By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — The stadium could be as much of a draw as the game Saturday, when the Seattle Sounders visit the San Jose Earthquakes.
The match will be the first sports event held in Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. All of the approximately 47,000 available seats are expected to be sold, while the upper deck will be closed to artificially lower capacity for the stadium’s maiden voyage.
The idea of opening an NFL stadium with an MLS match grew out of the friendship of Quakes president Dave Kaval and Niners president Paraag Marathe.
“We got to talking about how Levi’s Stadium would need an actual break-in game: not a game with a full 68,000,” Kaval said. “And we thought that a San Jose Earthquakes game would be a perfect way to have a large crowd, but not a capacity crowd, to kick off the stadium and ensure that everything was going to go well. … And so we decided to move one match there to inaugurate the stadium.”
The Sounders got an early look Friday during a training session on the natural-grass surface.
“Obviously it’s nice,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s an NFL-style stadium. They’re still working on, I’m sure, the kinks outside and all the construction’s not done. But certainly the surface is very, very good. That’s what we’re mainly concerned about.”
Schmid added it usually takes players a few minutes to adjust to a new stadium – even a good one. And he added that the venue could affect the game in another way.
“It’s going to mean they’re going to have a bigger crowd,” Schmid said. “Maybe some of the people are not going to be soccer people in there because they just want to be the first into the 49ers stadium — into Levi’s Stadium. … It’s always exciting to be a part of something unique.”
Several Sounders said they’re excited about it, too.
“It’s definitely cool,” midfielder Brad Evans said. “It will be one of those that you remember. Hopefully on Sunday it’s one of those that we remember, ‘Yeah, we opened up Levi’s Stadium with win.’ And you know that (the Earthquakes are) thinking the same exact thing.”
Stadium flexibility is nothing new for the franchise, which played at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium from 1999-2005, and have called Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium as their primary home since. At a capacity of around 11,500 seats, that’s the smallest stadium in MLS, so the Quakes have taken to playing home matches against rival Los Angeles at Stanford Stadium. San Jose also plays some larger-interest matches at the coliseum in Oakland, the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park, and last week played Atletico Madrid in a friendly at the Giants’ and Niners’ previous home, Candlestick Park. The Earthquakes also play some U.S. Open Cup matches at a smaller venue: Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Kaval said Levi’s Stadium wasn’t seriously considered as a permanent home for the Quakes, who next season are scheduled move into their own soccer-specific stadium near the San Jose airport. That also will include an open-air natural-grass field with 18,000 covered seats in a single-deck bowl. Amenities will include 12 field-level suites, 567 club seats, a 2-acre fan zone and what is being billed as the “largest outdoor bar in North America.”
But even then, the Quakes will keep the larger facilities in their rotation.
“I think what you see in the Bay Area is demand for soccer: really big crowds; probably the only other place other than Seattle that commands that kind of interest for just an MLS game,” he said. “So it’s exciting to have that opportunity. We’re excited to be partnered with the 49ers to play a game at Levi’s, basically every year one of our home games, as well as one game at Stanford every year. We’re going to have a multiple-stadium or regional kind of strategy.”