When the chips are down….

…I’ll be around
With my death-defying love for you”

Three months ago I made my first trip west from New York to the barren lands of Harrison, New Jersey where the shining beacon of the Red Bull Arena lit up the decaying industrial landscape of an area of New Jersey that was desperately in need of investment, inspiration and excitement. On that day, the New York Red Bulls won a pulsating game against rivals DC United in a matchday atmosphere that really surprised me. I stood corrected in my view that the Red Bulls had no fans or identity and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Three months on and I was back in New York for work with the Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda.  As luck would have it, the Red Bulls were at home again, this time against those Wizards from Kansas.  Or, the team that used to be called the Wizards.  It appeared that a PR agency, probably headed by a Siobhan Sharpe-type decided that “The Wiz” wasn’t a MLS-type name anymore, so they were rebranded as “Sporting Club Kansas”, or SC Kansas for short.  Another “franchise” struggling to know who it really was

“Soccer” is in a confused state in the US.  At the grass-roots level it is the most popular sport played by youngsters at school, especially by girls.  And the interest among the younger generation in the Premier League or La Liga has never been bigger.  With every visit I make to New York I see more and more bars now proudly displaying signs saying they show live Premier League games. And why wouldn’t they? A 3pm Saturday kick off in England means people in the bars at 10am, more often than not combining that cheeky first pint of the weekend with a full English breakfast. For visitors from England it means that they can still enjoy their fix from back home and be up the top of the Empire State just after midday – everyone’s a winner.

Earlier this year I watched West Ham v Millwall at 7.45am in the Football Factory, quite literally in King Kong’s shadow. The owners had obviously taken a leaf out of Curry’s book, with TV’s on every spare inch of wall space, meaning nobody had a restricted view. Add in a couple of waitresses, dressed in football kit (Newcastle United in this case to keep the neutrality) who handed you another beer as soon as you had an empty one and you have a perfect recipe.

But New York still lacks a soccer identity. The MLS has come a long way in the last few years, becoming more competitive and being able to defocus from just the exploits of one team in Los Angeles and on the league as a whole. It may surprise some observers from outside North America that other teams actually exist, and the Galaxy are not the biggest team in the league. Last weekend saw the “derby” between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders. I say derby in inverted commas as it is just about the biggest rivalry in US soccer, although the two clubs are separated by 175 miles. A packed house full of atmosphere that you rarely see in other US sports witnessed a 1-1. Few would know that there are now 3 teams from Canada, one of whom, FC Toronto, play in front of sell out crowds every week.

But “soccer” is fast becoming the sport of choice for many Americans. Why? Because it is seen as a global game, it doesn’t take all day to play/watch and the US national teams are getting better every year. This summer saw the US women’s team take Gold in the London Olympics; the US men’s team continue to be dark horses at every tournament they play at.

Back here in New York there is still an issue. Without a team to call their own, New Yorkers are missing a slice of the Apple Pie. Ask any resident of the city who their team is and you will hear either the Giants, Yankees or Knicks depending on which is their favoured sport. The Yankees are one of, if not the, biggest sporting brand in the world. Forbes magazine recently valued the brand at $1.78 BILLION. Their annual revenues are around $440m. It does help that they play around 75 home games a season with an average attendance of 40,000 AND once inside the stadium fans spend around $53 dollars EACH (bear in mind a beer at Yankee Stadium is a whopping $12!). The Giants on the other hand do not go down the “pile them high, sell them cheap” admission model. NFL teams only play 8 regular season games at home and can therefore charge an average ticket price well over $150.

No more than a 20 minute train ride from Lower Manhattan is the RedBull Arena, home of the New York RedBulls. Whilst they have gone through various name changes since their debut in the MLS in 1996, they still remain a side located outside the city, and outside the state. Does this matter? For the real soccer aficionados, no. From most points in the city Harrison, NJ is quicker and easier to get to than the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx or CitiField, home of the Mets in Queens. But it matters to some. Ironically, some of those who do care will also support the Giants or the Jets, who play at the MetLife Stadium, which is also in New Jersey.

The team, backed with the money and marketing know how of the Austrian beverage giants have done a good job in trying to keep the interest high both in New York as well as in New Jersey. But there is so much untapped potential. Nearby Newark (the stadium is almost at the edge of Newark Airport’s runway) has a population of near 280,000 in addition to the millions who live across the Hudson.

But is New York City about to start falling in love with Soccer again soon? Next season the New York Cosmos will join the North American Soccer League (NASL) which is the second tier of US Soccer. Well, second tier would suggest there was some chance to move up to the first tier based in merit. Alas, such a concept still doesn’t exist in US sports where the franchise model is king. The Cosmos’s only short-term hope of bringing top-level football back to the city is to buy a MLS franchise and move it back to New York. And the chances of that are as much as a non-North American side winning Baseball’s World Series (I.e none as only MLB teams can compete in the World Series).

So for the foreseeable future, Harrison, New Jersey will still be the premier venue for the game in the area.  Having seen such a great game last time, Luge (and his lovely wife Katie) and I looked forward to another slice of Soccer-US style.

New York Red Bulls 0 SC Kansas 2 – RedBull Arena – Wednesday 19th September 2012

As the song goes, “with hope in your heart” we were almost walking alone as we got off the train from World Trade Centre at 6.30pm.  The train was full, but full of commuters on their way home.  The parking lots were empty, the scalpers were desperate to off-load their tickets and the stewards looked bored.  Katie questioned whether the game was on at all.  With just 30 minutes to kick off the place looked almost deserted.

After the customary stop to buy a beer ($12!!!!), a foot long hotdog and a foam hand for the birthday of Mr Patrick Marber, we went to find our seats.  Oh dear.  With just 10 minutes to go to “kick off” (as you may know, events never start on time in the US, they start when the adverts stop) there was not ONE SINGLE seat taken in the whole section.  In fact, there only seemed to be a thousand or so in the ground.  Perhaps there was going to be a last-minute rush?  Alas no, although we were joined by a group behind us who seemed to have mixed up the RedBulls and Yankees, but more of them later.

The teams emerged and the sparsely populated “home end” unfurled a banner aimed at the 17 Kansas fans in the section next to us.  “You’re not Kansas anymore.  SKC – No heart, No Brain, No Courage.  No Wizard can save you now”.  Would it be a phophetic message?  Well, the RedBulls certainly had one of the most well-known front two with Tim Cahill joining Thierry Henry upfront this season.

Ah, Terry Henry.  Three months ago I was criticised for suggesting that the Frenchman’s lethargy in running around the pitch was simply symptomatic of a final move in his career simply for the money.  Anyone who saw this game cannot disagree with that statement.  Henry was awful.  He hardly broke into a sprint at any stage, stood hands on hips most of the time whilst the game went on around him.  Yet his striking partner Cahill put in a decent shift, coming close to a goal with one of his trademark headers from distance.

But by that time the RedBulls were two-nil down to goals from Kansas’s Sapong and Kei Kamara, both from set-pieces where New York simply didn’t pick up their men.  Harsh perhaps on the home side, but with virtually every attack ending with a wasted ball to Henry, it was hardly a surprise.  The group behind us, who were obviously used to a different type of ball game started getting involved, including such classics as:-

“Let’s go Red Bulls” as Kansas scored their first.  Go where exactly?

“Cahill, you ass.  Why did you head that ball?” (It was a header from the edge of the box that was well held by the keeper)

“Why haven’t they changed ends when they scored”

“Let’s take Cahill off now and bring him back on later in the game”

“So if Kansas win 2-0 do they get 2 points and Red Bulls 0?”

I could understand this if it was their first trip to a game, but one of them mentioned this was the fifth time he had been this season….

It was hard to take any positives out of the game as an adopted “New Yorker”.  The fantastic sunset was probably my highlight of the game.  The Red Bulls were poor, the attendance very disappointing (on the way back in conversation with a fan he seemed to blame it on the fact the Yankees were also at home) although the official attendance was 10,286 which was far-fetched to say the least and the beer was astronomical at $12 each, which was nearly 60% of the match ticket.

It was a frustrating evening.  No matter how much I wanted the Red Bulls to deliver for me, they simply couldn’t both on and off the pitch.  At the end of the day make no mistake, this is a business venture.  If the owners decide one day that it is not viable they will simply sell it, or relocate it to somewhere where it could be.  With the spectre of the Cosmos appearing over the horizon, perhaps now it is the time for the PR company to have a Plan B up their sleeve.

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