In 2009, despite their best efforts at dysfunction, the Knicks were not the worst sports team in New York. Nor were the brittle Giants or the injury-plagued Mets. Not even the Islanders, dead last in the NHL, were as bad as the New York Red Bulls, Major League Soccer’s punching bag of 2009. Last season, they went 5-19-6, basically winning only 17 percent of their contests.
The name may be unfamiliar, but the team has been around since the league’s formation in 1995. Originally burdened with the awkward title of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, they were rebranded by the energy drink company in 2006, a humiliating loss of identity which has actually proved a boon. For Red Bull brought money and Red Bull has given them a stadium. On Saturday night, when they played the first competitive game in their new 25,000-seat home, it looked like the worst team in an overlooked league may finally have a future.
Like most MLS clubs, they began life playing on a football field—in this case, the cavernous Giants Stadium—with as many as 60,000 empty seats there to remind the fans that America doesn’t care about soccer.
“Giants Stadium? You could hear people’s conversations in the stands,” said defender Jeremy Hall after Saturday’s game.
It looked worse on TV, turning off viewers used to the majesty of European soccer palaces. There, the supporters lit flares, played drums and sang. Here, it seemed, the team’s families didn’t even bother to show.
“There was nobody there,” said Wayne Flagg, a die-hard fan, or “ultra,” on Saturday. “It just sucked the life out of everything.”
And so the “soccer-specific stadium,” with the right-size field and a modest number of seats, is meant to save the MLS. Nine of the 16 teams now play in one, and with its $200 million price tag, New York’s is by far the most expensive. Named, of course, Red Bull Arena, it sits near Newark in the middle of a construction site in Harrison, N.J., the future “Riverbend” commercial district. Harrison and Hudson County pitched in $100 million for the stadium’s construction and maintenance, including land and parking, in the hopes that it may soon anchor the commercial district.
For now the area is as barren as a moonscape, and the stadium looks like a big silver space bubble. Inside is an alternate reality—one where soccer doesn’t just matter, but where, for 90 minutes every other week, nothing else does. “It’s a dream come true,” said Eric Dalmedo, who spent the match in the supporters’ end, on his feet chanting at the top of his lungs. Red Bull has grouped the ultras together at one end, where on Saturday, despite the 39-degree chill, they combined to make more noise than one will hear at any Yankee or Giants game.
Nuno Rodrigues, head of the Jersey-based Garden State Supporters club, leads his crew’s chants with a megaphone, and called what they do “a totally different style of support.” Talking on the phone Monday afternoon, his voice was still hoarse from Saturday.
For 90 minutes they roared, banged drums, blew horns and—when the Red Bulls scored—lit flares. Smoke billowed out from behind the home team’s goal, and it looked and sounded like a scene from a European Cup final, albeit at one-fourth the scale. “When you play anywhere in the world, especially in Europe, and you see the stadium full, it gives you an edge,” said Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Ángel. He should know. He played for six seasons in England—a quality player at a middling club—before coming west.
Red Bulls fans are peculiar for their lack of partisanship. Most are supporters of European clubs, and follow the MLS because it’s close to home. They come less for the team than for the atmosphere, for the chance to love soccer loudly, without looking silly. “It’s not just the Red Bulls, it’s the sport,” said Marco Alvardo, a giddy man in a Red Bulls pith helmet.
Like most MLS matches, the play petered out 20 minutes before the final whistle. The crowd noise did not. It’s doubtful they will be able to fill the stadium every week, but Mr. Rodrigues and the other ultras will be there regardless, and in the enclosed space they will be able to make 15,000 sound like 50,000.
“The stadium should sell itself,” declared Hans Backe, the new head coach, who, along with the arena, is supposed to solve all the team’s problems. He is wrong. If, come June, they find themselves again at the foot of the standings, things may look like same old Red Bulls, and tickets will be harder to sell.
But this weekend, the one goal was enough to beat the Chicago Fire 1-0. For now they are winners, and you don’t have to feel sorry for the Red Bulls any more.