For all the international games played in New York this summer, it was nice to have one that actually counted toward something larger. All those World Cup preparation games, those friendlies that were meant to prepare teams for Brazil, or the pre-season competitions that ended in a trophy ceremony, all those victories and cups held aloft were rather empty in a way. It was great to see some of the world’s top teams, to see the arena packed for Red Bulls against Arsenal or Bayern Munich versus Chivas. Yet after each game the teams left with lessons learned, an injury or two, and little else.
Last night the New York Red Bulls faced CD FAS in a game that matters. With the Red Bulls practically out of the race to repeat their Supporters Shield win and dancing on the edge of post-season qualification, this competition could be their chance at a prestigious feather in their cap.
To have guessed at the importance of this game would have been impossible looking at the crowd. During the team warm-ups it was possible to actually count the fans in the upper bowl of the arena (126). Whole sections were empty. The lower bowl was more crowded, ranging from 25 to 50 in each section, many wearing the shirts of CD FAS or carrying the flag of El Salvador.
The CONCACAF Champions League is set up like the European competition, teams facing one another twice, with goal accumulation rather than three points for a win and two for a draw, something that it seems like many fans were familiar with but didn’t realize applied to the CONCACAF series. It is something that coach Mike Petke lamented at the press conference when he said that the team could have had, actually should have had, more goals. But he was happy with a two goal, clean sheet win when it came down to it.
Petke is a coach that talks like a fan, or at least the points he makes sound like the ones made from the stands. Last night he brought on new striker Saer Sene as a starter, choosing to rest star Bradley Wright-Phillips, although he was named as a possible substitute, and keep Thierry Henry off the roster. It was a decision that paid off early with a goal, but became more doubtful as the game progressed. Sene comes to the Red Bulls from New England Revolution and played a few minutes to get his feet wet on Saturday against Montreal, but last night he and Tim Cahill led the team from the front in a mixed performance. Sene seemed to have a hard time keeping on his feet during play, just off from a pass and whipping his tall body around to catch up, falling instead.
It is understandable that the star strikers would be rested as coach Petke prioritizes their MLS League play. However, the fact that it was lamented by the CD FAS assistant coach in the post-match press conference when he spoke of not only his, but the team’s desire, not just as players but as fans of the game, to see someone like Thierry Henry on the pitch.
Defensively, the Red Bulls put out a few players who are fighting for a spot on the team. Regular starter Roy Miller put in a strong performance, never a doubt, and Damien Perrinelle seemed solid for a new starter on the team, but other performances were lacking. As coach Petke said afterward, choosing his comments very carefully, they cleaned up their mistakes much better than they have been doing. Armando continues to be lackluster, his actual role versus his imagined role on the team is causing himself conflict and hindering the play.
What was most disappointing about last night’s game however, was not the defensive play or the goals that should have been. It had nothing to do actually with the play on the field which was, but for those faults, very good. It had to do with the fans. The count I made at the beginning of the game did increase, but just a little more than 11,000 showed up for the match. The game was included in the season ticket holders plan and not at an additional cost, but even that fact couldn’t even lure people out of their lives on a Tuesday night to come out to the arena. While everyone continues to say that soccer is growing in the United States, and perhaps in other places it is, from where I watch it, I cannot see it.
The fans certainly wear shirts in support of the Red Bulls, and the USMNT, and there was a solid representation of CD FAS jerseys, but most came out showing their support of Real Madrid or Barcelona, Tottenham or Liverpool. It is not a bad thing, but it is that greener grass sight of the game overseas. The product here is getting stronger, but is till undervalued.
This is an important competition. It deserves to be treated as such.