When you map the optimal driving route from Las Vegas to Nashville to get your son and his car back to college, a stop in Sandy, Utah, isn't on the itinerary. When you're a D.C. United fan, however, and the Black-and-Red are going to be playing in a neighboring state the weekend you were headed to Tennessee anyway, you make the 400-mile detour to Rio Tinto Stadium as the first leg of your trip. And this is exactly what our clan did this past weekend.
We'd never been to Rio Tinto, and unfortunately the game didn't turn out in our favor. But the entire experience was really enjoyable, making for a terrific evening (loss notwithstanding). As you will see, I'm high on what Real Salt Lake has done at Rio Tinto. This doesn't mean I want to replicate their stadium on Buzzard Point, but it does mean I hope D.C. United's new stadium at Buzzard Point fits the community and surroundings as well as RSL has done in their hometown.
Getting to the Game
If you don't regularly attend D.C. United away games, figuring out how to get tickets can pose a challenge? Should you go through the home team's website? Should you check StubHub? Should you just show up and try to buy tickets at the stadium? Fortunately, I found the Screaming Eagles Road Trip website, and they couldn't have made it easier. Many of you have probably traveled to away games with the Screaming Eagles before, but this was my first time interacting with Jimi from the Screaming Eagles, and he couldn't have been more responsive or helpful. With the Screaming Eagles doing all the hard work, I bought our tickets online and was given an update a few days before the game letting me know our tickets would be available at Will Call. The RSL employee at Will Call found the tickets quickly. When we got to our seats, we were seated near six other D.C. United fans in the east upper deck (a few more fans, who appeared to be with Sean Franklin, were seated in a section below us).
One note about Rio Tinto Stadium's location. By no means is Rio Tinto in the urban core of Salt Lake City. It is firmly in the suburbs, right off an interstate, in the midst of light retail shops, restaurants, and a neighborhood. It has a reputation for poor parking (here's the RSL parking map, which really shows you more where you can't park than where you can). For this reason, we arrived at the stadium about 1.5 hours before kickoff. To our surprise, we were able to find parking immediately across the street from the stadium in a retail parking lot which was charging $10. It was a great location for leaving after the game as well, dumping us right onto the street we needed to be on to get back to our hotel.
Arriving at the stadium, there was a fan carnival ongoing, but it was sparsely attended this early to kickoff. In fact, while the game was a sellout (and eventually all the seats were filled at some point in the first half), it was a pretty late-arriving crowd. This may have something to do with the overall parking situation. But, despite the apparent lack of a tailgating culture right at the stadium (if tailgating was happening at the stadium, we didn't see it), the fans appeared to be having a lot of fun.
Salt Lake City has a reputation for being a friendly place, and this was our experience in Sandy. Several RSL fans, including one with the best spiked mohawk I've seen in decades, welcomed us to the stadium or made a comment about how far we had traveled (thinking we lived in the DMV). There was one good-natured "booo" of our jerseys as well. Once we entered the stadium, and were slowly taking in the stadium, several employees and fans approached us asking if they could help us find our seats.
We've all seen Rio Tinto on TV before, so what the outside structure of the stadium looked like wasn't a surprise. Being there, however, confirmed what a nice job RSL did in making this stadium fit its environment. Nestled in Salt Lake Valley, with great views of the Wasatch Range, it's appropriate much of Rio Tinto's design invites you to look skyward or outward. This is not to say there aren't good views of the pitch (there are), but the physical beauty of the surrounding area is not lost on you while at Rio Tino. In addition, the esplanade around the main level of the stadium is wide and in the open air (with tons of concessions), again allowing you to take in the mountains around the stadium.
As a soccer-specific stadium, Rio Tinto is all about RSL. The team's crest, and a crown motif, are baked into the architecture in several spots around the stadium. Since RSL is the stadium's primary tenant, and they don't have to worry about sharing the venue with other co-equal teams, they can emblazon the name of Jason Kreis right into the stadium and not just have to hang a banner recognizing his achievements (although this creates its own awkwardness...).
Last thing to know about Rio Tinto? It has free wifi. Which works. Mostly.
My impression of Rio Tinto is it successfully defies some of the rules which seem to define MLS 2.0: 1) Put your soccer-specific stadium in the urban core, and 2) Cater to the young urbanite soccer fans who typically can be found in supporters' groups. While these rules have been very successful for many MLS clubs, RSL knows their community and the stadium atmosphere seemed to fit it well. While there were certainly sections of the stadium which stood throughout the game, and there was a supporter's section behind the south goal, it appeared to me RFK's "quiet side" fans (of which I was one) would feel at home anywhere in Rio Tinto.
During the course of the game, the stadium is not overly loud, but when RSL scores, the crowd erupts into "Believe", RSL's fan-produced anthem. Although I'm not an RSL supporter, this is a catchy song, and when the entire crowd joins into singing it after a goal, it produces chills and gives the stadium a true sense of community. "Believe" is even incorporated into the team's advertising around the stadium. Another tradition RSL has which produces the sensation of "we are all in this together, players and fans alike" is how they announce their Starting XI. For each player, the stadium announcer calls out each player's first name ("Kyle") on the PA system, then the crowd yells in unison the player's last name ("Beckerman").
Lastly, the RSL official twitter account is very active during the game, and does a nice job interacting with fans. They even chimed in on one of my tweets before the game:
Due to their strong style of play and their sustained performance on the field, some league observers (myself included) have said RSL is the best managed team in MLS. They've been smart with their limited salary resources, they've been smart with player selections, and they've made smart coaching decisions. After visiting Rio Tinto, I will now add they've been smart in building a stadium which fits their community and fanbase perfectly as well.
As a fan of D.C. United, I don't want to copy any individual element of what I saw at Rio Tinto into the new stadium which will be built on Buzzard Point. What I do want to see, however, is a stadium and atmosphere on Buzzard Point designed to take advantage of the best attributes of the District's physical and demographic uniqueness, as well as the unmatched history of D.C. United in American soccer. We'll let the professional architects and designers figure out how to achieve this goal, but Buzzard Point needs to be all about the District and D.C. United, just as Rio Tinto is all about Salt Lake Valley and RSL.
While the game didn't go as we D.C. United fans had hoped, being at Rio Tinto, particularly on the night Nick Rimando set the all-time shutout record, made for a great start to our cross-country trip. Despite their poor game, the Black-and-Red, led by Ben Olsen and Bill Hamid, were pure class in congratulating Rimando on the field following the game. Additionally, a big shoutout to LEWIS NEAL! and Sean Franklin who walked over to our corner of the stadium to applaud our tiny group of D.C. United fans. It was a very nice gesture.
Photos by Tammy Whiting.
What's your favorite stadium in MLS? Click through the photo gallery at the top and tell us what you think about Rio Tinto.