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Benfica vs. New York Red Bulls: Adventures on the road with the International Champions Cup

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Harrison, New Jersey played host to yet another International Champions Cup match last night, as New York Red Bulls took on SL Benfica at Red Bull Arena.  I’d seen Red Bulls defeat Chelsea 4-2 in the most recent match there, and watched Benfica lose to ACF Fiorentina on penalty kicks in East Hartford Friday night.  East Hartford’s Rentschler Field was packed to capacity with Benfica fans of all ages, but I was completely unprepared for the support displayed Sunday.

Immediately upon entering Newark Ironbound, a section of the city partitioned from the Greater Newark area by train rails, I was taken aback by the amount of Portuguese establishments there were.  Quite conveniently, the Ironbound district is the closest neighborhood to Harrison, and it’s fitting that there be a thriving soccer culture.  In the mid-20th century, many Portuguese immigrants settled in Newark Ironbound looking for work in the then-budding industrial city that was Newark.

These days, many businesses are owned and operated by descendants of Portuguese immigrants who settled in the area.  On more than one street, terra-cotta style roofs are the norm.  Portuguese flags hang in almost every bar window and the names of the establishments are typically Iberian.  Walking the streets, one encounters several family-owned groceries, bakeries and restaurants, all providing their own unique and authentic taste of Portugal.

As usual, arriving at Red Bull Arena was quick and easy, as three separate streets filter into the stadium complex.  After greeting the parking staff who recognized me from the previous two matches, I parked and made my way toward the stadium.  As familiar as the route to the Arena had become, I was surprised to notice how many more tailgate tents were set up.  Contrary to the fans who had shown up in great number to the Chelsea vs Red Bulls and Fiorentina vs Paris Saint-Germain matches, these fans were local.  I decided to walk through the tailgate area in the hopes of getting a brief interview or, at least, a few score predictions.

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The first tailgate I passed was packed with fans young and old, grilling, drinking and singing.  With the Portuguese flag proudly on display, it wasn’t hard to imagine who these fans had come to support.  The next group of fans I passed invited me to stop in and join them, so I did.  As one put a fresh Portuguese roll overflowing with meat, peppers and onions in my hand, another explained their family’s history of supporting Benfica.  It soon became apparent that I had encountered die-hard fans. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill supporters.  A love of club had clearly been passed down to the youngest generation, who played short-sided matches bedecked in jerseys bearing their favorite players’ names.

After eating a healthy amount of Portuguese food and pastry, I decided it was probably time to head toward the stadium entrance.  On the way, I passed a couple, each wearing a United States and Portuguese flag respectively, and asked for their predictions.  As had been the consensus at the previous tailgate, they informed me that Benfica would win the day quite comfortably.  Having heard similar predictions ahead of Chelsea vs Red Bulls, which the latter won 4-2, I wasn’t surprised.

Arriving at my seat in the box, I was pleased to find that I’d been placed behind the Benfica benches and would have every opportunity to hear Rui Vitória’s animated complaints.  In the match against Fiorentina in Hartford, he gesticulated wildly more than once and I was eager to see whether that was simply a response to the amount of fouls committed or if that was just his way.  It was the latter.  Not five minutes into the match, Vitória had already begun waving his arms as if he was working for air-traffic control.

Vitória had only become the manager of Benfica on June 15th, and thus, had only been in charge of the club for a short while.  Days before their loss to Fiorentina, the Benfica manager said that his team were still evolving, and that these preseason matches are instrumental in his picking a starting eleven and knowing how best to set up his side.  Following a 2-1 loss to Red Bulls, he again reiterated that the team is still being tweaked in order to find his best players and formation, and that grand conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from the loss.

Jesse Marsch, Red Bulls manager, was far more upbeat in his press conference, citing the progress of his youth players in the two victories against European opposition.  Said Marsch, “We’re very pleased with our young guys, who have stepped up and done the job Tuesday (against Chelsea) and tonight.  These sort of matches can be crucial in their development.”  On the back of finishing the International Champions Cup (ICC) undefeated, spirits among the youth players in the Red Bulls camp are surely high.

I asked Marsch about the possible signing of Shaun Wright-Phillips, who would join brother Bradley at Red Bulls, and his response was all but an affirmation.  “We are planning an announcement for tomorrow, and I doubt it will be to say he’s not coming (to the team).”  With a new addition such as Wright-Phillips, one that wouldn’t occupy a Designated Player spot, Red Bulls are looking to improve their squad for the remainder of the season.

Mike Grella, who scored the winning goal with a rather sumptuous chip in the second half, is one player whose spot may be threatened by the former Chelsea and Manchester City player.  Lloyd Sam, who did not feature in yesterday’s match, may also be worrying about his position in the team, but Marsch is undoubtedly happy to have a competition for starting spots.

Despite the loss, the Benfica fans were loud for the full 90 minutes, cheering on their favorite stars and enjoying the spectacle.  With attendance at a healthy 18,096, Red Bull Arena once again proved to be an ideal venue for such a competition.  When the final whistle sounded, many fans gave a standing ovation, while those closest to the field jockeyed for position should they be lucky enough to get an autograph or a match jersey.

The drive home was easy, as it always is for those who live close by in New Jersey or New York City, as Red Bull Arena is ideally positioned for post-match transiting.  Gathering my thoughts from the match, I kept thinking of Jesse Marsch’s comments about his youngsters during this brief tournament.  He marveled at their fearlessness and their belief in their ability.  If he, as their coach, was that impressed with their performance in so difficult a test, there is surely a bright future for the team and the league.  

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