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Official Review by David Mortimer, Stadium Journey Correspondent
For those who have followed Real Salt Lake since its inception, Rio Tinto Stadium is as much of a miracle as Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup victory last season. The plan for a soccer-specific stadium was presumed dead several times on the Utah legislative floor (largely due to the debate over funding) before it finally opened in October 2008. Maybe that's what makes watching a game there, especially an international competition like what I saw, a special experience.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Because soccer is the international game, Rio Tinto offers a wide variety of food choices: stadium classics, multiple Mexican stands from local restaurants, barbecue, you name it, they've got it.
There are several stands and kiosks available, but the busiest are at the north end of the stadium, called Kennecott Plaza. Specialty stands you'll find there include Millcreek Pizza Co. (Pepperoni: $6.75, Sausage: $6.50, Cheese: $5.50) and the Twin Peaks Grill (Cheesesteak: $6.50, Chicken Sandwich: $5.75, Burger: $5.50, Cheese Fries: $5).
Kennecott Plaza also has "Real Faves," home to your typical stadium food and the Snacks and Sugar House (Specialty: $5 Ice Cream Nachos).
Beverages include soda ($3.50), bottled water ($4), and bottled Sobe drinks ($4). If you need something warm, coffee and hot cocoa are available ($3.25). Domestic draft beers from Budweiser along with several other local breweries will cost you $8.50 for a large and $5.50 for a regular size. O'Doul's is available for $5.
With probably 2/3 of the announced 20,000-plus fans (a new Rio Tinto record) actively supporting the visiting club, Cruz Azul, the atmosphere for this particular game was uniquely electric. I've been in the stadium before when it was mostly Real fans and it was plenty noisy, but this felt like a road match for RSL.
Regardless of who's making the noise, the unique layout of Rio Tinto amps up the acoustics. That, paired with the clear sightlines from any part of the park, makes watching the game a pleasant experience.
Historically speaking, Rio Tinto has hosted a U.S. World Cup qualifier and the 2009 MLS All-Star Game. It was also the sight of Sir Paul McCartney's only concert in Utah, which took place July 13, 2010. Other musical acts have included the Eagles and KISS.
All in all, some pretty big events for such a young building.
Rio Tinto Stadium is built on State St. the busiest road in Utah not named Interstate 15. As a result, the majority of places around Rio Tinto are your fast-food staples.
Across the street and just south from Rio Tinto is Jordan Commons (9400 S. State), a restaurant and movie theater complex owned and operated by the family of the late Larry H. Miller, former Utah Jazz owner. The restaurants at Jordan Commons offer four distinct tastes: Mayan (Mexican and American), Spaghetti Mama's (Italian), Ruby River (steakhouse) and Last Samurai (Japanese). Of these four, the Mayan has always garnered the most attention as Utah's largest theme restaurant. You eat while being immersed in a tropical setting, complete with cliff divers.
The entertainment and atmosphere of the Mayan are the highlight as the food, though improved, is still underwhelming and overpriced (the cheapest item on the menu is a bean and cheese burrito for $9.95).
If you're into burgers and fries, but want something beyond the usual fast food options, head about two miles south on State St. until you reach The Training Table. There are a handful of Training Table locations throughout Utah, each offering specialty burgers and sandwiches. What separates them from other burger joints is how you order: A telephone is located at each table and when you're ready, you pick it up and it buzzes the kitchen. When your order is ready to pick up, the kitchen buzzes the phone at your table to bring you to the front.
My favorite here has always been the Bleu Bacon Burger: swiss and bleu cheese with bacon, lettuce and tomato. Instead of making your burger a combo, get an order of their famous cheese fries with their ultimate dipping sauce (a hickory BBQ sauce with a dollop of mayo on top that you blend together). A final note: the strongest thing you'll find at The Training Table is coffee - no beer here.
Seattle remains the gold standard for MLS fans, but the RSL faithful deserve some respect as well. Though they were outnumbered by Cruz Azul fans during the match I attended, the previous home match against FC Dallas set the now-surpassed Rio Tinto attendance record. It helps that the Jazz, the only other professional team in town, don't present too many conflicts during the bulk of the MLS season.
Two RSL superfan clubs (Barra Real and Union Real) fill up the south end of the stadium and provide constant noise throughout, creating a more authentic soccer experience.
Because of the location right on State Street, parking can be a bit of an adventure if you aren't a season-ticket holder. Many local businesses that surround Rio Tinto offer parking for either $5 or $10, but if you don't catch one quickly, you'll have to turn around and try again. The biggest lot is actually on an empty, dusty patch of ground behind the south end of the stadium. If you park there, be prepared for a semi-nature hike to your seat.
Bathrooms are plentiful and well-maintained, a hallmark for Utah sports venues.
If it were a regular-season MLS game, I might think things were a bit overvalued. In this case, though, being able to witness an international competition made the experience more memorable. As long as RSL continues to do well enough to qualify for more Champions Leagues, Gold Cups and MLS Cup finals, the atmosphere should become more electric and the fan experience's intensity should keep heading up.
First bonus point goes for the spectacular sightlines. Soccer is a sport that requires the ability to continually see what's going on, and Rio Tinto is built in such away to make that possible. Even with standing-room-only tickets like we had, we had lots of room on the concourse to find a nice view.
My other bonus point for Rio Tinto is for its unique ticketing options. Besides the $25 SRO tickets, tickets for most games can be purchased at area KFC locations. These "Colonel's Corner" tickets are the cheapest in the house ($14), but you wouldn't know it from the stellar full-field view you get from the southeast corner.
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