What the New York soccer derby was like for an American who spent time in England

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After a year of living in London and attending quite a few matches, I came home to my native New York just in time for the biggest fixture on the New York soccer calendar, the Hudson River Derby between New York City Football Club (NYCFC) and New York Red Bulls.

I attended six London derbies this year of varying intensity and hatred between the two sets of supporters. I attended three at White Hart Lane (against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and West Ham), two away derbies with Spurs (Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Queen’s Park Rangers at Loftus Road), and one as a “neutral” (a Good Friday Southeast London Derby in the Championship between Millwall and Charlton at The Den).

I was curious to see what the atmosphere of a MLS derby was like and how it compared to London derbies.

Before this, I had never really given MLS much of a chance as I often needed a break from soccer after the Premier League season ended and the subsequent major international tournaments. Some readers of this website might label me a “Eurosnob” but this year I am making a conscious effort to try and follow MLS and its growing tradition. Unfortunately, as a Tottenham supporter who was raised by his father to root for Boston sports teams, specifically the Boston Red Sox, it is pretty hard for me to get behind either of the New York teams (please feel free to persuade me one way or the other in the comments). So, I decided to take this in as a neutral but root for NYCFC (as much as it pained me to root for a team owned by the Yankees) as they were the home team.

Entering the stadium was quite different from what I was accustomed to in England as all fans were forced to go through a metal detector to gain entry. I never was subjected to a metal detector on any of my five away days with Tottenham, although I was subjected to bomb-sniffing dogs at Stamford Bridge and two body searches in Florence. I also never had to go through any checks to enter any home ends so this caught me a little off guard.

Upon entering Yankee Stadium, the cramped concourses, disgusting toilets, miniscule leg room and vomitus food at London grounds like Craven Cottage, Loftus Road and White Hart Lane were gone to be replaced by a wide variety of delicious food, ample leg room and a cavernous Yankee Stadium. In terms of comfort, Yankee Stadium is way superior to any stadium in London except maybe Wembley and Emirates Stadium. Unfortunately, Yankee Stadium was designed for baseball and not soccer and that detracted from the overall experience and atmosphere of the match.

Both New York City F.C. and New York Red Bulls brought a sizable contingent of boisterous fans to the match. The NYCFC supporters section were placed behind a goal in the left field bleachers. I would say there were about 2,000 supporters in that section and they constituted what would normally be the singing section at many Premier League grounds. The traveling RBNY support was about 1,000-1,500 (in the official Red Bulls section) and they unfortunately were placed in the 300 level along the right field foul line. The two supporters sections were probably 150 yards apart from each other (with the Red Bulls supporter section at least 50 feet off the ground) so the two sets of supporters were more or less independent and not reactive to one another as is often the case in England. The rest of the stadium, which is where I was sitting (I was behind the left field foul pole in the Upper Deck), was roughly 75% NYCFC fans and 25% Red Bulls fans.

In the build up to the match, both teams conducted the traditional pre-match singsong that I had become accustomed to watching Spurs away from home. Unfortunately, I could not hear either sets of supporters very clearly because the PA system was blaring out pop songs at a very high decibel level, something I am more accustomed to seeing at other North American professional sporting events and not soccer matches. This was disappointing as the pre-match singsong is one of my favorite parts of a match as everyone is getting revved up. As the public address announcer read out the starting lineup for the visiting Red Bulls, the people in the supporters section for NYCFC yelled out “SUCKS!” after each player’s name. While this sounds like something that would be heard in Europe, it is not and I am more accustomed to hearing stuff like that at heated NCAA ice hockey games (although truth be told heated NCAA ice hockey games can create some really special atmospheres). This NCAA hockey type feeling was accentuated when during the national anthem the Red Bulls supporters screamed “RED!” during the line “rockets red glare.” Cornell University hockey fans have used the tradition of yelling “Red!” during the national anthem for decades.

As the players walked out onto the field, the NYCFC supporters displayed a few tifos. One of them read “Red Bull: Killing Soccer since ’04… Salzburg, Leipzig, Metrostars” which was a dig at the team being named after an energy drink. Another read “Now playing in New York City. Live! One night only” and the final one was a fake Playbill ad labeled “Jersey Boys” with pictures of Red Bulls players underneath it. These last two were clear digs at RBNY actually being from New Jersey, despite having New York in their name, which eerily reminded me of Tottenham fans singing “F*ck off back to Woolwich, North London is ours!” at Arsenal fans during North London derbies. New York City are trying to market themselves as the team for the people of the Five Boroughs, while the other two “New York” teams (Red Bulls and Cosmos) are representative of New Jersey and Long Island respectively. While this does seem quite petty, it does form the basis for animosity between the three New York clubs that is somewhat similar to the complex network and disputes between the 15 professional London clubs.

As the match kicked off, both sets of supporters were very loud and did everything they could to create a good atmosphere. Unfortunately, the acoustics at Yankee Stadium are not conducive to creating an intense soccer atmosphere that I had become accustomed to during big matches at White Hart Lane and other London grounds. I could barely make out the lyrics to the NYCFC songs and I could not make out any of the words to the Red Bulls songs unless they were chanting “Let’s Go Red Bulls!”  This was quite disappointing as the supporters did try their best to create an atmosphere, but the problem is that Yankee Stadium is too big and the fans are spaced too far apart from one another. A ground like QPR’s Loftus Road, which only seats 18,000 people, is much noisier than Yankee Stadium with 48,047 in attendance because the fans are right on top of the field and the noise is confined into a much smaller space. Maybe the noise levels were better on the lower levels but the fact that the traveling Red Bulls support was situated in the upper deck effectively meant that the two sets of singing supporters were acting as if they were in absence of their counterparts.

I should also note that American fans’ chanting is very different from English fans singing. Most of the chants I heard from NYCFC fans did not have a tune to them and were chanted at very similar cadences to the more traditional chants you hear at NFL, NBA or MLB games as opposed to the songs that have a tune attached and are much easier (at least to me) on the ear. However, it is good to see that Americans are trying to create their own fan culture that sort of combines English and South American fan cultures. While that culture is not quite there yet, it definitely has great potential to improve and transform into something fantastic.

Six minutes in, New York City took the lead through Tommy McNamara and the stadium erupted. Someone in the supporters section let off a smoke bomb, something I had not seen since Watford’s promotion party at Vicarage Road at the beginning of May. Some fans from that section threw ribbons out onto the field. The enthusiasm and the rabid support was an amazing sight to see.

The match eventually settled down. New York City continued on the front foot for much of the first half, but Red Bulls finally got into the half and dominated the last five minutes before halftime.

There was a very annoying, unknowledgeable fan sitting behind me who overreacted to each and every play as well as a drunken fan to the right of me who was shouting out hockey references such as “shoot it! This isn’t a Rangers Power Play!” which slightly ruined the experience for me as I have become very accustomed to watching matches with very knowledgeable (or silent) audiences. Midway through the half, a loud roar was heard around the stadium during the middle of a passage of play, which confused me until I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw Frank Lampard sitting next to Andrea Pirlo, confirming the rumors that NYCFC’s signing of Pirlo is imminent. This led to the crowd chanting “We Want Pirlo!”

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