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Chicago's new soccer stadium is similar to what RSL desires

Fans watch as the Chicago Fire open their new stadium, Toyota Park, with a game between the Fire and New York last Sunday. Chicago hosted RSL Wednesday.
Fans watch as the Chicago Fire open their new stadium, Toyota Park, with a game between the Fire and New York last Sunday. Chicago hosted RSL Wednesday.
Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Of the 20,000-plus fans who packed Toyota Park for its grand opening last Sunday, or the nearly 11,000 fans who watched their Chicago Fire rally past Real Salt Lake Wednesday following a wicked lightning storm that delayed the game for nearly an hour, Steve Pastorino no doubt had the most interesting perspective of all.

"The last time I was on this property was two years ago when it was a trucking terminal, and I remember it well," said Pastorino, RSL's general manager.

Prior to joining RSL nearly two summers ago, Pastorino was the assistant general manager with the Chicago Fire, and one of his primary responsibilities was Chicago's pursuit of a soccer-specific stadium. Between scouting out potential sites, attending city meetings, discussing matters with architects and construction managers, Pastorino was bogged down with seemingly never-ending logistical nightmares — much like he is with RSL's stadium in Utah.

So what are Pastorino's feelings about a stadium he labored toward for years, only to leave the organization two months before breaking ground?

"I'm very proud that it's here and it exists," said Pastorino. "When you take all that into account, it's pretty exciting it's come to fruition and more or less on time."

The $98 million publicly funded Toyota Park is the fourth soccer-specific stadium in Major League Soccer, with two more scheduled to be finished by opening day 2007 in Colorado and in expansion Toronto.

According to RSL coach John Ellinger, the Fire's new home feels much more European and authentic than the Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.), Pizza Hut Park (Frisco, Texas) or Crew Stadium (Columbus, Ohio) for one simple reason — the locker rooms.

In Europe, soccer stadium locker rooms are located through a tunnel at midfield. It's like the location of dugouts in baseball stadiums here, they have a predetermined location and it's just the way it is. For some reason though, the three previous soccer-specific stadiums built in the United States prior to Toyota Park all put their locker rooms elsewhere. It was probably a logistical decision, one the Fire wasn't willing to make.

Pastorino said that when the plans for the Bridgeview's stadium were being formulated, the architects said it would cost an additional million dollars to put the locker rooms under the stands at midfield instead of in a free-standing building somewhere else.

"There was a belief among the Fire that you had to do that or you weren't really going to be authentic," said Pastorino.

That's just one of several features that makes Toyota Park so striking and majestic for soccer junkies in America.

"It just gets better and better for soccer in this country," said Salt Lake midfielder Chris Klein.

Another fantastic feature at Toyota Park, much like the Home Depot Center, is the overhanging roof on both sides of the field. Not only do they provide potential shade for fans on those hot summer days, but acoustically they do an exceptional job of bouncing the sound around the stadium and creating a wonderful soccer atmosphere.

In addition to the locker room locations, one of the most important elements to the stadium is its exterior facade near the main entrance.

"The brick exterior we felt was important to form a connection with Chicago with all the brick buildings that became prominent after the fire destroyed the whole wooden city in 1871," said Pastorino.

The entrance resembles the classic brick firehouse that are so prominent throughout the Chicago area.

The locker rooms aren't the only European flavor added to the stadium. The first row of seats are elevated a mere 18 inches above the playing field, which puts the fans right down near the action.

While most of the stadium is how Pastorino remembers it in blueprints, he is disappointed about a few alterations. The 20,000 seats and bleachers are blue, and he was adamant they needed to be red. The original plans called for a soccer pub or club to be built like the one at Pizza Hut Park in Texas, but instead a very basic banquet room with no aesthetic charm was constructed.

"It doesn't really feel like my project anymore, especially since there are significant differences than the one we're working on in Salt Lake," said Pastorino.

With Pastorino helping shepherd things along during a portion of the process, the Fire spent nearly eight years on their stadium project before it was finally finished. That persistence will no doubt help RSL in its second year in the stadium process.

Once ground is broken in Sandy, or perhaps Salt Lake City, Real Salt Lake will have its work cut out for it. Each new soccer stadium seems to outdo its predecessors, and it won't be easy for anyone to outdo the Chicago Fire's new home.