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Bulls & Beers: A Fun Soccer Night in America

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The following is a semi-self indulgent post about a trip to an MLS game Saturday night with my father. As always with the Internet, no one is forcing you to click, read or comment on it. Enjoy! 

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Last week, I wrote about how you can stay involved following soccer now that the World Cup is over. The term ‘hype train’ was used in that piece and for that I am forever sorry for using said term. The first suggestion I made was supporting your local MLS team. For me, that’s the New York Red Bulls — a 90 minute car ride from my home in Connecticut.

Anyways, there is certain segment of American soccer fans with a religious zealot-like fanaticism toward MLS, using evangelical means to guilt you into supporting “our league.” If you dare prefer to watch European or South American or whatever soccer over MLS you are a very bad person to these people. Although I’d much rather watch European soccer on television than MLS, watching our own domestic league live is the best option we have — unless you want to pay $60+ to see Manchester United’s fringe 22-year-olds play club friendlies against aging Serie A stars in zero stakes American summer club friendlies.

My father enjoys MLS, or specifically the New York Red Bulls nee New York/New Jersey Metrostars. For the last couple years I’ve bought tickets for me and him to go to a game at Red Bull Arena for either his birthday or Father’s Day. As long as the Cross Bronx Expressway cooperates, it’s a nice little summer night and as an added bonus I fulfill my American soccer “duty” of supporting and believing in MLS at the same time.

The Red Bulls, claiming New York in their moniker, yet operating out of post-industrial would-be hipster, gentrification hotspot Harrison, N.J., are a strange franchise. I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen Red Bulls gear in public outside the games. The team exists in some sort of purgatory, stuck between New York City and Newark — belonging to neither and yet, people do show up in earnest.

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Since traffic wasn’t terrible, we actually arrived with an hour to kill. I asked one of the numerous crossing guards on the street leading to the stadium if there were any bars down the road. She shrugged and said she didn’t live around here, so we settled on a chain teriyaki/sushi place that was set up inside a new building that also housed a Five Guys (shocker!), GNC, Dunkin Donuts and presumably numerous luxury condos with City-like style and suburban prices on the upper levels.

The odd thing, my dad noted after we ate and walked toward the stadium, was how quiet it was on the streets — quiet enough to hear the lonely churro salesman sell his wares. Thousands of people headed toward the Arena in the distance. Many wore Thierry Henry replica jerseys or their favorite German national team star. Amazingly both Steven Gerrard and his Merseyside rival Leighton Baines were in attendance, or at least their replica shirts were. (On the subject of soccer shirts, what’s a reasonable price to pay for a MetroStars jersey on eBay before it doubles as a cry for help?)

Yet, despite all the soccer fun, nobody was chanting or getting too amped up for the game itself against the hated San Jose Earthquakes. There wasn’t even a cursory “let’s go Red Bulls” going through the crowd as it walked toward the destination. Everyone looked like what you’d expect a soccer fan to a look like in public, but everyone seemed to be going through the motions. Portland or Seattle, this was not.

What the walk into the arena lacked in atmosphere, it made up for in swag. Who doesn’t want to spend three minutes filling out a survey about a Microsoft Surface Tablet — yes, these actually exist outside the commercials — for a free t-shirt with a hashtag slogan about “believing” on it? For a team owned by an energy drink corporation and named for its most-famous product, you’d expect nothing less.

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It’s a shame that the atmosphere was lacking where I sat since Red Bull Arena itself is a beautiful venue to watch a game. The site-lines are terrific. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. If you’re a fan of canned beer — foreign, domestic or everything in between — Red Bull Arena had its covered with a fridge stocked with everything from Tecate to PBR to Yuengling to Labatt to Miller Lite to Heineken 24-ounce cans. On tap were too many specialty beers to list them all. I’m no beer snob — I don’t know what Untappd is, but it was an impressive array and not a total rip-off, either at $12 or $13.

Come for the reasonably-priced beer, stay for the soccer — you could do worse for a marketing slogan RBNY or MLS, just sayin’.

The soccer itself? Coming off the highs of the World Cup and jumping in to a random mid-season MLS game between the Red Bulls and Earthquakes is jarring and reinforced what make the World Cup so special in terms of quality and drama. It was, what the English would call, “stroppy” littered with yellow cards and very few chances. The Red Bulls went ahead on Bradley Wright-Phillips’ first-half penalty kick, giving the English journeyman 17 on the season — impressive, albeit of the #youreawinnerandaloser variety. I made sure to applaud U.S. World Cup would-be hero Chris Wondolowski … until he got a silly yellow card for arguing about the handball that set up Wright-Phillips penalty.

Sure it’s still nice to watch Thierry Henry’s immaculate first touch, but at 36 the French legend doesn’t have a lot left in the tank for the Red Bulls and is now wearing his shorts at John Stockton length. Aussie star Tim Cahill still gives it his all — he must have attempted five slide tackles — but he too is starting to show his age. The most impressive player on the field might have been San Jose’s on-loan Portuguese winger Yannick Djalo, all 5-foot-7 of him. Not to get too snobby, but the over-reliance on hit-and-hope crosses didn’t lend to the most exciting game ever conducted — a departure from my trip last summer when I saw Cahill jump about 17 feet in the air to score on a header.

Granted, the game left little to cheer for with the visitors nicking a late equalizer from MLS’s top troll Steven Lenhart, but Red Bull Arena — outside the designated supporters section — was awfully quiet, if not sterile. The college-age girls behind me kept talking about (no lie) snapchat and “the next FIFA” which I think they meant the World Cup. On the plus side, there wasn’t any pumped in music or promotions during the game, allowing everyone to focus on booing the ref and the occasional “ooh” when there was a shot on target.

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Part of me kept wondering what happens with the Red Bulls next year when MLS welcomes NYCFC to the league? NYCFC, owned in part by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, will play inside one of the five boroughs, temporarily calling Yankee Stadium home. Me? I know if I can take a Metro North train (perhaps drinking a can or two of lager on said train during the trip) to the Stadium vs. driving out to Harrison and paying a $13 toll to cross the George Washington Bridge, it’s a no-brainer. This probably won’t develop into a situation like MLS has in Los Angeles where the Galaxy are successful and Chivas USA is on the verge of a comprehensive rebranding. Even so, the New York area hasn’t fully embraced one MLS team (albeit one named for a popular energy drink), now it’s going to have to support two? Red Bull spent $200 million on a great stadium, which has trouble approaching max crowds now — let alone when a second franchise opens up shop in the heart of the largest city in America.

Red Bull, Rafa Marquez Designated Player signing aside, has poured money into the club’s infastructure and tried to build a team in the best way you can given the constrains of MLS. It’s built a beautiful, first-class stadium but it can’t similarly buy passion. That has to be developed organically and doing such in a no man’s land like Harrison seems a tricky proposition.

As the game ended, many shuffled out toward the parking lot or nearby PATH station. A few people mumbled about the late Earthquakes goal, but ultimately it’s tough to get upset with throwing away points given the way the MLS puts so much emphasis on playoffs come the fall. The father and son walking out in matching Brighton Hove & Albion shirts didn’t seem like their night was ruined.

Nearly 20 years into its existence MLS has shown, if you built it you can get people to come. Getting them to care is a much trickier proposition, at least in New York.

(Postscript, this post came off more negative than intended and I will make an attempt to attend a game later in the season and sit closer to the supporters section.)

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