close to the field. I don't have the exact measurements, but it felt like I was closer to the action than at, say, the Home Depot Center.
One favorite feature: the players came on to the pitch from midfield, rather than from behind a goal. For you guys more familiar with baseball than soccer, think of it like this: a baseball team takes the field from the dugouts, not from beyond the center field wall. It's one of those little things that might not ruin the experience, but soccer fans do notice.
Another nice touch: the Illinois Soccer Hall of Fame is tucked into one corner of the concourse. It would have been good to see some player photos on the concourses, but several large banners marked the stadium as the home of the Fire. P.A. announcements were in English and Spanish, a good move for a club trying to include the Hispanic market in their fan base.
The stadium does have some flaws. The roof covers most of the sideline seats, but not all, and there's no cover over the corners and one end zone, which can be a problem on a rainy night, especially after security guards explain the stadium's "no umbrellas" policy. The stage end offered some shelter, and people were standing four deep to keep out of the rain. It wouldn't take much money or imagination to add some tables and chairs and make that area into a party zone (a stadium club for season ticket holders?) but all Toyota Park offered was a slab of concrete.
Also, for a team wearing red, I had a hard time figuring out why the seats were all blue.
Still, Toyota Park is a quality, major league stadium, and offers a better fan experience than any Bay Area stadium I've been to for soccer.
I've seen the pretty picture of a future Earthquakes' stadium, and hope to be attending a ground breaking ceremony sometime this summer. (Another note to the front office: if you can break ground on a stadium before Houston does, it would go a long way towards winning back some of the good will squandered over the last two seasons.)
It wasn't until year 3 that the Earthquakes front office hit upon the innovation of allowing fans to take their beer with them to their seats, so I'm not overly optimistic that they'll build the stadium of my dreams. But a trip to Toyota Park might help them get some of the little things, as well as some of the big things right.