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Citi Field's soccer experiment a success

Citi Field's soccer experiment a success

Citi Field's soccer experiment a success
NEW YORK -- David Wright, who hasn't hit 30 home runs since the Mets moved to Citi Field, could have personally assured you that the place is plenty big enough for a soccer field, even before the first one was laid out there on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, the 47 percent immigration population of Queens' 2.3 million residents would have vouched for another sport aside from baseball being just as loved in the borough. There were 39,656 shrieking, horn-blowing, flag-waving Greeks and Ecuadorians providing loud testimony of that. Their national teams, which played to a 1-1 tie in a not-entirely-friendly that featured six yellow cards, were sights for an expatriate's sore eyes, notwithstanding the odd sightlines.

The field ran from the third-base line to right field, with the team benches in left and center field. The pitcher's mound, covered with sod, was just off the pitch, so any ball put into play from there this time had to be thrown with two hands and with both feet planted -- not exactly the way Johan Santana, good as he has been, has ever had to do it.

No sign of Mr. Met, either, and not, apparently, as precaution against one of the players mistaking his head for a scoring chance.

"You know, we discussed Mr. Met, but it was such a disconnect," said Mets vice president and general counsel David Howard. "Vuvuzelas, drums ... let's immerse ourselves in soccer and embrace the culture."

The Mets, trying to educate the masses, dutifully kept the out-of-town baseball scoreboard running, ironically neglecting to post the U.S.-Canada Gold Cup soccer match in Detroit. Representatives of the world's largest communities of Greeks and Ecuadorians living outside their countries were focused on the match anyway, despite the absence of Ecuadorian -- and Manchester United -- star Antonio Valencia, who had turned an ankle in practice.

"Queens is the most diverse borough in our city," said Howard. "There are 144 different languages spoken here, and virtually all of them love soccer, so our feeling was we almost couldn't go wrong.

"But looking at the handful of teams we had available to us during the window that we had, these appealed to us because of the significant Ecuadorian and Greek communities.

"These are the largest outside their native countries in the world, which is an amazing statistic. The Ecuadorans are literally within walking distance in Corona and Elmhurst, just down Roosevelt Avenue, and the Greek community is in Astoria. And this is world-class soccer, too. The Greek team is in the top 10 in the world, so we had a walk-up from the serious soccer fan, too."

The Ecuadoran team, gearing up for a July 3 Copa America match against Paraguay in Argentina, used only five of its projected 11 starting national team members. The Greeks, in a break from qualifications for the Euro Championships, where they next play Israel on Sept. 2, started eight players of their projected lineup.

Regardless, there was not an empty minute to the game or seat in the house. The Mets, determined to use their park for more than 81 dates a year, clearly haven't scheduled their last soccer game at Citi Field.

"We're in discussions now about a professional exhibition between a high-profile club European team and a Mexican team for late July," said Howard. "We probably will have an announcement about that a little later this week. MLS is on record as saying it wants a second team in the New York area -- in Queens, in a soccer stadium -- but we would be open to having this be its home on a temporary basis.

"It would be challenging, but we lost seven hours [in the changeover] because of Sunday night [Braves-Mets] baseball and got it done. It takes three days to build the mound back up, so we would need a five-day window [for every soccer game], but on a temporary basis, we would try to do it.

"We also have had discussions with the National Hockey League about the [annual Jan. 1] Winter Classic. They came to study Citi Field, and they were very impressed. I can picture a rink in shallow center field, and once you do it, you might as well use it for college games, maybe a round robin between the three [New York] teams."

Ideally, hockey players wouldn't complain about the size of the locker rooms, as did Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda.

"This is the National team of Ecuador," Rueda huffed.

But Greece coach Fernando Santos described his team's room as "fantastic."

"I wish we had locker rooms like this in Greece," Santos smiled.

He sounded like he wanted to be invited back. Soccer and Citi Field are off to a promising start.

Jay Greenberg is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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