HARRISON, N.J. -- On Saturday afternoon, I drove faithfully to Red Bull Arena for an event you might not have heard about if you weren't among the small group of already-committed soccer faithful: the home opener of the New York Red Bulls, hosting D.C. United.
To the initiated, this was nothing less than the latest installment in the best rivalry in Major League Soccer, a clash between Thierry Henry, the spectacular goal scorer from France by way of Arsenal and Barcelona, and Dwayne De Rosario, Canadian and M.L.S. star, played at a striking silver arena that gleams as you approach it and puts spectators virtually on top of the action once inside.
But it is the un-initiated that continue to worry the Red Bulls and M.L.S., those who have remained stubbornly immune to domestic soccer in the New York metropolitan area for the nearly two decades the league has existed. And that is driving the league, at least several deep-pocketed investors, and even the city and state of New York to rectify the situation -- with a new team.
The Red Bulls are trying, too, in that fashion so familiar to anyone who has rooted for the franchise known as the Metrostars going back to the first season of M.L.S. In 1996. There's a certain bargain fans of the Red Bulls have made with themselves in order to support the team: it's going to be hard to get there, and at season's end, the team is going to make you pay for believing, but much of what comes in between is transcendent.
First, there's that "hard to get there" part, something true in both a literal and metaphorical sense. I come from Rockland County, New York, and have a relatively easy 35 minute drive, right until I reach the exit off of I-280 for Harrison, New Jersey. Then the congestion begins.
The patterns take you on a winding road through residential parts of Harrison that simply weren't built for major traffic patterns, over railroad tracks, behind some buildings, and into some parking lots that are easily a mile walk from the stadium.
Fortunately, the Red Bulls have at least struck a deal with Harrison for their fans to park in the enormous twin empty fields directly in front of Red Bull Arena, so that every fan attending didn't need to walk past them and fume over their uselessness. But you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get those spots; most take my walk. And those same traffic patterns make getting out endless as well.
There's always public transportation, the PATH train. From what I gathered on Saturday, the 20-minute waits from Manhattan had swelled to 30 minutes. Crowds massed slowly, fitfully, through tiny exits, while other gates at the Harrison PATH station remained inexplicably closed. Red Bulls fans suffer transportation indignities at this stop that would get a borough president's office picketed if they happened near Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden.
And if that happened, it would be back-page tabloid news. That just isn't the case for anything that happens to the New York Red Bulls. Never mind that the Red Bulls averaged 18,281 fans per game last year, while the Brooklyn Nets check in at 17,100 per game and the New York Rangers are at 17,678 per game. The latter two are treated with respect, with beat reporters chronicling their every move, to say nothing of teams like the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Giants and Jets.
But you really have to work at it to be the kind of Red Bulls fan that modern media has virtually forced many of us to be of our other teams. Away from Red Bull Arena, and want to catch the Red Bulls on the radio? Better learn Spanish -- there's not an English language broadcast of the game, let alone a pregame show, postgame show, or terrestrial radio show that discusses the Red Bulls on either of the two 24-hour sports radio stations in New York. I've taken to listening to Seeing Red!, the New York Red Bulls soccer podcast, on my drive to the stadium, downloaded on my iPad.
The Red Bulls, flush with money, seem to do very little advertising. So if there's little paid media and there's little free media, unless you already know the Red Bulls exist, they're not going to tell you. It's surreal: I'm parked at Red Bull Arena, walking a mile in the cold with thousands dressed in red, marching toward a truly spectacular place to watch a soccer match; knowing that once I escape the traffic snarl right around Harrison, this entire experience disappears into an ephemeral place, a little secret just a few miles from the media capital of the world.
So how exactly does one measure the 22,022 fans who came out on a frigid afternoon, complete with swirling wind and light snow, to watch the Red Bulls? Is it shameful that the Red Bulls didn't sell out their home opener, featuring Thierry Henry, against their biggest rivals? Or is it miraculous that 22,000-plus fans came out in the freezing cold to watch a perpetually disappointing team on little more than word of mouth? There's no successful soccer league in U.S. history to compare it to; M.L.S. has now lasted longer than any other, including the N.A.S.L., best known for Pele's New York Cosmos.
M.L.S. has certainly made it clear that whatever the Red Bulls are doing, it isn't enough to lock down New York. The league has made an astonishing push to get a stadium built in Queens, on the site of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. They are doing this prior to the typical initial steps of A) locating a team in the area and B) finding an owner for that team who, presumably, would build a stadium.
Nope: the league is working to build this stadium, then charge an owner $100 million for the right to buy into M.L.S., create the league's 20th franchise, and finally field a soccer team fully embraced and recognized by the community it resides in. This is no pipe dream -- it has happened for M.L.S. all over the country. In Seattle, where average attendance was better than 43,000, the Sounders routinely sell out CenturyLink Field. In Portland, the Timbers play in front of larger than capacity crowds.
And lest you think this is some kind of northwest hippie thing, the Philadelphia Union built a beautiful soccer venue, PPL Park, and managed to sell out most games in each of their first two seasons, with last year, on the field, an unqualified disaster. All over the country, M.L.S. attendance is on the rise. Yet at Red Bull Arena in 2012, it dropped seven percent from 2011.
Clearly, if M.L.S. believed the Red Bulls could be that beloved New York team, they'd concentrate their efforts on, well, helping the Red Bulls, and expand to deserving cities like Orlando. Instead, it is full speed ahead to the team informally known as NY2 in 2016, with the general belief that this team will be the New York Cosmos, and the combination of the Cosmos' rich history and richer owners, from Sela Sport, can finally convert the massive number of New York soccer fans into rabid M.L.S. fans.
In the meantime, here are the Red Bulls, the dutifully trying first wife still laboring even as M.L.S. is busy preparing the second wedding. The crazy part is, they haven't figured out yet how to stop feeding the narrative of failure, created by the limited off-field following, with truly breathtaking playoff defeats on the field.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Red Bulls, featuring Thierry Henry, made the playoffs each season. When Henry played, he was usually the finest player on the field. The Red Bulls were preseason favorites, demonstrably had the most talent on the field, and cost the most money. And each year, in ludicrous fashion, the Red Bulls snatched late defeats from certain victories.
In 2012, for example, the Red Bulls dominated D.C. United for most of the deciding match. Then, in rapid succession: their best penalty taker, Kenny Cooper, made a penalty shot that was called back because two other Red Bulls wandered into the penalty area; Cooper missed the re-take. Then Rafa Marquez, the Mexican international and third-highest paid player in the league behind Henry and David Beckham, committed the last in his endless series of red card fouls to get sent off. In the 88th minute, D.C. United scored on what was essentially their first chance all night. And on the final chance of the night for the Red Bulls, a free kick just outside the 18 yard line, Henry crazily yielded to defender Roy Miller, with his zero career goals, and Miller sent his patented shot roughly 15 rows into the stands. Game over. Season over. And no one was surprised. There's a phrase, dating back to the original team nickname: "That's so Metro." It certainly was.
Miller provided his usual meltdown (he'd done similar things in 2010 and 2011) early in 2013, single-handedly turning a 1-0 lead in San Jose against the Earthquakes in Week 2 into a 2-1 loss. He'd even reprised the penalty kick encroachment, this time nullifying a brilliant save by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. Then he compounded the error by telling the press he'd done so intentionally, the idea being if San Jose's Chris Wondolowski made it, he'd have to take it again. That's not how it works, though; if the foul is committed by the Red Bulls, the Earthquakes' goal still counts.
Miller had been sent home on Saturday, leaving the Red Bulls to take on D.C. United with their more talented and less gaffe-prone 11. And as is so often the case, the more impressive Red Bulls dominated the run of play, outshooting D.C. United, 11-2 in the first half, then 13-2 in the second half. Henry tested D.C.'s goalkeeper Bill Hamid repeatedly, starting with an inspired shot in the eighth minute, and continuing all afternoon. Newly-acquired Fabian Espindola hit the crossbar twice, once in each half. A volley found Tim Cahill, another international import from Everton, who forced Hamid to make a save. And in extra time, defender Brandon Barklage sent Hamid scrambling back to snatch Barklage's header less than an inch from crossing the goal line.
No one in the crowd had a sense that the run of play favoring the Red Bulls meant that the game would eventually belong to the Red Bulls, which is how it almost always works in soccer. Then again, the Red Bulls had entered the playoffs three straight seasons as the consensus most talented roster, with only the Los Angeles Galaxy a possible rival when it comes to star power. The Galaxy won the past two M.L.S. Cups; the Red Bulls didn't win a single playoff series, and coach Hans Backe was replaced by longtime Red Bulls and Metrostars mainstay Mike Petke.
After the match, Petke expressed his frustration like a fan at his postgame press conference.
"You have those days," Petke's monologue began. "It sucks. Let me tell you it sucks to sit back and watch it unfold and say 'What the hell do you have to do to get the ball into the net?' I think we created a lot. I think maybe in the first half there were moments where we could've pulled the trigger a little earlier especially with the slick surface and maybe test [Bill] Hamid a little more. In the second half I felt like we got forward very well and created opportunities. There were a couple at the end and with Henry right there, how did the ball not go in?"
It was so easy to picture an alternate reality, a 4-0 Red Bulls win, a triumphant Petke, just as it is easy to picture an alternate reality where the city of New York attaches itself to the Red Bulls, or an alternate playoffs in which Henry's brilliance isn't wasted, Roy Miller is a little bit smarter or sent packing, a championship trophy comes to Red Bull Arena, and who knows, maybe some sports editors around the city decide to make professional soccer in New York more of a priority.
In the meantime, while M.L.S. plots its new Queens stadium and team that many believe will make the Red Bulls obsolete, I'll arrive early, stay late, and continue to enjoy, along with roughly 18,000 others, that little soccer secret in the center of the media universe, dreaming of an Henry wonder goal and a long-elusive championship. The run of play is now against the Red Bulls, but maybe that's just what this franchise needs.
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Howard Megdal is writer-at-large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."