When Pete Medd and Jim Cherneski launched Baltimore's latest professional outdoor soccer incarnation in 2006 with Crystal Palace USA, they set modest goals and achieved modest success.
Three seasons later, the former Towson University teammates have expedited the program in the hope of playing in a 10,000-seat, $35 million downtown stadium close to the city's Camden Yards sports complex.
On Wednesday at a news conference at ESPN Zone, they unveiled a new name (Crystal Palace Baltimore), a new general manager (Keith Lupton) and a new strategy to meet the challenge of playing in the reconstituted North American Soccer League.
"This is a massive jump for our club, and for this area for soccer in every way, on and off the field," said Medd, who is co-founder and co-coach with Cherneski, and also team president.
The landing point remains uncertain, however. For the next two seasons, Crystal Palace will play its home games at UMBC's soccer stadium. After that, the team hopes to play on a 5-acre plot of ground to the west of M&T Bank Stadium.
That blueprint depends on the results of a feasibility study undertaken by the Maryland Stadium Authority. And, it turns out, Crystal Palace isn't the only focus of the study. The MSA is also considering the feasibility of building a 20,000-seat stadium for D.C. United, Washington's Major League Soccer team, along the redeveloped Westport waterfront. In either instance, the stadium would be a multi-use facility.
Even in these uncertain economic times, the study might show that the region can support a professional soccer team and its stadium, said Andrew Frank, the city's first deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development.
"The goal is to answer the question of whether construction of a soccer stadium can be self-supporting through taxes on the site and admission taxes," Frank said. "The study might show that the taxes are more than the amount of the investment that would occur on an annual basis."
The study will determine what the market can bear when it comes to a third professional team that would play opposite the Orioles starting in April.
In the wake of a hugely successful international soccer exhibition between Chelsea and AC Milan last July at sold-out M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore remains on the list of hopefuls as a site for 2018 or 2022 World Cup preliminary games. Soccer interest here has rarely, if ever, been higher.
"We hosted a great soccer match last summer," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. "It was very successful. The eyes of the soccer world focused on Baltimore that day, and it helped spearhead our World Cup effort. It created a lot of enthusiasm and showed Baltimore can support big-time soccer.
"But the question is, can we support it once a year? Twice a year? Or over a full season's schedule?"
It's a question Randall Medd, a one-time horse trainer in the region and Pete's father, will find out soon enough. According to Pete, the Medds have already poured more than $2 million into the Crystal Palace project and are prepared, if necessary, to build their own stadium.
"It's a tough task," said Randall Medd, who serves as chairman of the team and is an equity investor. "I have a vision of marrying the sport and family entertainment. Why not do it with soccer, which has always been connected to kids?"
That's where Peter Kirk, the chairman of Opening Day Partners, comes in. Kirk has created a minor league baseball empire by building fan-friendly stadiums with affordable prices. Lupton spent the past 28 years in baseball, most of them getting fledgling teams off the ground. Kirk's concept of playgrounds, merry-go-rounds and kids' concession stands at the park is the model for Crystal Palace.
"What fascinates me is that this is almost exactly what minor league baseball was when I got into it in the 1980s," Kirk said. "You had passionate owners and passionate fans, but not much to bring the more casual fans who are looking for family entertainment."
The move into the NASL is also problematic because it will be a big step up in competition, Pete Medd said. The goal is to draw 5,000 fans a game for a team that hasn't averaged 2,000 the past three years.
"We believe it's going to take this next year to right the ship, so to speak, to build on what we've done and to change perceptions," Medd said. "All we're saying is, in 2010, come check it out. If, after that, you decide it's not worthy, that's fine. But we're ready to put our absolute best foot forward."