On Saturday evening, the New York Red Bulls faced Premier League side Arsenal at Red Bull Arena in front of a sold-out crowd. Or at least it was sold-out on paper. The empty seats that dotted the arena were from season ticket holders who had the game as part of their package, but decided to stay home rather than face the grueling traffic and crowds that resulted in the game kicking off later than scheduled.
Also not expected was the downpour that happened as the Arsenal team took to the pitch and caught the thousands of fans still outside the arena in sheets of rain. Drenched, their Arsenal jerseys sopping wet, they stood in long lines for bathrooms and beer. It was a crowd that had traveled not just from across the United States to watch the game, but from around the world. Arsenal fans were there to watch their team take on Arsenal hero and former player Thierry Henry in an international friendly. The banner that was lowered over the Red Bull Supporters stand said it best: “Gunner. Red Bull. Legend.”
The New York Red Bulls, who have been struggling this season in MLS, pressed early and kept up the pressure on an Arsenal side that seemed off kilter, saving the one bonafide striker that travlled with the team for the opening of the second half. But to say that it was a match that was decided by what Arsenal was lacking would be wrong. Instead it was a game made by what the Red Bulls found in themselves that was amazing. As New York Red Bulls Head Coach Mike Petke said in his post-game press conference, “It honestly amazes me how we could come out with this mentality and stick to a gameplan even at times when it’s not pretty at certain times, but as long as we’re organized and behind the ball, whereas a couple of games this year at home it’s like we need to play an Arsenal or a Barcelona and guys are like, oh we’re playing a big team now and really get up for it and put the ball in, that’s the biggest challenge.”
The team did rise to the challenge, scoring the only goal in the game at the 34th minute, when Thierry Henry’s corner found defender Ibrahim Sekagya, who sent it to Bradley Wright-Phillips to tap it in. The Arsenal crowd seemed shocked as the Red Bulls supporters rose and applauded. Just as the fans had no immediate response to what they had seen, their team had no response for the remaining hour, and the Red Bulls celebrated winning the inaugural New York Cup at the game’s end. What was amazing about the game was the volume, not just of fans who had come out, but of the singing and chanting, the sheer support of players and club that the MLS only sees in their Pacific Northwest markets.