This past weekend, Arsenal fans came in from all over North America and England to make New York City the center of Gunner fandom.
The much anticipated friendly against club legend Thierry Henry and his New York Red Bulls marked Arsenal’s first appearance in the United States since 1989. As such, this really was a weekend 25 years in the making.
Arsenal America and other local Arsenal supporters groups organized a large number of events throughout the weekend, from a Yankees game outing to fan socials to a 5 v. 5 soccer tournament, there were different types of events for different types of people to ensure that everyone could participate. According to Arsenal America board member Rick Breese, the lead up to this weekend was “hectic, with many hours and many nights just putting everything together.” It was worth it though. For fellow board member Mike Kavanagh, “just to have Arsenal come over to the States is a dream come true. After waiting for so many years, it’s a validation and recognition by the club that there are people in US that are passionate about Arsenal.”
Thursday evening was a special fan event for members of Arsenal America and other local Arsenal supporters groups at the Izod Center, which included an appearance by a couple of former Arsenal Ladies team members, first team players Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, and Gideon Zelalem, and the legend himself, Thierry Henry. According to Rick, about 2500 fans attended, making it the largest fan event Arsenal have put on outside of the United Kingdom. The fans were loud and energetic, and even broke into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” when Zelalem was introduced.
To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by the event. It was not as interactive as I had hoped and it felt like fans had been brought in to provide an audience backdrop for a talk show. While a few lucky fans were randomly selected for a chance to meet the players, take pictures, shoot hoops or play keepy-uppy, the rest of us were confined to our seats to watch and cheer from afar. Even for the Player Q&A, questions were preselected from social media submissions and I don’t recall them taking questions from fans in attendance. As this was a members-only event, I was hoping it would be a chance for more interaction between the players and fans and to give more fans an opportunity to at least meet and greet some of the players. Whether that would have been logistically feasible is another story, and I’m sure there were reasons it was run this way. It was still a good event, but I can’t help feeling it could been so much more. Overall, though, it still seemed that everyone had a great time and was thrilled with the opportunity to see some of their heroes in a more intimate setting.
On Friday, PUMA held an event at Grand Central Station that brought in thousands of fans throughout the day. A youth 3 v. 3 tournament was taking place all day, and the FA Cup was made available for the public to take pictures with it. Arsenal dino-mascot Gunnersaurus also made an appearance and was a hit. Later on, Arsenal players Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, and Tomas Rosicky came by to play a game with the lucky winners of the tournament. I had actually left for a bit and then got back to Grand Central just as the players were leaving. Except that they couldn’t leave for a while as dozens of screaming fans had come out to surround the car carrying them, hoping for a glimpse or their heroes and snapping away pictures. You’d have thought it was a rock star, or Derek Jeter, in the car. Nope, the excitement was for some soccer players.
Friday night, Gooners took over a two block stretch of 14th Street for a massive Arsenal Supporters Social as three different bars were each packed with hundreds of Arsenal supporters and had different events going on. I didn’t make it out to 14th street until 10:30 or 11 pm, and while I was too late for many of the organized festivities, there were still many fans in Arsenal shirts walking the streets and singing various songs and chants. I went into both O’Hanlon’s and The Blind Pig, and they were both still filled to the brim with fans drinking and socializing and discussing all things Arsenal.
Saturday was the crowning moment of the weekend when Arsenal took on their legendary striker Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls may have been the home team, but it felt more like a home game for the Gunners as Arsenal fans outnumbered Red Bulls fans about 10 to 1, if not more. It was a sight to see Gunners fans streaming from the train station and marching to the stadium. Inside, the atmosphere was electric as Arsenal fans, dressed in the team kits, were loud and singing all the Arsenal songs. I attended two Arsenal games a couple years ago and the atmosphere inside Red Bull Arena easily trumped what I remember from inside the Emirates.
The match itself was typical of a preseason outing. The team Arsenal brought to New York was a bit diluted due to their World Cup stars still being away on holiday, but it still included several of the first team stars. Fans didn’t seem to be too concerned about the team on the field or the slew of youngsters who took over in the second half. As Mike commented earlier, “just the fact that they’re here at all is exciting in itself.” Arsenal displayed some nice play, but showed quite a bit of rustiness in the final third. In fairness to the Red Bulls, they played a good game and always looked more likely to score. The fans roared when Henry pulled off a dazzling piece of skill to get past his man at one point. Most of the first-team regulars made way at halftime for the youngsters, and once Henry was substituted off to a rousing ovation from the entire stadium early in the second half, both the fans and the match petered out. As the final whistle blew, the fans all got up and applauded in appreciation, despite the Gunners losing 1-0. Sure it was disappointing for the Gunners to lose – and not even score for that matter, but everyone knew this was just preseason and the whole point was to give fans in America a chance to see their heroes play live. The atmosphere was fantastic and to be surrounded by fellow Gooners was an incredible experience.
The day after the match, Arsenal America held one final event for American Gooners – a 5 v. 5 tournament at Chelsea Piers. This was the event Rick was most looking forward to besides the match itself. When the winner was crowned, the weekend was over and it was time for everyone to head their separate ways back home. For the Gooners who were there in New York for the weekend, it was an unforgettable opportunity to see the Gunners live and connect with fellow fans from all over the country. As Mike pointed out, “the thing about having just the one match in New York [as opposed to games in different cities] was that it forced everyone to meet up in one place.” It was like one big Arsenal family coming together for a giant party. A big thank you to Arsenal America and the other local Arsenal supporters groups for all their hard work in making the past weekend happen!
If you were in New York for the weekend, what was your experience like?