Major League Soccer – 10th June 2011
The much maligned British rail system does have a few things going in its favour. For example, the fact that the tracks are owned by one governing body, rather than individual companies, mean that if you want to get a ticket from – say – Glasgow to Southampton, you only have to buy one ticket. You don’t have to get one train ticket from Glasgow to Carlisle, then one to Manchester, then one to Birmingham, then one to Southampton. Admittedly it’s rather expensive, but it’s only one train ticket. Compare that to the 20 minute journey from Manhattan Island, New York to Harrison New Jersey, in which I had to buy three separate tickets. Even so, it was $6.25, which was nothing.
The reason anybody goes to Harrison is visible when you pull into the station, the Red Bull Arena, home of the New York Red Bulls. Major League Soccer is growing in popularity in the USA, with large Hispanic communities and families with young children leading the charge. New York Red Bulls are one of the larger teams in the Eastern Conference of the Major League, growing in popularity since 2007, when the team (formally New York & New Jersey Metrostars) was bought by Red Bull. The team became known as the New York Red Bulls, with a huge amount of rebranding and financing that saw them move stadiums, sign Thierry Henry, and generally improve their status. This has seen them as current Eastern Conference champions.
Being a minor sport, the club has to do a lot to get people through the door, and as such it was nice to receive an email hours before the game telling me of where the best places to drink (the Coors Light Beer Garden), some of the amenities on offer and a little bit about the game. Marvellous, as it really helped me when I arrived – I suggest more clubs in the UK do something similar to this.
I arrived a couple of hours before kick off in the Coors Light Beer Garden. After being ID’ed 4 times I finally got a beer, unfortunately it was rather sparse. With only a few people there. I guess the concept of getting smashed is alien over here. Luckily I got speaking to a couple of individuals who had rather thick Birmingham accents. Turns out one of them was Luke Rodgers dad. For those unfamiliar with MLS or lower league football, Luke Rodgers career has seen him at Shrewsbury Town, Notts County,, and now Thierry Henry’s strike partner at New York Red Bulls. Much beer and banter was had, and although I did try to sneak into the Skybox for a free beer and a photo with me and Henry, it didn’t happen. Instead I took my seat at the upper level, half way across for the game.
Another difference between football here and the UK is that drinking is practically encouraged here (in moderation), with each seat in the “premium section” having two beverage holders in front of them. Marvellous.
I made full use of it, then obtained my tea of chicken strips, chips and a couple more beers and was ready to watch the game.
When the game began I was surprised. Not with the quality of the football, which was Championship to League 1 standard (with the exception of Thierry Henry), but for the passion of the fans. Without a national football identity the MLS (at least the Red Bulls) have adopted the best of many cultures. Its singing is reminiscent to the large Mexican & Mediterranean nations, with large roars when goals get in. The chants are deep and many are adopted from Europe (including a “” chant for New England, which converted me into a Red Bulls fan), but yet it’s undeniably American, with the food, drink and pre game entertainment very American, although there was no need to keep the crowd interested during the game, as they were hooked.
From the kick off, New York aggressively attacked the away end (I use that term lightly, the away fans were located in a small section of the ground in the upper tier), with Luke Rodgers forcing a few chances and a few missed crosses, but Revolution worked their way into the game, forcing a penalty on the 30th minute. A well struck penalty which was admirably saved by Greg Sutton. Following this, Red Bulls seemed to spur on, taking the lead 5 minutes before time when a cross from the right wing was turned into the net by Revolution’s Ryan Colchrane. Come the half time break, Red Bulls were 1-0 up.
It was here when a peculiarity of sporting events in the US was emphasised, with special “Nights”. Most games in baseball have games dedicated to a certain section of fans or have a themed night. Tonight in the Red Bull arena it was “Croatian Night”. Loads of Croatian tops were in attendance including a huge one in the stands to the right of me, and I was given a hand flannel by a delightful young native of Zagreb. Best of all though, was the parading on the pitch at half time by Croatian Legend Davor Suker, who announced a further linkup between New York and Croatia. Quite what exactly the underlying meaning was for this meet up was I’m not sure, but even so, it was nice.
The second half begun with Ryan Colchrane compunding his already nightmare game. Thierry Henry danced the ball past him to slot the ball in the back corner. That boy was well above everybody else on the pitch, and was obviously one of the first picks for the MLS All Star Team. Zak Boggs however may have something to say about that with a 35 yard strike to reduce the deficit to one, but Red Bulls hung on to win the game 2-1.
Following the game, I managed to get chatting to a few fans. Yes the game wasn’t the best quality (Henry aside, who probably could play with a ridiculous hangover and still be the best player on the park), but the atmosphere was electric, and considering MLS is one of the least promoted sports in the US, it’s quite refreshing to see amazingly passionate fans, which ironically you don’t seem to get at many other US sporting events (more on that in my next post).
Then again, it’s worth remembering that I wasn’t watching a European match, instead I was in the Big Apple. I found a quicker way back to Manhattan than the ridiculous system I took to arrive at the stadium. On the train home I got chatting to a couple of Red Bulls fans about fantasy football, Swansea’s chances for the “BPL” (yes, it’s now the British Premier League over in the States), and had an overall intelligent conversation about New York. Almost a European conversation, until I emerged from the subway, and saw I was standing outside Ground Zero.
Overall, if you get a chance to watch an MLS game, do so. You’d be pleasantly surprised.