WORDS: JASON CORLISS
As the MLS has grown, it has attracted better players, global coverage and, most importantly, its fan base has developed alongside it. Ultra groups and choreography are no longer restricted to European and South American stadia and, as this New York soccer fan explains, it’s been an emotional journey…
My name is Jason and I support Red Bull New York (nèe MetroStars).
It is both a great blessing and a curse to support this franchise, and I wear my melancholic half-smile proudly, no matter the fact that I often feel somewhat apologetic when I’m asked whom I support – whether “Red Bull” or “the Red Bulls”, I support New York, my local side.
This piece is more about my personal journey as a Metro/RBNY supporter than it is about the minutiae of the team’s 17-year history, but through the prism of both, combined, I think we get a decent picture of the evolution of an American soccer fan into an MLS supporter.
The blessing I mention above is that there is never a boring day as a RBNY supporter and, even though nothing that this organization does surprises me anymore, I’m still occasionally surprised. The curse, however, is quite literal. On 20 April, 1996, with the score 0-0, and with seconds left in the MetroStars’ first home match in franchise history (which I attended), Nicola Caricola scored an own goal that not only doomed the MetroStars that day, but cast the die that has ensured the franchise a bare cupboard to this present moment. The Curse of Caricola meant that New York, now the only original MLS team without a piece of domestic silverware, would theretofore remain a model of extravagant futility, until such time that the spell is broken. We’re still waiting.
But, for those semi-sunny masochists among us (and, lord knows, one must be in order to support this franchise), the eternal hope is that the long-awaited payoff of a Cup is just around the next corner…even though we’ve come to expect the inevitable trap door opening just as we get there. Sure, it may not be someone else’s definition of “fun,” but it’s what we’ve got.
Napoleon has been credited with the axiom “Geography is Destiny,” which will likely ring true to most soccer supporters around the globe. It is much more common for soccer fans abroad to be born into supporting the club of one’s hometown, than to just choose another team to support for any of a variety of reasons – style of play, ancestral ethnic connection, a singularly excellent player, availability of games on TV, peer pressure, kit aesthetics, and so on.
However, for American soccer fans of a certain age (I’m 38), who grew up during the waning years of the NASL and matured during the interregnum prior to the founding of MLS, when the US National Team was all there was, it’s the latter of those two wellsprings of fandom that is generally the rule, not the exception.
Perhaps because we Americans often tend to be iconoclastically contrary, including with regard to our fandom in other sports, where the professional leagues are historically entrenched and limited to a certain number of teams, it’s not unheard of for people to support teams from three different cities in Football, Baseball and Basketball, even if there has been a team in that person’s hometown since before his/her birth. I personally find it abhorrent, but that doesn’t make it any less common.
For me, as a young child growing up in Miami Beach, FL, I supported the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL, and after moving to New Jersey in the early 80′s, I just couldn’t bring myself to like the NY Cosmos (still can’t), both on philosophical grounds and, frankly, because everyone else liked them. Eventually, the NASL sputtered into oblivion and onto the pages of catalogues in the nostalgic throwback kits section.
I took up with Tottenham Hotspur because my neighbour had a tenuous connection to the team and because we had just begun getting weekly highlights of the “English League” on TV. As a soccer fan looking for soccer in a soccer-starved media environment, this made enough sense to me.
It took me years after the advent of MLS in 1996, with a team in my backyard, to warm to the new league and “my new team”. My reluctance wasn’t born of allegiance to another team, but, frankly, out of spite. I had played soccer at a reasonably high level through adolescence and into college, but immaturity and the lack of any sort of aspirational options beyond that, led me to give up on the idea of pursuing soccer any further. I was 21 when the league was born and, over the course of years prior, I had played with, against and/or had watched many of the college players drafted in the league’s first few seasons. I wasn’t so deluded to think that I should be out there instead of them, but to my misguided mind at the time, the gulf wasn’t that wide, the product on the field wasn’t that great, it was a pain in the ass to get to Giants stadium and its terrible artificial turf, the name of the team was silly and I remained aloof and bitter. Plus, I still had Spurs on TV. Sometimes. If I could find a bar that had the matches on.
Sure, looking past the fact that Tab Ramos, Tony Meola and Peter Vermes, three US national team stalwarts and recent World Cup team-mates, were in the initial squad alongside Italian star Roberto Donadoni and semi-local product Giovanni Savarese, was the height of spite but, in a real sense, my attentions were elsewhere anyway and it became easier to rationalise my lack of connection to the team I had been waiting for years to appear.
Work began to get in the way of soccer and ate up all my time for the next several years. However, like a cynical siren’s call, the MetroStars continued to beckon me out to Giants Stadium to see the newest in a long line of big-name players and coaches flounder around on the plastic pitch, whether it was Lothar Matthäus, Branco and Youri Djorkaeff or Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Bora Milutinović.
Of course, I went to more than a few matches each year, but I just didn’t/couldn’t feel connected. A few things did speak to me, however. One was the throng of singing, bouncing supporters in section 101, the Empire Supporters Club who, despite the lacklustre play on the pitch and the organisation’s many missteps, spent the full 90 minutes doing everything in their power to urge the boys on. Another was the tangible connection that the supporters here in the US are able to form with the players and organisation. Finally, there is something profoundly, perversely engaging about backing a (un)lovable loser. There is never a dull moment and the disappointments make the good times that much better. I still support Spurs and, although Spurs’ many near-misses and futile disappointments over the years had served as both a harbinger and primer, there is no comparison or doubt which team now occupies the vast majority of my soccer thoughts and dominates almost all of my free time – it’s my local one and, although I didn’t get it right away, I’m glad I eventually did.
In 2003, I moved from New York City to New Jersey, mere minutes from the stadium, and it became harder to reconcile the hypocrisy of being an American soccer fan, yet not supporting my local team. And there always seemed to be young, American talent coming through the team, who either went on to great heights in Europe and/or on the US national team (Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, and, later, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore), or moved onto other MLS teams and came back to stick the knife in each time they played the MetroStars (the list is too long and painful). So I made the effort to attend more matches, interface with supporters in online forums and encourage others to come to matches with me. Then Red Bull came along in 2006.
This was something different – maybe not in the landscape of American sport, where franchises’ cities and names get shuffled around, but certainly in my own personal experience. I’d finally developed a connection to my (awkwardly named) local team and now that identity was being replaced by a (equally awkwardly named and blatantly corporate) new one. The franchise and supporters had been aching for a new stadium for years and Red Bull stepped up to not only purchase the team but also build a proper, soccer-specific stadium of its own.
So, back to reconciling hypocrisies. A local team owned by a corporation in Europe? Ummm, ok, as long as they build a stadium, right? Many purists and original supporters felt differently (and still do), and who could blame them? But, for me, a supporter of the New York franchise – thus far a laughing stock among the league’s fans for not only its on-field futility, but its revolving door front office and managerial seat? I saw, and still see, no choice but to be a clear-eyed pragmatist about it. I want the best team, with the best facilities that can be had. Sure, I’d support the team either way, but better is, well, better, right? Unless, and until, it’s not.
These were heady days, which saw the hiring of former USA coach Bruce Arena and the signing of Colombian international, Juan Pablo Angel. However, setbacks with the plans and construction, coupled with on-field ineptitude and front office shakeups, did little to convince anyone that the Red Bulls would be anything but the Same Old Metro.
It took me 10+ years from the team’s beginnings to understand what this meant and, in turn, finally codify my unyielding support. After sneaking into the playoffs at the end of the 2008 season, the Red Bulls made a remarkable run to the MLS Cup Final, ultimately losing 3-1 to Columbus. They immediately followed this in 2009 by finishing at the bottom of the table, going 0–17–3 away from home and bidding Giants Stadium goodbye.
Everyone knew that better times were around the corner…they had to be. What I came to understand, though, was that better doesn’t necessarily mean perfect, or even great, or even good, really. Better only needs to mean the promise of a different tomorrow in order to get one hooked, but it’s tellingly disappointing that this franchise’s enduring hallmark is an ingrained cycle of lather, rinse, repeat.
The gleaming, beautiful Red Bull Arena opened in 2010 and it is undeniably every inch the world-class facility we’d hoped for. Finally, the new(est) era had arrived. Regardless of my previous hesitation, or maybe because of it, I decided to throw myself into supporting the team in as hands-on a fashion as I could. The things that initially drew me to the MetroStars – the vibrant supporters section and the substantial relationship to the team – now became even more important to me. If not me, who…if not now, when?
Towards the end of the 2010 season, which saw the arrival of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, and which ended in typical Red Bulls fashion – a head-scratching playoff loss to San Jose – a handful of supporters started a new group called the Viking Army, initially as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Scandinavian and Nordic influx in the front office and on the pitch. But it grew into something bigger.
We all want to be a part of something…it’s literally human nature. But, the need to do, and experience, life in our own ways has an equally strong pull. Viking Army has grown exponentially since its founding. In addition to taking up residence in section 102, next to the Empire Supporters Club, and standing/singing in conjunction with them and the Garden State Ultras (collectively, the South Ward) for 90 minutes on game days, we spend considerable time working in the community to raise funds for underserved kids in Newark, NJ and the surrounding areas.
As one of the Board members, I help to run the club, lead the section from the Capo stand and organize our road trips and other endeavors. Of the 10 away days we’ve been on this year, the one that stands out most vividly is perhaps the least likely, but the most emblematic of what drew me to the team in the first place (other than geography).
Earlier this year, New York faced the third-tier side, Harrisburg (PA) City Islanders, in the fourth round of the US Open Cup, the oldest national cup competition in US soccer (dating back to 1914), and to say that New York’s draw through to the final was advantageous would be an understatement. This was clearly their best route to a cup title, perhaps ever. I wrote about this experience more extensively elsewhere, but the ignominy of the hundred of us who travelled out to the match being taunted by 12-year-olds storming the pitch after New York snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, conceding two goals in extra time, on a Tuesday night, on a backyard pitch with wooden bleachers, was overshadowed by what happened thereafter.
A number of us hopped the small fence and stood on the pitch, amid the chaos. As some of the New York players came to salute the travelling supporters, they were herded back to the makeshift locker rooms. In that moment, the connection was palpable. We walked straight up the sideline through the gate and toward the ramp to the changing room. As we approached, some, then all, of the players spilled out to meet us, clearly embarrassed and caught off-guard by our presence. Short of demanding their shirts, as the Genoa Ultras did to their own underachieving side, we wanted to have that visceral connection – to look them in the eyes and see that our own frustration was reflected back in their eyes. Each of them shook our hands, thanked us for coming out and apologized, repeatedly, for letting us down.
Arriving home at 2.45am, after the three-hour drive, I realized that it wasn’t just the connection with the players, the club or my fellow supporters that I’d always craved, but the sum of those parts. And that’s something the MLS can provide me, which top flight soccer elsewhere in the world can’t.
As I came to find on my own, the “quality of play” argument that keeps some soccer fans away from MLS is a just a red herring. It comes down to being honest with oneself. Either you are an American soccer supporter, or just a fan of a team overseas. Clearly, the quality of play in MLS correlates to the financial restraints instituted by the league and can’t compete with the best leagues/richest teams in the world. So? The talent gap has closed significantly in recent years, and in addition to legendary players just past their primes, like Henry, Beckham, etc, there’s an influx of younger, world-class players like Tim Cahill coming to play here as well.
Financial concerns will ultimately tell the tale and either close the gap for good, or continue to keep MLS steps behind leagues abroad. But, again, that’s not quite the point, is it? Supporting soccer in America means actually supporting the teams that play here. I support my local, cursed, dysfunctional, maligned team. But it’s our curse, and our team, and that’s the fun part.