The evolution of the MLS is a popular topic amongst football fans on both sides of the pond. Soccer Sagacity took a trip to the Red Bull Arena to see how Project Soccerball is coming along.
If there’s one thing the Americans do well, it’s branding
Getting to the Red Bull Arena is relatively painless; transport links are good and the stop at Harrison is right outside the ground. Disappointingly, the stroll from the PATH station to the Arena featured only barren land which reminded me of Fallout 3. It feels like the club could do so much with the one block walk to the ground; the only entertainment I experienced in this time was being approached by several overly friendly ticket touts offering me “genuine” tickets for $10 each.
The Red Bull Arena is a brilliant stadium – modern, organised, spacious and well maintained. Although I am used to watching football at The Emirates, Villa Park and Wembley, I was highly impressed by the quality of the pitch despite the heavy rain in NJ that week.
The outside of the Red Bull Arena as seen earlier that day and at sunset.
As a massive fan of the all-conquering energy drink, I particularly enjoyed the branding on every piece of merchandise. After a brief barter with the ticket sales folk (the illustrious British charm failed to convince the saleswoman to give me a free upgrade) we bought the $20 seats and headed for the entrance. Searches were performed ‘randomly’ on our bags, or more specifically on my beard toting Greek friend. Bizarrely, he was also selected randomly at airports, train stations and a McDonalds.
The regular soda and pre game snacks
Inside the stadium, the below capacity attendance meant I was able to purchase a 300 gallon ‘regular’ soda and 6kg fries with relative ease. [I have seen RBNY fans complaining online about queues at the concessions kiosks, but clearly these gentlemen have never battled the half time pie run at Villa Park on a cold November night]. Amused that Red Bull was cheaper than water, I also helped myself to a couple of cans of Taurine-laden delight.
The Americans seem to have a very lax attitude to seating – we discovered that you can pretty much sit where you want (as about 40% of the seats are empty anyway). We initially took our seats in the corner of the stadium, but it sounded quieter than a Friday morning at the Emirates. Then we spotted the “Ultras” of the Red Bulls – The Viking Army of Section 101. We headed for this section and took up some seats right behind the goal, in the middle of the flag wielding, Viking helmet wearing die-hard fans.
The Red Bull Arena would be a match for most stadia in Europe technically speaking, if not in terms of capacity
After passing a giant flag overhead and letting off some kind of smoke grenade, the chanting started. Although a little regimented and forced, the atmosphere was bubbling nicely. As to be expected at a club which is still relatively young, and in a league where fan rivalry is diluted by the lack of away fans travelling to games, the noise levels are substantially lower than at the major world leagues. However, this select group of regulars gave it their all and it was great fun. In fact, The Metro version of “We Love You, We Love You” is still my favourite despite catching on globally.
The Viking Army prepare the giant flag
Unfortunately, a few idiot fans insisted on voicing their opinions despite lacking any knowledge of soccer whatsoever. One rather large gent stood on the balcony of the first tier, beer in hand, and heckled Thierry Henry for the duration of the game. Confronted with the Frenchman’s lethargic playing style, he repeated yelled “HENRY! MOVE! RUN! YOU CAN DO IT!” followed by an ironic “LOOK, HE’S MOVING!” when Thierry broke into a canter.
Two things here were infinitely infuriating; firstly, the ignorance of calling him (phonetically) “hen-ree”. He’s French; it’s pronounced “on-ree”, not “Henry” like the English king of many wives. It’s not a hard name, just give it a go. Secondly, as someone who grew up in England marvelling at Arsenal’s greatest ever goal scorer in the prime of his career, I am well placed to say that his apparently ‘lazy’ style is just that – his style. He will not change. The fact that he can stand, hands on hips and apparently disinterested, only to suddenly spring into life and score in the blink of an eye, is a mark of his brilliance. Now 34, this trait is even more useful as he conserves his energy for the important runs. If you want a striker that runs about a lot and uses all his energy to track opponents rather than score goals, you should have signed Dirk Kuyt. Plus, the technically abysmal Luke Rodgers had already filled this ‘try-hard’ role. Anyway, enough of the moaning – most of the fans were terrific.
The home fans nervously await a corner kick
The game itself was entertaining, with the Red Bulls putting on an attacking display. The biggest difference between MLS and English football I have observed (from watching both on TV and live) is decision making; the number of times players got into good positions, only to attempt a dribble or pick the wrong option when a simple pass was on, was baffling. Defensively, too, players were disorganised and rash in the tackle. Many of the defenders struggled to adhere to a basic back four and let their markers drift in behind, who were in turn foiled by their own incompetence in front of goal. Luckily for us, the Red Bulls (now my adopted MLS team, in true ‘foreign fan’ style) dominated and ran out 2-0 winner over the Portland Timbers.
Luke Rodgers makes himself useful for once and slots home the penalty.
After the game, we headed for the players’ car park and found a barrier, guarded by one Red Bull branded security guy who looked like Eddie Murphy, and 2 French guys who were waiting for their hero. Tim Ream stopped by for a miserable photo and some guy who looks a bit like David James did the same. A couple of hours passed and we had been joined by a queue-jumping Mexican family. Eventually, Henry emerged in his Mercedes G Wagon and we managed to stop him at the gate. We stole a march on the Mexicans and grabbed a photo with the man himself – SUCCESS!
Two hours waiting to meet Thierry Henry, and I wasn’t even ready to smile. Brilliant.
Worth a two hour wait? Definitely. The bearded Greek (and Emirates season ticket holder) asked him if he will ever return to Arsenal. “Maybe one day” was the response, and we laughed it off. A few months later, he was scoring in the Premier League and FA Cup once again.
We headed off after a great introduction to the MLS. With coverage in the UK limited to late-night repeats on ESPN UK (subscription only), it is hard to catch the MLS games on a regular basis. However, with a bit more marketing and a few more quality players joining the league, the Soccerball project should go from strength to strength. The American-style conference/playoff system will never sit comfortably with European fans, and this is something the league should look at altering to fall in line with the rest of the World’s league systems.
Nonetheless, it was an experience truly worthy of that favourite American adjective; ‘awesome’.
MLS fans, Red Bull/Metro supporters, Americans – how do you think the MLS compares to other leagues that you watch? Would you accept a ‘traditional’ football league system of 10-20 teams in round robin format? Is it fair to compare the MLS to other major World leagues?
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