The Dnepr difference

franklinfield A few years ago, I heard Richard Groff, a longtime Pennsylvania soccer official, refer to a 1989 game in Philadelphia between the U.S. men's national team and Dnepr Dnepropetrovsk, a Soviet first-division club, as a major turning point in American soccer. I was familiar with this game, since I had been working for a Philadelphia newspaper in 1989, and I was surprised by what Groff said. I had never thought of this game as being particularly remarkable. However, it only took a few seconds of listening to him to realize how right he was.

Groff's point was that this game was a milestone in the United States national team's ability to draw crowds in large stadiums. The game was played on Aug. 25, 1989 at Franklin Field (above), which at the time had a capacity of 52,000. It is the University of Pennsylvania's football stadium, and it was built in 1922. From 1958 to 1970, it also was used by the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL as their home stadium. The largest crowd that it has had in recent years is 54,319 for the Penn Relays in 2010.

The 1989 game against Dnepr drew a crowd of 43,352 at Franklin Field. That doesn't seem all that spectacular today, but in 1989, U.S. national team soccer was still something usually staged in small venues. The United States played four home games in World Cup qualifying that year. Two were at the St. Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo.; one at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain, Conn., and one at Murdock Stadium in Torrance, Calif. None of those stadiums held more than about 12,000, and the four games drew an average of 9,379 apiece. By the time the United States played its next World Cup qualifying cycle, in 1996 and 1997, it was playing home qualifiers in much larger stadiums like RFK in Washington, Foxboro in Massachusetts and Stanford in California.

With the exception of three games at the 1984 Olympics, where the crowd was drawn more by the Olympic occasion than by the soccer, the U.S.-Dnepr crowd in 1989 was the largest that had ever seen the U.S. national team play in the United States, by a margin of more than 10,000. It achieved that despite the fact that Franklin Field is not a very comfortable place. Those 43,352 sat on backless bench seats, watched a game played on a very narrow Astroturf field (about 60 yards, I think) and struggled through narrow corridors underneath the stadium to get to some unusual restrooms.

Groff was the vice president of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1991 to 1994, ran for president of the USSF in 1994 and is currently a member of its Board of Directors. He has been the promoter of many international games in southeastern Pennsylvania over the years. In calling the 1989 U.S.-Dnepr game a major turning point, he was dealing with a subject in which he is very well versed.

Two years after the Dnepr game, the U.S. national team played Sheffield Wednesday of England in front of 44,261 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. In 2010, the United States and Turkey drew a crowd of 55,407 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, making Philadelphia the only city in which the U.S. national team has played in front of 40,000-plus crowds in three different stadiums.