It seems like an eternity since I saw Dartford lift the Blue Square Bet South Play Off final trophy back in May. In fact it is only 6 weeks ago, but that was my last game of football. Game number 104 of the 2011/12 season. Since then I have tried to amuse myself with cricket, Rugby (league and union), motor racing. Damn, we even went to Harry Potter World. But here at last was a game – the 105th and final game of the 2011/12 season. There has to be a start and end date for each season and to us it is the 1st July. So goodbye this season and hello next in just 14 days when we travel to Enfield Town to watch the mighty Rooks take on Fisher for the Supporters Direct Shield.
But back to the present. I am not saying I was desperate for a game but I had traveled 3,461 to North America for this one. My destination? The Garden State, home of Jersey Shore, the programme that spawned us The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore and all of those other shit shows that the only contribution they have made to the world is encouraging young girls to stick fake diamonds around their twat. Oh, sorry, I forgot. Twat is a very rude word here in America. I have been warned before not to say or especially write the word Twat. Apparently it can really cause offense. So I wont say Twat anymore. Ironically I can say Fanny, as that just means arse over here and, not as Keith from the Office once said, “your minge”.
Yes, you have guessed it (of course you did), we were heading for New Jersey, home of such stars as Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Jon Bon Jovi and Whitney Houston. All of these are of course now dead (well in JBJ’s case he is wheeled onto the stage every so often and plugged into the mains) but all contributed massively to the musical history of the USA.
Oh, we, being Luge Pravda and his enchanting wife Katie, who were acting as my weekend hosts before three days of work ensued in Wall Street. We had spent a glorious day on Sunday absorbing ourselves in local culture, doing what every American does. Three words to get anyone in the mood….Man versus Food.
We headed off to Gravesend, ironically the town back in England where I spent my teenage years, for some Roast Beef sandwiches, dipped in a beef broth. Oh yes my friend, double dipping. Brennan and Carr has been serving these beauties for decades. Adam Richman, the man with the most recognised stomach in the USA, had visited this restaurant on a number of occasions, as he is a “local”. Wandering the mean streets of Brooklyn built up our thirst for the next course.
We had originally planned a visit to the American Hungarian Museum, where North America’s biggest collection of lace tableclothes can be found as well as the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage but Katie was having none of that. “I want football boys!” she cried over her bun, floating in beef gravy. Who was we to disappoint? These American girls can get very feisty if they don’t have their own way. So with Engerland due to play Italy in just a few hours, we donned our traditional national dress and headed back across the East River.
We tried to find a bar that would be showing the England v Italy game in Little Italy. Despite its reputation as a multi-cultural hub, New York still hasn’t given us Brits our own little slice of the city. Little Italy, China Town, Korea ville. Where is Albert Square? That’s what we wanted for an afternoon of cheering on Roy’s Boys. But no. Obviously we are too much of a minority. So what could be better than watching a game in a small “family” bar around Lower Manhattan, chatting about Catenaccio with made men? Well it seemed that Luge valued his life more than me, so we headed for Becketts in the shadow of Wall Street instead, Luge wearing his “hat”, Katie with her face painted and me, well I obviously had a bowler hat on with a copy of the Times under my arm.
Two hours later, with the all too familiar feeling of pain in our hearts, we walked out of the darkness of the bar, bleary eyed with emotion and several pints of fizzy pop American beer sloshing around our stomachs and headed due west for the PATH train. For our day was just half-finished. Katie wanted football, and football was what we were going to give her. Half an hour later we alighted in Harrison, just across the water from Newark in New Jersey. This isn’t the prettiest part of the US; in fact it looks like Stockton-on-Tees on a bad day. However, right in the middle of the deserted factories, scrap yards and container depots is the relatively new Red Bull Arena glistening in the ridiculously hot sunshine. It may have been getting on for 6.30pm but the mercury had not fallen before 80 degrees all day.
The stadium, which to those who know their European grounds, looks identical to the Wörthersee Arena in Klagenfurt, Austria. A smart, purpose-built for foo..sorry, soccer and home, believe it or not, to the New York Red Bulls. It’s hard to not write a long monologue about Red Bull, and their plan to franchise football. Currently they own football clubs in Germany (Red Bull Leipzig), Austria (Red Bull Salzburg), Brazil (Red Bull Brasil) and Red Bull in Ghana. Whilst they have invested money into the game, their methodology of taking over a club, stripping it of its history (including badge, club colours and in some cases fans such as the original Austria Salzburg club) does leave a bad taste in the mouth. However, in the US where franchise football is all the rage, they have been welcomed by the local residents of Harrison, New Jersey.
This was going to be a decent game, judging by league positions. The visitors, DC United, came up the East Coast sitting on top of the league with 30 points from 16 games, but the Red Bulls had a game in hand in third place. They were the league’s leading scorers, with New York’s “Marque” player, Thierry Henry having scored nine so far. As the fans will tell you, “This is our year”. They have been saying that since their inception back in 1995 when they started life as the Empire Soccer Club before they became the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, ready to take a place in the new MLS.
Since then, despite a playing roster that has included Tim Howard, Branco, Youri Djourkaeff, Roberto Donadoni, Luke Rogers and Lothar Matthäus, they have basically won nothing. In fact they are the only original franchise team that hasn’t won the League or play offs, although in 2010 they did win the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic (eat your heart out Man City!). But this year was going to be different. Swedish coach Hans Backe, once assistant to Sven-Göran Eriksson at Manchester City, Mexico and Notts County, has assembled a multi-national squad featuring players from twelve different countries.
Football fever had grasped the Eastern Seaboard. Huge SOLD OUT signs welcomed us as we arrived – fortunately we had used the services of StubHub to secure our tickets. This is one of the best little secrets in the US. It is a ticket exchange but you hardly ever end up paying more than face value for tickets. Last November we picked up court-side tickets for the New Jersey Nets for $10 for instance, and for tonight’s game we paid $20 each for $27 tickets. Tickets are also emailed to you so none of this Ticketmaster faffing around of taking ID.
The big news was that Henry had been relegated to the bench (he was returning from a hamstring injury). Hardly a popular move considering the number of fans we saw with “Henry 14” shirts on. The atmosphere was building nicely inside the ground as kick off time approached. But of course, this being in the US a kick off time at 7pm actually means nothing. A countdown clock in the corner reached 00:00 at 7pm and still the players were in the pre-match warm up.
New York Red Bulls 3 DC United 2 – Red Bull Arena – Sunday 24th June 2012
With our Coors Lite in one hand (long story but only beer we could get without cash) and a hotdog in the other we took our seats, impatiently waiting for kick off. Why say it’s 7pm if it clearly isn’t 7pm. Finally things started to happen. A group of school children came out holding huge flags. There seemed to be no logical reason for the choice of flags (apparently we later found out that they represented the nations players in the MLS). They went something like this – USA (obvious), Brazil, Uruguay, Wales (!), England, Holland and so on, snaking around the end of the pitch and ending with what to be looked distinctly like the flag of the Island of Âland, the Finnish Autonomous province. The Red Bulls fans at our end were creating quite a noise. I was surprised at the atmosphere. A huge banner was unfurled – “We are the D C haters” along with some flares. This was all very “Un-American” until I saw that the smoke came from a chap wandering across the front of the stand and not from within the fans themselves. It was now 7:05pm.
DC United had brought a decent amount of fans themselves – all the myths about no fans, no atmosphere and no decent beer was not true (well, the first two for sure). The noise built to a crescendo when the referee lead the teams out and, to Danny Last’s delight 3,500 miles away, picked the ball up off a plinth at the end of the tunnel. 7:07pm. Of course we all stopped from the national anthem, perfectly observed as always, and then it was game time finally at 7:11pm. The Red Bulls fans built up to a climax, and then continuing the sexual metaphor, it was over in a matter of seconds. Twenty nine seconds on the clock and DC United had scored. Chris Pontius rose above the static Red Bulls defence to head home.
The annoyance with American sport is the constant crowd movement, up and down the aisles to go and get food. The average sitting time per fan (hardcore supporters aside) must have been less than 20 minutes. Granted there is a lot on offer, but please try to watch at least some of the game? Red Bulls started to come back into the game and it didn’t take them long to realise that DC United’s keeper, Hamid was crap. He simply could not hold onto a single ball and there isn’t any surprise that their final tally of shots was over 20. The equaliser came in the 20th minute when Barklage hammers the ball home after a corner isn’t cleared.
Red Bulls continue to dominate the possession, and it is no surprise when Barklage scores a second in injury time at the end of the half with a shot across Hamid which he tries to catch/punch, and misses. Half time – 2-1 Red Bulls. Now I’m expecting a great half time show. Perhaps something from the Boss himself, as Springsteen only lives around the corner, but instead we see a 13 a side kicks game (really?) that ends up with 24 players swarming around the ball whilst two keepers look on bored.
The second half sees the Red Bulls continue to dominate and ten minutes in Jan Gunnar Soli scored a third. Game over, and the Red Bulls could be going to the top of the table. But DC United finish the stronger side, perhaps because of the introduction of Henry who looks bored and completely uninterested every time the ball came anywhere near him. After Pontious scored his second to make the score 3-2 the Red Bulls tactic seemed to be to lump the ball upfield to Henry and see what he could do. Henry of Arsenal circa 2004 would have made mincemeat of the DC United defence, but this is Henry 2012 and he no longer has the pace or much intelligence to beat players. He could have just had an off game but I think his star is fast falling.
So a great win in the end for the Red Bulls, but not quite enough to take them top of the table. We headed to the station and then back into the metropolis. My first experience of the MLS had been an overall positive one – decent game, decent view, decent price. Despite the franchising of the game/club, the mix of families and hardcore fans was positive and one that will only reap benefits in years to come.
Five things I learnt about watching MLS/Red Bulls:-
1. When the club say it is a sell out, it is only going to be 80% full. Because they do so many ticket promotions, and the use of Ticket Exchanges such as Stub Hub are well used, it is very unusual for a game to ever be sold out.
2. “Scalping” is ignored by the police. On the walk to the stadium ticket touts, or “scalps” line the route selling tickets. One old lady (unusual in itself) used the flattery approach to get our attention – “Hello pretty” she said, although it appeared she was talking to Katie and not me.
3. MLS clubs should not be building their business model around aging professionals who are only interested in one last pay check. The vast distribution of wages between the teams means that these “marquee” players equate to three or four (minimum) wages of the average players. You can see the huge difference in salaries here.
4. The MLS “fans” need to watch a few more European games, rather than Green Street, Football Factory or ID to get an idea about really building an atmosphere in a ground (tongue in cheek)
5. Remember to stock up on beer before the start of half time as they stop selling alcohol after the break, so as to prevent the fans going “too wild”…Too wild being defined in US sports sense as someone who says the word “awesome” too many times.