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Philadelphia Union's PPL Park set for debut

The new $122 million home of the Philadelphia Union features few architectural flourishes. For now it promises to be only this: A damn fine place to watch a soccer game.

The Union will open PPL Park on on Sunday night against the Seattle Sounders. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
The Union will open PPL Park on on Sunday night against the Seattle Sounders. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

The new $122 million home of the Philadelphia Union features few architectural flourishes.

For now it promises to be only this: A damn fine place to watch a soccer game.

And fans say that's enough - in fact, it's plenty.

On Sunday, spiffy PPL Park will host its first-ever match when the 2-7-1 Union face the 4-6-3 Seattle Sounders at 5 p.m. Fans at the sold-out game will immediately notice two things: The seats are close to the field - as close as allowed by FIFA, the sport's governing body. And the sight lines are excellent, even from the least-expensive seats.

This week, work crews rushed to complete final tasks, pouring cement for outside sidewalks, unwrapping plush leather chairs in the club section, and installing rails on an upper deck. Flooring was going down in the locker rooms, and in the Union store, blue-and-gold replica jerseys were flying out of boxes, onto hangers, and up to racks.

The stadium suffered no damage during Thursday's storm.

"It's ready," said Union president Tom Veit. "But we'll be tweaking and finalizing for the rest of this year."

The stadium stands on the Delaware River waterfront, just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, in the downtrodden city of Chester. Team officials say sufficient security will be in place for the game, following Saturday's state-of-emergency declaration by city officials, who responded to four shooting deaths in eight days. Union executives say they are sure the game will go off without a hitch.

The stadium is separated from the city proper by Seaport Drive and by Route 291, a mostly four-lane highway. Inside the stadium, the troubles of Chester seem far away.

The river views are lovely, and the bridge seems close enough to touch. The limited number of seats - 18,500, about the same as the Wachovia Center holds for Flyers games - promotes both intimacy and ticket scarcity.

"I'm going to get there early to see it," said Mark Del Rossi, a season-ticket holder and member of the Sons of Ben fan club. "I'm expecting something small, but something exciting."

Developing history

The Union logo is highly symbolic, from the blue that represents the uniforms of the Continental Army to the stars that honor the original 13 colonies. But the stadium, designed by Rossetti Architects, is fairly generic. If not for the riverside setting and the word Union spelled out in the sideline seats, the arena could be anywhere.

Nick Sakiewicz, the Union CEO, said team officials decided that the stadium should develop its own personality and history, that they wouldn't force tradition upon it.

"You can't manufacture it," Sakiewicz said. "You can't [fool] people into thinking that Day One you're going to have these great traditions. The fans create it. The players create it. The great things that are going to happen in this stadium will create it."

Over time, as memorable events occur, the team will find ways to recognize those, he said. For the first-year Union and its arena, Sunday is a beginning, he added.

"The stadium is at stage one of what will be a long process," Veit said. "Five years from now, you'll be going, 'Look what's different.' "

One physical tie to Philadelphia sports history is one that most fans won't notice: the turnstiles. They were brought from the soon-to-be-demolished Spectrum, painted a Union blue, and pressed into service.

A seed of tradition has been planted on the stadium's east side, designated as the "Supporters Section" and given over to rabid fans who intend to stand, cheer, and sing through the entire game. That section will be populated largely by the maniacal Sons of Ben.

The Sons have already named their turf: The River End.

"One of the things the Union seem to be trying to do is build tradition" - not easily accomplished with bricks and mortar, said Emily Sparvero, an assistant professor in the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University. "The way you do it is to leverage the historical or the geographical into the building of the stadium."

For instance, she said, the Texas stadium of minor-league baseball's Corpus Christi Hooks incorporates the corrugated-steel look of the cotton warehouses that once stood on the site. The Union stepped toward that idea by setting the stadium on the river, for ages the region's watery lifeline and thoroughfare, Sparvero said.

Still, she and other experts said, in the end it's difficult to manufacture fan affection. Stadiums become special because of what occurs there, the dramatic wins or heartbreaking losses that come to define a team.

Part of the MLS plan

People unfamiliar with Major League Soccer find it odd that a Philadelphia team would play outside of Philadelphia.

For MLS, that's the way to the future.

The league seeks to place teams in custom-made, "soccer-specific" stadiums built just outside the host cities, where land is generally cheaper and more plentiful. The smaller arenas are a deliberate change from the era when pro soccer teams played in gigantic football stadiums, places that made even crowds of 20,000 seem tiny.

The newest soccer stadium - until Sunday - is Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., which opened this year to host the New York Red Bulls.

PPL Park will be the league's ninth soccer stadium, which among them host 10 of the 16 teams. The Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA share the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

In Chester, Union officials have half-jokingly lamented that they should have built a bigger arena. The 12,000 season tickets have sold out. So have the 1,000 partial season tickets. Single seats for Sunday's game sold out in five hours.

The Union played their first two home games at Lincoln Financial Field while PPL Park was being completed, averaging 29,954 fans per match. Thirteen of the team's 20 remaining games will be at PPL Park.

"It's home," Sakiewicz said this week, looking over the green expanse of the field. "We're finally home."