Saturday, May 9, 2009

New York

With one final Major League Soccer team to visit, there are worse places to end this trip than New York City.

But is there are a worse team name than ‘Red Bull New York’……?

The latest incarnation of New York’s soccer team took their name from their Austrian energy drink sponsors/owners, but were previously known as the ‘Metrostars’.

The Red Bulls play in New Jersey, at the Giants stadium (home of American football team the New York Giants), though work is in progress on their own, soccer-specific ‘Red Bull Arena’ in Harrison, NJ.

Despite several hold-ups, the club recently held a ‘topping off’ ceremony to celebrate placing the final piece of over 7,100 tons of steel at the stadium, and it’s hoped the Arena will be ready for the start of next season.

Many of the ‘home’ fans at the Giants stadium still sing the Metrostars songs, refusing to acknowledge the new name and still hoping that, in time, they will get their Metrostars back.

New York’s had a long love affair with soccer, and was the home of the now legendary Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s. That glamorous era saw the likes of Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele wear the famous Cosmos jersey (which itself was fairly glamorous, designed by Ralph Lauren from 1979) ply their trade at the Giants stadium.

The stadium also hosted seven World Cup 1994 games, including Ireland’s famous 1-0 win over Italy courtesy of Ray Houghton’s magnificent looping shot over Gianluca Pagliuca.

With over 75,000 fans packed in to see Houghton’s goal, the atmosphere must have been superb. But given the Red Bulls’ average attendance this season of just under 10,000, it is always going to be difficult for them to create an atmosphere anywhere close to that.

Their game against Real Salt Lake was no exception, aside from the area just above the tunnel where Section 101’s ‘Empire Supporters Club’ make almost enough noise for everyone.

I joined some of their members for the pre-match tailgate, and enjoyed some of the cuisine on offer from their chef Leon. Grilled sausage, caramelised onions and kraut with some excellent German potato salad; not exactly your typical soccer grub – but very good!

It wasn’t the biggest turn-out the ESC had ever seen, but then an early season game against Salt Lake may not hold the lure of, say, a derby against DC United – an event the ESC members told me made for a pretty special atmosphere.

“Sometimes we get around 50 people here, others I have cooked for almost 600”, Leon told me over the make-shift grill at the back of his car. “That’s how many I catered for at the USA-Argentina game last year, and it ranges from pulled-pork BBQ to a Greek gyro to perhaps a Cuban sandwich Latino tailgate.”

With food and drink flowing, there was a pretty eclectic mix of supporters – both within the ESC, as well as in the other supporters groups.

I met Argentine, Brazilian, Mexican, American…….even an Egyptian, who claimed he could have been playing soccer at MLS level, but for an injury at college. He raised suspicion, however, by refusing to show the evidence – a scar on his ankle. “You would be too disgusted”, he said…..

After the tailgate, the supporters made their way in to Giants stadium to see the Red Bulls produce a decent display, beating Real Salt Lake 2-0. And former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel, the Red Bulls designated player and captain, got his name on the score-sheet.

With players like Angel, and fellow striker Macoumba Kandji, the Red Bulls may have the opportunity to challenge for honours this season. And if the ESC can continue to spread their enthusiastic support at the Red Bull Arena, with its 25,000 capacity, there’s every chance that New York’s MLS experience could rival any other.

But surely there’s something they can do about that name…..