Twice in the past year, Baltimore has become a soccercentric city.
It happened last summer, for a day, when two of the world's best teams, AC Milan and Chelsea, came to M&T; Bank Stadium, bringing more than 72,000 fans with them. It happened recently, during the monthlong World Cup, when fans of the game piled into bars and crowded near the harbor to watch the U.S. team's run to the knockout round.
But could it happen on a more regular basis?
City officials, developers and local soccer aficionados believe it can, if plans move forward for a soccer-only stadium and if Baltimore is successful in attracting D.C. United away from Washington. The next step in that process will likely take shape in early September, when a Tampa, Fla.-based marketing consulting firm will release the findings of a $100,000 feasibility study requested by the Maryland Stadium Authority.
"I think there is a large international population in Baltimore and there is an extreme interest in soccer for sure," said Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos. "There's definitely a fever and excitement for soccer in Baltimore City and we're hoping to capture that."
While the fever might not be as high as it was for last year's international match that featured one of the game's biggest stars, Ronaldinho of Brazil, a crowd of around 35,000 is expected Saturday for a "friendly" between European Cup champion Inter Milan and Manchester City of the English Premier League. As of Wednesday, a little over 32,000 tickets had been sold.
Baltimore is also on the list of 18 possible sites if the U.S. is successful in its bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
The proposed soccer-only stadium and an adjacent hotel that could accommodate up to 500 guests would be part of a $1.5 billion mixed-use project being developed on the waterfront in Westport. Developer Pat Turner pointed to the fact that television ratings in Baltimore for the World Cup are indicative of how such a stadium -- with the possibility of D.C. United playing there -- would be received in the city.
"Baltimore was the No. 2 city in the nation in terms of watching the World Cup," Turner said Wednesday. "Obviously, it's up to D.C. United whether they make a decision to move here or not, but I think the support here is more than what it is up in Philly," where a soccer-only stadium was opened this year for a Major League Soccer expansion team.
Doug Hicks, director of communications and marketing for D.C. United, said last week that the team had very preliminary talks with the city last fall about a possible move to Baltimore, but won't enter "formal" discussions until a commitment is given about a facility. Hicks said that a soccer-only stadium interests D.C. United, but is not a prerequisite for such a move.
"A right-sized facility that would serve as a primary home for D.C. United and for soccer, that would allow modern amenities and that would improve revenue streams, that would allow our club to become more viable," Hicks said.
Despite a loyal fan base, "playing here makes for tough business for us," Hicks said of RFK Stadium, a venerable but outdated facility. "It's a great building with a lot of history, but in a lot of ways we need something that is more modern and has the revenue structures that allows us to maximize our business."
Kevin Healey, president and general manager of the Blast, the city's indoor professional soccer team, said last week that Baltimore's reputation won't be damaged if a soccer-only stadium isn't built, but "anything to support soccer is good for the sport in the city and the state."
The feasibility study is also looking into a 8,000- to 10,000-seat stadium to house Baltimore's current professional team, Crystal Palace Baltimore, which plays in a league a level below Major League Soccer. The team has played at several sites this year, and recently agreed to play the remaining games this season at Calvert Hall.
"It's not going to be a major versus minor type of study; it's going to be evaluating both projects so that we can make a determination which project makes economic sense," Parthemos said.
Requested by the Maryland Stadium Authority last fall at the urging of then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after the stunning turnout for the AC Milan-Chelsea match, Crossroads Consulting Services could report that a soccer-only facility is worth the investment, as it did in proposing last year that a similar stadium be built in Prince George's County.
But that recommendation never made it through the political gauntlet: A bill proposed to the state legislature never got out of committee.
"At the end of the day, it's a political judgment," said Gary McGuigan, project executive for the Maryland Stadium Authority.
Michael Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said that a project such as this should be approached with caution. "Not every [MLS] franchise is successful in every city, so that's what the study is designed for," Frenz said. "It's a considered judgment and not one based on someone's intuition."
Erik Stover, managing director of the MLS New York Red Bulls, said in an interview last week that the team would not have even attempted to sign French star Thierry Henry had it not been for the new facility. The team moved there from Giants Stadium.
Though not a single taxpayer dollar was used in building Red Bull Arena, a 25,000-seat facility in Harrison, N.J., the process of getting the project completed was "brutally hard," Stover said.