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Rio Tinto Stadium opens to rave reviews

SANDY, Utah -- The true jewel of Major League Soccer is not in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. It rests at the foot of the Wasatch mountains and boasts cherry-red seats, immaculate grass, perfect sight lines and grateful fans who have been rewarded with a dream come true. Real Salt Lake's new home, Rio Tinto Stadium, is beautiful, but the significance of Major League Soccer's newest venue goes beyond the superficial.

Rio Tinto Stadium debuted Thursday night (in a 1-1 tie between RSL and the New York Red Bulls), and the project that took so much work and so many hurdles to overcome looked worth every bit of the sacrifice it took to be built. Now Real Salt Lake is hoping the new stadium will help boost a franchise that had struggled terribly on the field since its inception, at least before this season.

"I think it transforms our club and changes the course of our future," Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said of the new stadium. "Our fans have been great, to stick with us through all these years, and we all got the promise delivered tonight."

What was delivered was a stadium that has to be considered arguably the most beautiful in MLS, a home that had most of the packed crowd on opening night in awe, and one owner who couldn't stop gushing over the $120 million facility he fought so hard to see completed.

"This is one of the most satisfying, if not the most satisfying thing that has ever happened in my career," RSL owner Dave Checketts said. "I've been to NBA Finals. I was part of building a young team here with the [Utah] Jazz for many years, but this was quite a challenge."

The opening match didn't bring a victory for the home team, but the evening illustrated all the reasons why soccer-specific stadiums can be so vital for teams that are lucky enough to have them: from the impeccable playing surface, the close proximity to the field of the fans and the cozy environment that added energy and spice to the match.

"Every team in this league should have their own stadium," said Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "You saw tonight that the experience that the fans got, they were really into it being in their own stadium.

"We felt it and we got some energy from them, and being out there was special because this is our stadium and our home."

Even the visiting Red Bulls came away from the evening impressed and buoyed by the knowledge that their club is the next in line to open its own soccer-specific stadium in less than a year's time.

"This is what football is supposed to be, playing in an electrifying atmosphere like it was today," Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio said. "Especially towards the end, with all the fans getting behind the team. Hopefully, our fans will do the same job for us when we have our stadium.

"In that regard I think this league is moving forward, and the more stadiums we have like this, then I think the league is going in the right direction."

For Real Salt Lake, the stadium opening represents a precious opportunity to erase the memories of a hapless franchise that the club forged through four years of terrible soccer before 2008. On Thursday, it mattered little that the club had never reached the playoffs in its history, or even that the club is fighting for its playoff life this year. What mattered Thursday night was the hope that Rio Tinto Stadium now gives to a franchise and local soccer fan base that desperately needed it, and the strength it gives to a league that now truly has a home in Utah.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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