Those of you that read my last article will know that more often than not, I plan city breaks and weekends away with my (very understanding) wife Sammy so that I am able to take in a game featuring the local team (rest assured there are plenty more of these to come in 2019).
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, I just get lucky and luck was on my side when we were asked to join two very good friends of ours, Jamie and Kayleigh on a trip to New York to celebrate Kayleigh’s birthday.
Having been to the Big Apple once before both Sammy and I jumped at another chance to visit one of the best cities we’ve been to and with Jamie also a massive football fan, my thoughts started to turn to whether the MLS fixture list might be kind to us.
It was, New York Red Bulls would be playing host to (then) reigning MLS Cup Champions Toronto FC and Sammy (knowing me oh so well) began making plans as to what her and Kayleigh would do the day Jamie and I were at the football.
I’ve long been a fan of Major League Soccer. I used to catch the highlights of games during the first few seasons of the league’s existence and it remains one of my go-to leagues when playing Championship/Football Manager. Naturally my interest in the league only increased as David Beckham led the way for many top class European players to make the move to the US and Canada supplementing a talented and underrated local player base.
I have family in Vancouver, Canada and had previously attended an NASL (the then 2nd tier of North American football) match between Vancouver Whitecaps and Minnesota United (both of whom now play in the MLS) but this would be my first taste of live top flight football in North America and having seen the league develop at a pace season upon season, I couldn’t wait!
The game took place on the Saturday and our penultimate day in the city. It’d been an incredible Friday night involving a boat trip up the Hudson, a meal at one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been too and finished (almost inevitably) singing along to the live music in an Irish bar a couple of blocks from Broadway.
Despite the previous night’s alcohol fuelled antics, we were all in remarkably good form! The morning was spent sightseeing and wandering along 5th Avenue before I suggested that we grab our first beer of the day at Football Factory @ Legends opposite the Empire State Building (I know hard to believe I’d suggest such an establishment, right?!).
I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t an ulterior motive, my beloved Norwich City were playing QPR away (a game I’d more than likely have been attending if at home) and I’d read that Football Factory was THE place in the city to watch televised games.
The walls were decorated in the many colours of the various New York based supporters groups that call this place home when their team are on the box.
There was however one recurring team amidst the many different British, European and South American clubs represented, New York Red Bulls and with Jamie and I suitably attired for the afternoon’s game we were well received by the establishment’s Director, Jack who was working behind the bar. Jack was more than happy to chat about all things football and was the first of many incredibly welcoming and cool people we met during what turned out to be an eventful day.
The Canaries 1-0 victory in West London set the tone for the afternoon. We bid goodbye to our wives and with instructions from Jack as to how to get to the ground by train we set off on our way towards Harrison, New Jersey and Red Bull Arena.
Jamie and I got to the subway and quickly realised that despite Jack’s instructions we didn’t have a clue where we were going. Being stood in the middle of a New York subway station, speaking in a non-native accent, carrying a cross of St George flag and looking like the Red Bulls’ club shop had thrown up on us, I couldn’t help but feel we may have been a bit of a target but again we were assisted by a more than helpful local who sent us on our way towards World Trade Center where we’d pick up the train across the Hudson River towards Harrison.
Having followed anyone remotely resembling a Red Bulls fan throughout the shopping centre above the station to ensure we were going the right way to the platform, we were finally en route to the ground.
The journey’s entertainment arrived at the first stop out of the city as a clearly inebriated lad carrying what appeared to be his worldly belongings in a bin bag, got on the carriage full of Red Bulls fans and shouted “wooo where Toronto at?!”
He then spent the journey trying to convince Jamie and I to head to Newark, the stop after Harrison where he and his buddies would ‘take us for a beer’ exclaiming “C’mon we won’t mug you or anything!” To which I responded: “Well you’re carrying all your gear in a garbage bag, what’s not to trust?!”
Much laughter ensued throughout the carriage before one robust looking supporter told our new ‘pal’ in no uncertain terms that we would be getting off in Harrison.
A short walk from the station and we were at the ground. The first thing we noticed was that there were a handful of tailgaters in the car park. For those unaware, tailgating is a custom often seen at NFL games where groups of fans will congregate in the car park drinking beers and cooking barbecue. This particular tailgate was interspersed by kids holding impromptu kickabouts in between the parked cars.
Just outside the stadium there were more organised skills challenges and 3 on 3 games taking place among youngsters in what was a real family friendly atmosphere.
Jamie and I found a bar area around the corner from these activities serving the largest cans of beer I’ve ever seen! Decent craft beer too! We grabbed a couple of cans and listened to the 2 piece punk band who were performing in the same area, this was a bit different to pre-game beers back home!
Inside the ground and Red Bull Arena is exactly what you’d expect from a modern stadium with facilities aplenty. I particularly liked the images of previous player of the season winners for both the Metrostars (the club’s name prior to the rebranding) and the Red Bulls along with images of current stars such as Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kaku, Daniel Royer and Luis Robles.
We grabbed a couple more oversized beers and headed towards the section we would be standing in. The infamous South Ward, home to the oldest supporters group in MLS, the Empire Supporters Club.
Now, I’ve had tickets in Ultras sections at other clubs in other countries before and they’re not always the most welcoming area for the casual fan and I understand why as Ultras sections are reserved for the die-hard fans and the most vociferous supporters of a club.
Jamie and I wandered towards our reserved ‘seats’ (although naturally these would not be used) and were told by a couple of the lads and ladies that we were more than welcome to stand with them so long as we got involved.
We were bouncing to the beats and tunes of the in section drummer and trumpeter, we were waving flags and singing for ‘The Metro’ and we were loving every minute of it!
ESC had some of the most original chants I’d heard at a football ground including nods to Ramones’ I wanna be sedated and Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthing to F*** wit!
The game itself, if I’m honest, wasn’t the best, the gruelling MLS regular season (involving travel us European fans simply cannot comprehend) was reaching its climax and the Red Bulls needed a result to keep the pressure on Atlanta United (who they played at Red Bull Arena the following week) in the race for the Supporter’s Shield (the regular season league title in MLS) whereas TFC’s playoff hopes were feint at best and they were without their creative spark, as former Juventus playmaker Sebastian Giovinco was injured.
New York attacked the South Ward in the second half and on 70 minutes made the breakthrough as a cross landed at the feet of the skilful Kaku who’s effort ricocheted off of a couple of Toronto defenders and past the despairing dive of Alex Bono into the Toronto net.
The stand was bouncing, the pyro ignited and there were red and black (the Metrostars’ original colours), Antifa and pride flags flying, it was absolutely brilliant.
Up the other end, US international keeper and New York captain, Luis Robles made a couple of excellent saves to keep the Red Bulls in front before the club’s record goal scorer (and our fellow Englishman) Bradley Wright-Phillips clipped the ball into substitute Derek Etienne Jr’s path and the Haitian Forward coolly chipped Bono from a tight angle to send the South Ward into raptures once more and secure a crucial 3 points.
The only dampener on an otherwise great win for New York was BWP picking up a late booking which would rule him out of the table topping clash with Atlanta the following week. Something the Red Bulls’ number 99 was visibly disappointed about.
We’d met some truly brilliant people in the stands including another English native who now called New Jersey home; Keith.
Keith was great conversation at half time and as the players greeted the South Ward at the end of the game in a manner more befitting of a German Bundesliga side than an American MLS one, Keith who’s a season ticket holder in the front row beckoned over Head Coach: Chris Armas.
He explained to Armas how we’d travelled across the Atlantic to see the game and the gaffer spent a good five minutes talking to us and posing for photos.
As a parting gift Keith wrapped his Red Bulls scarf around Jamie’s neck and said “great to meet you guys, safe travels”.
One of the lads who asked us at the start to join in exclaimed that Jamie and I were welcome back anytime and we’d had a magnificent first experience of an RBNY game day and ESC’s unique supporter culture.
If I’m honest, I initially had my reservations about attending a Red Bulls game. The corporate rebranding of football clubs and the way in which the company seemingly circumnavigated the 50 plus one rule in Germany are not things that sit too comfortably with me but Red Bull’s investment in the local areas in which their clubs are located (particularly in Harrison) together with their commitment to youth development (as evidenced by local players such as Tyler Adams and Alex Muyl, both of whom came through the Red Bulls’ academy and made significant contributions throughout the season) are commendable.
Edd Norval explains Red Bull’s involvement and approach to the game far better than I ever could, in a piece he wrote for These Footballing Times and it’s well worth a read as it provides an interesting insight.
All this aside, our experience could not have been better. The fans and the people at this club were absolutely brilliant from the Head Coach, to the stadium staff and the Empire Supporters Club we stood with.
The environment and atmosphere in the South Ward was inclusive, great fun to be part of and was up there with some of the very best I’ve experienced across Europe.
We’re still in touch with Keith via Twitter and Jamie and I have continued to follow the Metro’s results because of him, our friends in ESC and all of the great people we met at and en route to Red Bull Arena.
To quote one of the many songs we sang that day, for Jamie and I, New York is and forever will be “f***in Red!”.