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.
It was a match about more than the Red Bulls being the only MLS team to beat their Premier League competition in a friendly this weekend. It was a celebration of Thierry Henry, who was substituted off in the 54th minute to an ovation from the fans. It was about confidence, joy in good play, about seeing a player who is a legend, and discovering one who is on the rise: Ambroise Oyongo. As Mike Petke said, “Oyongo is a player within the next two years that big things can happen for him, globally. He’s a phenomenal young talent that seems to be improving on a weekend basis, so it was good to see him, took an experiment, put him on the left midfield, and he did very well with it.”
The New York Red Bulls face Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, and it will be the lessons that they take from this game that he sees as important. Can they keep this level of play alive and get the win when it matters in the league? Can they move ahead in the season with the confidence that they had against Arsenal?
Petke puts the win in perspective: “There was some very good play for us, especially in the first half on our counter. This is one of the best passing teams in the world and we were patient and sat back and looked to counter and exploit and we did some good things. It was good to see some things that we need to improve on that we did well today. For me, it’s a positive for the players, now it’s onto Salt Lake City Wednesday.”
Everything Petke says, everything he asks about what this game will mean, is driving toward the future. Oyongo, the lessons learned in the game, everything driving toward Wednesday and from there to the rest of the season.
But the questions don’t end there. Importantly, are there lessons here that the MLS can learn from to improve attendance and improve the game day experience? Seeing Arsenal fans walking down the streets of Harrison New Jersey, crowding the sidewalks, walking in and out of shops and bars, you see how a game can make even a small town like this a destination. What needs to be done to keep this feeling alive? The growth of attention to soccer in the United States means little if the soccer that is played the United States is not growing as well.