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Soccer officials want communities to kick in

Cities and towns are asked for stadium proposals

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The New England Revolution's quest to build a soccer stadium somewhere in Boston or its suburbs is likely to play out far differently from the epic battles of the last decade for new homes for the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins.

The biggest shift, if Major League Soccer's past experiences are any indication: Soccer officials want local cities and towns to submit proposals to host the team, and any public funds for the project are most likely to come from the local governments. In the past, both the Red Sox and Patriots have asked for state money to finance stadiums and the infrastructure improvements around them, and TD Banknorth Garden was built with significant state involvement.

Soccer officials are gauging the interest of local cities and towns. Already, since word of the plans became public several weeks ago, they have received letters from officials in several communities, including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Menino earlier this month said he will name a task force of civic, business, and sports leaders to determine suitable locations, and he called Boston ``the perfect backdrop" for a new soccer stadium.

So far league officials have declined to name the other cities and towns that have submitted letters of interest.

In Illinois, the newly constructed soccer stadium for the Chicago Fire is a showcase for Major League Soccer's local approach. When the Fire unveiled plans to build its own stadium several years ago, a dozen towns went head to head to woo the team. They called the Fire's offices, wrote letters, and enlisted chambers of commerce.

As the Fire narrowed its choices, the towns became even more creative: Western suburb Hoffman Estates offered up land owned by its local corporate titan, Sears, Roebuck & Co., as well as the opportunity for more partnerships with the company. Hanover Park, also west of the city, said it would not take ``no" for an answer, Fire executives said. Then the village of Bridgeview, the ultimate winner, concocted a stunt that blew its competitors out of the water: It paved over part of the site of the proposed stadium with asphalt, painted an outline of a soccer field on it, and loaded the stunned Fire executives onto a helicopter to see it from the air.

To seal the deal, Bridgeview, located just south of Chicago, agreed to fund the entire stadium -- $100 million -- with public funds. It sold bonds to raise the cash.

Bridgeview Mayor Steve Landek said he adopted a simple strategy to persuade the Fire to pick his town: ``Sell, sell, sell."

``I ran it like a political campaign," he said.

Part of what had communities so excited: The soccer stadiums can be converted into outdoor concert venues, bringing in additional money. Villages such as Bridgeview, with an aging industrial base, envisioned the stadium as a catalyst for a broader redevelopment effort -- one that would bring hotels, retail stores, and restaurants to town. With its 20,000 seats, the new Fire stadium holds more than the village's 15,000-person population.

The stadium also serves as a central meeting point for youth soccer teams, and a potential host site for state soccer tournaments. Major League Soccer teams play roughly three dozen regular-season games from April through October, half of which are at home.

While the rest of the world obsesses about soccer, the sport has struggled to gain a large following in this country. For many years, all Major League Soccer teams played in football stadiums, generally half empty or more. But in the last several years, teams in four cities -- Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio -- built their own stadiums, and a half-dozen others have plans to do so, including Toronto , Denver, and New York.

The new soccer stadiums are critical to the growth of soccer in the United States, both because they are much smaller (crowded stadiums make for a better fan experience than half-empty ones), and because they boost the teams' finances. The new stadiums generally seat between 20,000 and 30,000 fans, less than Fenway Park.

Playing in a football stadium ``is not a soccer experience, it's soccer borrowing an NFL experience," said John Guppy , chief executive of the Fire, which previously played at the Chicago Bears' home, Soldier Field. Guppy said his team played some games with football lines still visible on the field. ``The fans want soccer the way it should be experienced," he said.

With their own stadiums, teams can control the revenue from parking, sponsorships, and concessions. In soccer, teams that play in their own stadium generally make money, while those that do not tend to lose money, the commissioner said. (The Revolution's situation is somewhat different, however, because Robert Kraft controls the soccer team, the New England Patriots of the National Football League, and both teams' home, Gillette Stadium.)

In Boston, early reviews from public officials have been good. City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina , who represents East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, said he is ``excited" about the idea, while City Council President Michael F. Flaherty said he is open to any and all locations, provided that they are supported by the community.

``Look at the great dividends that it could provide the city," Flaherty said.

Unlike professional baseball or football, Major League Soccer does not promote separate ownership of its teams. Instead, its investors, such as the Krafts, operate a particular team but really own a piece of the league. The league often plays a strong role in developing soccer nationally; its commissioner, Don Garber, has been the point man so far on the Revolution's stadium project. Garber sent a letter to Menino earlier this month to gauge Boston's interest in hosting a stadium, writing that ``the League informed Kraft Soccer" that it would begin a search for a new home for the Revolution.

The Revolution has publicly backed the efforts, deferring to league officials. While the commissioner has promoted some public funding for new soccer stadiums, the Revolution's chief operating officer, Brian Bilello , has said that the team has not decided yet on the issue. ``We think it'd be a great facility for the city, and for the youth of the city," he said.

The Revolution's operators, the Krafts, have been burned by stadiums before. When they sought public funds for the Patriots' new home, Gillette Stadium, the Krafts ignited an uproar in the state Legislature and ultimately wound up financing it with private money.

The Fire's new stadium, which opened earlier this season, is built with an overhang that magnifies the sound of the crowd. Inside the stadium, fans sit far closer to the field.

``It's awesome -- they're so close you could hold a conversation with them," said Ian Pozdol, 16, watching the players warm up at a recent Fire game. Pozdol, who has been a Fire fan since the team's inception in 1998 , said he is convinced the atmosphere of new stadium will attract more fans to soccer.

``You're right on top of it," he said. ``You see the pain and the sweat, and it's a lot louder."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at

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