Last night, I headed to Red Bull Arena for a Round of 16 U.S. Open Cup match and local derby between New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos. A year earlier, Cosmos had thrashed Red Bulls 3-0 in the Open Cup, opening some eyebrows in the soccer community, but ultimately dismissed as the Red Bulls benched most of their first team. To Cosmos, this was their joint-biggest match of the season, alongside the previous round’s victory of NYCFC on penalties. They had signed two former Spain Internationals in Raúl and Marco Senna, sold some shirts with Pelé and Beckenbauer on the back to trade on the history of their previous incarnation and done some goodwill diplomatic relations by playing a friendly in Havana against the Cuban National team. But as a second division team in a soccer pyramid that does not have merit based promotion or relegation, the U.S. Open Cup provides their only opportunity to prove their worth against MLS teams, as well as their only opportunity to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and gain more exposure.
As a result, a decent number of Cosmos fans came out both in their away section (about 300) as well as scattered around the rest of the stadium. For an away team in North American sports, the turnout was impressive. However, for a similar FA or League Cup game in England for a second division team playing an hour’s drive away from home against a supposed rival, anything less than 1,000 would be considered pitiful, exacerbated by the fact that Cosmos draw from such a large geographic area. The rest of the stadium, save the Red Bull supporters group behind the goal opposite the travelling Cosmos fans, was empty. Huge swaths of the upper deck were vacant and the aesthetics for what was to me a very classic and mouthwatering cup-tie were very disappointing. When Watford were drawn away to Chelsea in this season’s third round of the FA Cup, 6,000 Hornets made the trip across West London to Stamford Bridge and many more were left complaining about the club’s ticket distribution policy and their inability to get tickets. The home end of the stadium also sold out. Simultaneously across London, Arsenal took on Hull City at The Emirates in front of 60,000. While I am not expecting anything close to the levels of support that the English enjoy, it provides a pretty stark comparison to what I witnessed at Red Bull Arena last night.