HARRISON, N.J. - Like a writhing soccer player bouncing suddenly off the turf and going from near-death to a full sprint after an apparently mortal injury, Major League Soccer was abruptly and unexpectedly robust last night.
That was only partially due to the debut of the New York Red Bulls new $200 million stadium here; the real revival was a mid-day labor deal averting a potentially devastating player strike on the eve of the MLS season openers Thursday.
Taken together, though, the two events demonstrated the gaining momentum of a soccer culture in the United States. Red Bull Arena, cozy and fan-friendly at an average ticket price of $25, was filled with 25,000 for the Red Bulls' 3-1 exhibition victory over the Brazilian club Santos, the team which gave the world the legendary Pele more than a half-century ago.
There was a good bit of Yank glitz: Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn delivered the game ball for kickoff and the usual fireworks display followed the game. But, in the manner of fans around the globe who call the game "football," fans wore team soccer scarves. They chanted "Ole! Ole! Ole!" The national anthems of both Brazil and the United States were sung before the game, under flags from both nations. And the Red Bulls, originally formed as the MetroStars when MLS materialized in 1996 and a tenant of Giants Stadium until last night, were able to enjoy the action on a grass field devoid of NFL yard lines.
The stadium, a cozy, double-decked affair rising snugly from the field's side and end lines, has been 10 years in the making and sits just across the Passaic River from Newark among huge empty lots and abandoned warehouses where civic planners intend to build a series of shops and condominiums. While awaiting such urban revitalization, the field exists on the edge of the Ironbound neighborhood, with significant Brazilian and Portuguese populations.
That helped explain the thousands of fans wearing Brazil's yellow national team shirt last night and cheering for Santos, and displaying a pair of huge "Sangue Jovem" - Young Blood in Portuguese - banners regularly hoisted by Santos' fans.
Three first-half goals by the Red Bulls - the second a short volley by Long Island native Mike Petke - took some of the suspense out of the second half, though not necessarily the passion, as Santos' defender Bruno Aguiar and Red Bulls forward John Wolyniec traded nasty elbows.
But they played on, as the MLS now will do following the signing of a five-year labor contract only hours earlier. A strike not only would have been crippling to the league that, according to commissioner Don Garber, had only two profitable teams last year - Toronto and Seattle - but also to the U.S. national team's preparation for this summer's World Cup in South Africa.
With the settlement, the Red Bulls are assured of opening their MLS season next Sunday at their striking new playground, against the Chicago Fire.
Another MLS bull's-eye?