Football may be viewed as a minority sport in the U.S., but in a city as multicultural and monolithic as New York, there are hundreds of thousands of soccer fans following the action from Europe and South America every week.
The problem for Major League Soccer is getting those fans through the gates at New York Red Bulls matches.
The Red Bulls struggle to attract more than 15,000 fans to their home games despite inhabiting a greater metropolitan area of some 19 million people. It is a mark they achieved only six times in 16 fixtures last season.
Arena location does not help. Giants Stadium, the current abode shared with the NFL’s Giants and Jets, was built across the Hudson River on the swampy wastelands of East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Though only seven miles from Midtown Manhattan, the venue poses transportation challenges for many of the city’s vehicle-less residents…and tourists.
Sacrifices are easily made to watch the NFL, but not MLS. Not yet.
Unperturbed, I made the journey a fortnight ago to see the Red Bulls clinch an unflattering 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake—their first victory of the season. I wondered how many others would join me.
I set off from my hotel at 5.15, travel instructions printed from the Red Bulls’ website in hand, allowing plenty of time for a 7.30 kick-off.
Steps One and Two were a breeze as I strolled the three blocks to Penn Station and acquired a special $10 round-trip ticket covering the train and bus rides to the stadium.
By contrast, residents of Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens firstly have to negotiate the city’s extensive transport network to arrive at Manhattan’s major rail hub. But there I was, ticket at the ready, scanning the departures board at 5.29, when major inconvenience reared its head.
Step Three involved taking a New Jersey-bound train to nearby Secaucus Junction. Plenty of trains cross under the river, but only one every hour was identified as stopping at Secaucus.
With 42 minutes to fill until the 6.11 to Dover, I wandered the station concourse looking for gathering throngs of exuberant soccer followers heading to the match. None appeared.
Instead, the platforms overflowed with New York Mets merchandise as fans returned home from an afternoon watching baseball at Citi Field.
I finally arrived at Secaucus station at 6.20 and embarked upon Stage Four—transferring to one of the buses heading for Giants Stadium. Within ten minutes, Stage Five was complete as I alighted in a vast but desolate parking lot.
Americans love to tailgate, but I could see no more than a dozen people enjoying a pre-game beer before entering the stadium confines.
Ticket prices are an appealing feature of MLS. I snapped up an excellent seat between the 18-yard and halfway lines—only ten rows from the front—for a mere $32 and settled down to see if Salt Lake could avenge their defeat in last season’s Western Conference Final.
Instead it took the hosts less than 100 seconds to go ahead. Nick Rimando could only parry a cross from Dane Richards and Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji was on hand to thump the loose ball high beyond the prostrate goalkeeper.
The goal arrived too soon for many in attendance, including the stadium announcer who credited the goal to Richards.
Even legendary English commentator John Motson would struggle to confuse this pair given that, at 6”4”, Kandji towers over his diminutive teammate by almost an entire foot.
As regular attendees will testify, there is a level of banter among football crowds which cannot be rivalled at any other sporting event.
Not only has this humour survived the gentrification of many stadia—albeit in a watered-down format—but it exists in whichever country you watch the game. The U.S. is no different.
One typically brash New Yorker behind me filled the role of sarcastic, infuriated fan admirably, berating his team to the extent that his larynx risked permanent damage.
His shouts increased in frequency and volume after half-time when left-midfielder Khano Smith switched to our side of the field.
Smith, signed from New England in the close season to replace departed Dutchman Dave van den Bergh, has a long way to go to win over the Red Bulls’ support.
His every contribution or lack thereof provoked taunts from Mr. Infuriated Fan, who questioned everything from Smith’s work ethic to his parentage.
The pessimistic support poured further scorn on their team as Salt Lake seemed primed for an equaliser, with one victim known as “Deadweight” serving as another prime target.
The inevitable equaliser looked to have arrived when Yura Movsisyan’s deflected effort looped over Red Bulls’ goalkeeper John Conway toward an empty net, but defender Kevin Goldthwaite raced back to clear acrobatically from his goal-line.
My question had been answered.
“Hey, it’s Deadweight!” roared one fan as ironic cheers and chuckles engulfed the disbelieving section.
A moment of brilliance from Kandji on 57 minutes set up Juan Pablo Angel to give New York a two-goal cushion. It was a deficit that Salt Lake failed to reduce despite the dismissal of Red Bulls’ defender Jeremy Hall on 66 minutes.
By 9.40, five minutes after the full-time whistle, I was back on the shuttle bus to Secaucus, arriving at 10.00 for the 10.20 train back to Penn Station.
The slight delay caused my nostrils to fill with the putrid smell of the surrounding swamps as celebratory Red Bulls fans were joined by young revellers seeking the excitement and bright lights of a Saturday night in the Big Apple.
Overall, my journey had been seamlessly convenient. Then I learned that the attendance had been abysmally low—only 8,508 for New York’s second home game of the season.
Queuing for trains and buses would be an altogether more unpleasant experience if joined by another 30,000 fans.
For now, following a “minority sport” does have its advantages.