A Real New York Derby
On May 14, 2014, two goals in the last ten minutes from towering Haitian striker Yvener Guerrier pushed the Brooklyn Italians past the Jersey Express, and set up a US Open Cup match with the New York Cosmos. Guerrier’s brace, in a game between two semi-professional teams, on a field not far Kearny, New Jersey, the original mecca of American soccer, went entirely unnoticed at a time when the entire soccer world was immersed in the build up to the impending World Cup in Brazil. But for the Italians it provided an opportunity to make a point about the deep divisions present in local New York soccer culture.
The next morning, the Italians tweeted a black and white photo of the Brooklyn Bridge with the inscription, “A Real New York Derby,” accompanied by the words: “History cannot be made overnight. Two of New York's historic clubs will go head to head in the @usopencup #authentic”
The semi-professional Italians, playing in the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid, made it clear that although the country’s first division Major League Soccer (MLS) would soon have two clubs representing New York City, they considered the newly reborn second division Cosmos as their historic rival, rather than MLS’s 20-year-old New Jersey based New York Red Bulls or the expansion franchise, New York City Football Club (NYCFC), which was set to begin play in March 2015. The organizers of the community based Italians presented its connection to Cosmos as genuine, while the competition between Red Bulls and NYCFC was envisioned as contrived. A debatable point, as for all the Italians’ claims of a historic rivalry, the first game between Red Bulls and NYCFC will be the first soccer game between intracity rivals at the top level in nearly 100 years.
Among dedicated followers of the game, for whom soccer is more of an identity marker than an entertainment choice, the re-emergence of the Cosmos and the creation of NYCFC has revealed fissures that are emblematic of growing divisions in the American soccer community at large. In the past, allegiance options in New York were limited to teams in semi-professional leagues or short lived professional leagues, and in the worst of times, no teams at all. Suddenly presented with a choice among three professional teams, the fans most immersed in the sport’s culture, perhaps for the first time in American sports, have chosen their loyalties based on distinct historical identities and structural philosophies associated with each side.
Certainly some fans have picked a side based on location, colours, or players, but it also clear that there is now a line of demarcation between supporters who embrace the rising mainstream popularity of MLS, accepting the attendant corporatization of team identities and marginalization of fan power that has come along with it, and those who support teams, in part, because they seek to maintain a place in American sports for the alternative to commercialization that soccer has consistently offered. They value the ability of fans to serve as a counterbalance to the financial investors of a team. Those at the farthest extreme want to see teams governed as public trusts and the sport ruled as a democracy.
From the purchase of MLS’s original New York franchise MetroStars by Red Bull GmbH in 2006 through the founding of the new Cosmos and NYCFC to the opening day of the 2015 MLS season, the New York metropolitan area has acted as a microcosm for this conflict amongst American soccer fans. At the forefront are the largest and most influential organized supporter groups for each team: Empire Supporters Club for the Red Bulls, The Borough Boys for Cosmos and The Third Rail for NYCFC. Through their histories, it is possible to trace the fundamental divisions in American soccer on a far deeper level than the teams on the field.
As with other supporters groups across the country, the New York groups seek to emulate supporter organizations and trusts in Europe and South America, but without the distinct ethnic, political, social and class affiliations that have given rise to the clubs, teams and supporters groups elsewhere. The sole bond between the supporters is the team itself. Therefore, while ultras in the rest of the world have often used their organizations to further social and political goals, in the United States, activism has been limited to the actions of the team ownership and the identity of specific teams. Conflicts amongst supporters groups and between fans and power structures outside the stadium are non-existent. This interdependent relationship between the supporter groups and the teams narrows the space for the fans to assert independent opposition to policies that are counter to their interests. This is in stark contrast to the significant political and social power that fans hold elsewhere.
However, there is one sphere where American organized supporter groups have shown the potential to mimic the power that ultras hold in the rest of the world. That is within the domestic culture of the sport itself. Supporter groups have at times acted as a counterbalance to the corporate interests that have dictated the governance of the sport since the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the United States in 1988 and the birth of MLS in 1995. The formation of organized supporter groups subverts the traditional passive orientation of fans of other American sports, who exhibit their affiliation through acts of consumerism like buying tickets and merchandise. Even the most active fans of other sports limit their public criticism to booing at the stadium or making complaints to the media through sports talk radio. By contrast, people who join a supporters group make a conscious choice to take an active role in the team identity and establish a stadium atmosphere that is not coordinated by the public address system. Perhaps more relevantly the leadership of supporters groups seek to represent the interests of their members as an organized voice to team management, with the primary goal of the team’s succeeding, not necessarily on the field or as a profitable business, but as a cultural touchstone.
This contrasts sharply with the objectives of league officials and franchise owners who seek to insure that their financial interests are taken into consideration as the league is developed. The owners structured the league as a centralized business, rather than a collective of independent clubs, which they call “single entity.” This structure limits the top division to 20 affiliated franchises, sets every team budget, and allocates all player contracts. It prevents competition amongst the league’s franchises for players and discourages the development of individual team identities in the favour of a league wide homogenization.
With the exponential rise in interest among corporations, broadcasters and the population at large in soccer, it remains a matter of debate as to how supporter groups can best exert themselves to insure that they are part of the key decisions made by soccer teams. Over the course of the past 20 years, MLS supporter groups have gone from outcasts to part of the league’s marketing strategy since the arrival of soccer specific stadiums in the mid-2000s. The relationship is so close that some organized supporters groups take the lead in selling tickets and arranging travel for away matches. Yet, tensions still exist, as the league still holds nearly all the power in making decisions on player movement, fan involvement and perhaps most importantly which communities, localities and teams gain access to the first division of American soccer, through the maintenance of a system of growth that depends on expansion by fee rather than promotion based on onfield success.
The primary question, then, facing supporters groups both within MLS and outside of it, is how closely to align their ideals and goals, with those of the league. While there is fluidity among the beliefs, tactics and actions of the Empire Supporters Club, The Third Rail and The Borough Boys, they represent three distinct philosophies on fan power and organization. Empire Supporters Club initially defined the culture of their chosen franchise as they fought for recognition by the league and the general acceptance of soccer in mainstream American culture. The club has now become an avenue for fans to voice their discontent. The Third Rail formed once the league was firmly established and in their brief history has couched their advocacy with a symbiotic relationship with NYCFC’s front office as the team attempts to establish a foothold in New York’s crowded sports marketplace. The Borough Boys’ genesis lies in the advocacy campaign to create a second professional level team in New York City, and has since morphed into a group that advocates for a democratization of the sport in the United States. In short, ESC is emblematic of incremental influence based on a historic connection; The Third Rail represents a consolidation of the MLS’s top down strategy and acceptance by fans of their marginalization in favour of a team that is well established within the cultural mainstream, while the Borough Boys are indicative of an alternate structure that favours grassroots power.
Each set of fans has a viable argument as the city’s historic and authentic representatives. Supporting the team through 20 years of mediocrity in a small niche of the New York sports market, Red Bulls fans, led by the ESC, have suffered the longest. The Cosmos roots lie in the 1970s and the glamour sides of Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Franz Beckenbauer that put soccer on the American map. Accordingly, the new Cosmos had name recognition and fans, as well as the Borough Boys, before they even had a team. Finally, NYCFC is the first team to play within the city limits since the original Cosmos left for Giants Stadium in 1977. The Third Rail began to take shape on the same day the team was announced able to forge an identity that was distinctly relevant to the city in its present day form.
But each team also faces serious questions about its genuine connection to the city and its soccer past. In 20 years, despite building a state-of-the-art soccer stadium, the Red Bulls still languish in the bottom half of MLS’s attendance standings, play their games in Harrison, New Jersey and have a history of front office and onfield decisions, including the incorporation of the Red Bull soft drink into their identity, that have distanced them from core supporters. The reborn Cosmos play their games at Long Island’s Hofstra University, far from public transportation and an hour’s drive outside the city. Although the new club has done everything possible to align themselves with the team of the 1970s and 1980s, the team itself went missing for 30 years and perhaps most importantly now plays in an updated version of the North American Soccer League (NASL), a league that lacks the cultural prominence and mainstream legitimacy of MLS. NYCFC too, lacks a stadium of their own. They play in a baseball arena that lacks the intimacy of a soccer specific stadium and have relegated their supporters clubs to the second deck, a safe distance from the pitch where they would be better able to influence the gameday atmosphere. Moreover, the team is unabashedly tied to its owners, England’s Manchester City and baseball’s New York Yankees, who have repeatedly made choices that favour the parent clubs over their new soccer franchise. These connections make it that much more difficult for fans to establish their own identity in the city’s crowded sporting scene.
Each team’s historic inconsistencies make it is impossible to determine if the Italians are correct in asserting which team genuinely deserves the mantle of New York’s soccer past and thus able to participate in a “real New York derby”. However, in tracing the origins of supporter culture in New York, particularly since the purchase of the MetroStars by Red Bull GmbH, we gain insight into the very real conflicts that exist between the city’s fans beyond the play on the field.
The Origin of New York Soccer: A Family Affair Extending Well Into Sunday Afternoon
New York soccer culture begins well before the existence of any of the three teams currently vying for local supremacy. It started in the late 1800s when the game itself found its way onto American soil. From its inception, organized soccer in the New York metropolitan area was integrally connected with the immigrant communities and fans that attended the matches. The earliest teams were financed by industrial companies and made up of their labourers. Clubs like Clark O.N.T. in Kearny and Todd’s Shipyard in Brooklyn played on fields in the shadow of their sponsor companies, at the centre of neighbourhoods built to house the working men and their families.
According to Tom McCabe, a professor of history at Rutgers University Newark, soccer fields, along with churches, were a focal point of community gatherings.
“Every weekend there was a series of games at the local soccer mecca like Clark Field in East Newark,” said McCabe in an interview in June 2014. “The field was in the middle of the neighbourhood. Before the game, you would go to the local bar, lay down a bet on the game. Then go back to the bar at halftime, maybe lay down another bet. After the game you’d go back to the tavern where the players would join you. It was a family affair extending well into Sunday afternoon.”
Fans and players were peers, working alongside each other at the factories for six days, then gathering at the field on Sunday. Crowds as large as 4,000 watched games. The teams took on the ethnic identity of their immigrant fans with names like Kearny Scots, New York Hakoah Americans, and later on Newark Ukrainian Sitch and the aforementioned Brooklyn Italians. While over time, the teams themselves embraced diversity, the fans and their culture mirrored the activities of the working-class support in their home countries. The Kearny Scots had a band complete with a bag piper. There were derisive songs for the referee and the opponents, as well as a replication of the ethnic rivalries from Europe. Glasgow’s heated Old Firm rivalry, found its way to Kearny when the Protestant Scots played the Catholic Kearny Celtic.
Cosmos Country: The Re-emergence Of American Professional Soccer
Until the 1960s, soccer remained a largely immigrant (and thus invisible to mainstream American culture) and amateur game, with sporadic fits of professionalization. For the first half of the 20th century, most New York area teams maintained their ethnic identification as members of the various incarnations of the American Soccer League or other semipro and regional leagues. Fan based organizations outside of these enclaves were rare. After the 1966 World Cup, the USSF sought proposals to found a true national league with regional, rather than historically and ethnically based, teams. In the late 1960s, two competing leagues (the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer Association) each founded new New York franchises, the Generals and the Skyliners respectively, which sought a broader New York City soccer fanbase outside of the narrow immigrant base of the ethnic teams.
Although both the Generals and Skyliners were gone by the end of the 1960s, the shift from European style organized support to the more generic fandom seen in other American sports continued unabated, manifesting itself most clearly in the rise of the New York Cosmos under the ownership of Time Warner media company in the 1970s. Time Warner’s dollars lured first Pele, then a cavalcade of European stars, and eventually thousands of fans to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Cosmos set American professional soccer attendance records including 77,691 on August 14, 1977 and 70 consecutive games with 30,000 or more fans from 197781. By 1977, they were averaging more fans than the Yankees and by the following year, they had more fans per game than both of the city’s baseball teams combined. Unlike any soccer team before or since, the Cosmos penetrated both the American sports mass media and the consciousness of soccer fans across the world.
Along with the unprecedented crowds, the Cosmos added familiar spectacles of American sports, including the cheerleading Cosmos Girls, amplified music, and a mascot: Time Warner’s own Bugs Bunny. There were kids’ fan clubs and a few generic organized chants, but fan culture centred not around sections or supporter clubs, but rather the tailgate before the game. Fans arrived hours before kick-off to grill and drink, setting up their own goals in the parking lot. The scene developed into a mass picnic scene known as “Cosmos Country.” At the start of the 1980s, interest waned as the league faltered financially and eventually folded. The disappearance of the Cosmos in 1985 along with the demise of latest incarnation of the American Soccer League in 1983, pushed soccer, its fans and their traditions once again to the margins of the city’s sports world. Diehards continued to follow youth and college soccer at home and the European leagues abroad on Spanish language channels, through programs like PBS’ “Soccer Made In Germany”, or at bars with satellite service that opened early on Saturday. By the early 1990s, the only source of regular soccer news was a weekly column by Michael Lewis in the Daily News. It took an event no smaller than the World Cup in 1994 to lure enough interest at the corporate level to consider a national professional league again. “There was a long mourning for sudden death,” said McCabe.
Kicking About On Ruined Pitches: Grassroots Soccer Returns To Prominence
In 1988, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States. The selection was unprecedented, in that for the first time soccer’s global spectacle would be held outside of its epicentres in Europe and South America. It came with the condition that the USSF establish a viable national professional league. While the federation solicited proposals and sought out investors for the new league, soccer became a decidedly grassroots experience for fans who continued to turnout for professional and semi-professional games in underfunded leagues like the Western Soccer Alliance, the American Professional Soccer League, and the A League, and for the annual knockout competition, the US Open Cup.
In the New York area, ethnic teams like Greek American Atlas Astoria and the Brooklyn Italians remained annual competitors in the Open Cup, while regionally based teams like New Jersey Eagles (198990) and the New York Centaurs (1995 only) tended to be short lived. Small venues with intensely interested fans saw a return of pre NASL atmosphere of intimacy between players and supporters. In their only season, the Centaurs played at Downing Stadium before crowds that rarely topped 300, but a number of them formed a supporters group known as the New York City Firm.
“We would stand at midfield and the sole beer vendor would basically hang out with us and sell us cans of Budweiser on demand,” said Kevin McAllister, one of the members of the group. “The PA announcer was a local C list comedian named Stu. I forget his last name. The NYC Firm and Stu would often have protracted exchanges regarding his announcements and/or the commercials he would read at various points during the matches. The Centaurs played one match that summer against the Vancouver White Caps on the Saturday following a Lollapalooza concert. The field had been destroyed by the concert and the referee abandoned the match. After the match was cancelled, the supporters took the field and played an impromptu pick up match with the players. Funny stuff guys kitted out for a match and other guys holding cigarettes and cans of Budweiser kicking about on the ruined pitch.”
The death of the Centaurs was imminent, but the newly formed Major League Soccer (MLS) had announced that the New York area would be represented by two teams, one in New Jersey and the other on Long Island. In anticipation of the new teams, members of the New York City Firm and a group of regulars who watched English and Scottish league matches at the Kinsale Pub on the Upper East Side founded another supporters group. They called themselves the Empire Supporters Club, to reflect one of the rumoured names of the new franchises, Empire Soccer Club. They were part of a nationwide movement among soccer fans, in particular those affiliated with the US national team’s supporter club: Sam’s Army, that attempted establish a connection with the new teams. Much of the initial organizing took place online through chat rooms. Unlike the passive official fan clubs of other American sports these fans’ intentions were to build on their experiences in small venues and actively influence the culture of the new franchises. Despite this movement, each team would have their badges, colours and names created by the central league office.
An Appeal To The Fan As A Consumer: The Birth Of Major League Soccer
The 1994 World Cup saw Americans flock to American gridiron stadiums to watch international soccer. The Cup set FIFA attendance records that still stand 20 years later. Giants Stadium saw the return of sell-out crowds and boisterous pregame tailgates. “With the arrival of the World Cup in 1994, I think a lot of the people that went to Giants Stadium had experience with the Cosmos,” said McCabe. “The Italy Ireland game was huge.”
Despite this success, MLS chose to delay the start of the league until 1996 as it lined up financing, stadiums, and players. By the time the league announced the official names of its franchises at a press event in October 1995, the initial 12 teams had been scaled back to 10, with one of the casualties being the Long Island team. Instead of the Empire Soccer Club, New York City’s team would be the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, named in part for their ownership group Metromedia. They would play at Giants Stadium and their home kit would be based on the black and red colour scheme of AC Milan because of the owner’s affinity for the giant Italian club.
The league eschewed any connection to NASL, particularly the Cosmos, and largely departed from traditional international naming conventions and colours, choosing instead to adopt the garish fashion popular in the mid-1990s, combined with offbeat nicknames like “Clash” (San Jose), “Fusion” (Miami) and “Wiz” (Kansas City) that bore little connection to their municipalities.
“MLS sensed the opportunity to appeal to the fan as a consumer,” wrote American soccer historian David Wangerin in his book Soccer in a Football World. “In fact, ‘MLS Unveiled,’ as the event was christened, struck many as an outright capitulation to the creative excess of designers, with no one on the soccer side brave enough to channel their creative juices.” Despite these reservations, the Empire Supporters Club now had a team to get behind. They reached out to the MetroStars in late 1995 and received an enthusiastic response with the team agreeing to designate section 135 of Giants Stadium for supporters. With the section established, they found a home bar for away game watch parties and kept in touch with each other through an email newsletter.
“We were organized by word of mouth and email notices,” said McAllister, who had gone on to become one of the initial organizers of ESC. “We were not incorporated and had few rules or bylaws during the early days. We described ourselves as an anarchist collective.”
The league made it clear that they wanted the New York/New Jersey franchise to be a success by allocating US national team star Tab Ramos and the league’s highest profile European import, Italian striker Roberto Donadoni to the MetroStars. Initial local fascination with the team outstripped even the league’s expectations. Interest in the opening game at Giants Stadium was so high that the team’s telephone sales system crashed and the franchise was forced to open up additional sections of the arena to fit in 46,826 people on April 20, 1996. “The parking lot before the first match was almost like the 1994 World Cup an excited, multinational party in the sunshine,” said Benjamin Poremski, one of the original ESC members. The team responded by capitulating in the final minutes of extra time, when MetroStars defender Nicola Caricola knocked the ball into his own net. Crowds continued to turn out throughout the first year, even as the team imploded on the field. Despite lacking a transit link to the city, the MetroStars averaged more fans per game (23,898) than baseball’s Mets (19,609) and around 4,000 less than the city banner franchise, the Yankees (28,136).
Despite the popularity of the franchise, from the opening match onwards, ESC’s attempts to create a distinct fan culture were met with a mixture of indifference and hostility from the front office, the stadium personnel, and their fellow fans. While the team had listed 135 as a supporters section in its marketing materials, they made no accommodations for standing and singing.
“The first couple of matches at Giants Stadium were a disaster,” said McAllister. “Section 135 was a mess some people standing and singing for the entire match and others struggling to make them sit down. [The] Metro [front office] had sold tickets in the section to people who did not bargain for this scene and the ESC and NYC Firm people felt that Metro had let them down. Security hassles were common and Section 135 was not at all what we had envisioned.”
After a few matches, ESC convinced the front office to open one of the tarp covered unsold endline sections to the supporters club. They established themselves in section 101, but continued to have problems. Standing was allowed but flags and instruments remained banned. Security officials, accustomed to dealing with American football fans, who for the most part followed the cues of the stadium scoreboard as to when to stand and cheer, reacted swiftly and vigorously to anything like coordinated bouncing or smoke bombs that struck them as out of the ordinary.
“They did not seem to like soccer culture and they did seem to enjoy harassing folks in Section 101 on a rather consistent basis,” said McAllister.
That’s So Metro: The Struggles Of New York/New Jersey Franchise
As the jubilation around the franchise’s arrival dissipated and the team struggled on the field, fewer and fewer fans were willing to support it. While attendance dropped 16% league wide in 1997, the MetroStars gate plummeted by 29%. Giants Stadium began to dwarf smaller and smaller crowds to the point in 1999 when some games were seen by less than 10,000 fans.
Fan support evaporated for a number of reasons. The team was not very good, posting the worst cumulative record for the league’s first seven years. The players continually failed to live up to expectations, head coaches rarely stayed more than a year, the stadium was difficult to get to and lacked atmosphere. The team’s position as a tenant of the National Football League’s New York Giants forced them into odd scheduling and game days on a turf field with gridiron lines. Tensions between supporters and security remained high with seven fan ejections, including four arrests, plus several broken seats and the macing of fan Nelson Martinez in his seat at a game against the Tampa Bay Mutiny early in the 1999 season.
Perhaps most importantly, the team never established a clear connection to either New York or New Jersey. As its initial name suggested, it tried to appeal to both and ended up with neither identity. The team’s cartoonish marketing, reflective of the league wide protocol, emphasized suburban soccer moms and children, rather than the young urban working class male base that comprised the core of soccer’s audience in Europe and South America. But MetroStars also insisted it was a New York franchise, despite never having played a game within the city limits, leaving proud New Jerseyites cold.
MLS had hoped the MetroStars would be one of the its anchor franchises, but as the team struggled, the league had attendance and cultural issues of its own. The initial instinct to Americanize the game with sudden death shootouts, playoffs, amplified sound and music, and public address announcements during the game kept European immigrants and other knowledgeable fans away. For all the marketing energy spent on suburban families, the league lacked the financial resources to offer the amenities like preferred parking and diverse concession options that these wealthier fans had come to expect at National Football League and Major League Baseball games. In essence, rather than trying to appeal to people who liked soccer before 1994, MLS was trying to generate new fans for the game itself, who had more disposable income. This led to an emphasis on league wide marketing rather than distinct identities for each team and a concentrated appeal to people as consumers rather than fans. The supporters that did show up made an effort to collectively point out the flaws they saw in the league’s approach.
“It really never occurred to me that the league wouldn't survive,” said ESC member Benjamin Poremski. “I figured soccer was such an easy sell, and the backers of MLS were so rich, that even they couldn't fuck it up. That's not to say that as supporters we didn't find ways to express how much we opposed the (commissioner) Doug Loganera special MLS rules aimed at attracting the short attention span generic sports fans I remember that when the shootout tiebreaker was at our end, we would chant "fuck the shootout!" hoping to make it unpalatable for TV audiences.”
The result of the smaller crowds was a more intimate connection between loyal supporters in ESC, the players and the coaching staff. Older fans, who had seen NASL collapse, were desperate for the league and the team to remain in existence. The supporters advocated for the team through grassroots efforts based in the do-it-yourself culture of underground music that had seen a resurgence in the early 1990s. They used online forums, organized the league’s first away day trips, and conducted community service actions to bring in more members. They filled the gap in media coverage with fanzines like the Stars and Beyond and A Kick in the Ass (AKITA). They worked with a disinterested front office to establish a membership program for tickets in section 101. The program evolved from a card scheme that let any member into the supporters section to one that allowed ESC to sell the section’s tickets at a discount from a special vending window at the stadium. The section came alive in stark contrast to the cavernous empty seats that surrounded them as they established songs and choreography to urge on the team. A bagpiper lent his unique sound to the proceedings.
“I made a conscious decision that I would support this team as though I had grown up with it, that my children and their children would support it, and that I would always hold the team to the idea that if they wanted devoted support, they would act as though they had been around 100 years ago and would be around 100 years from now,” said Poremski. “I had been a casual soccer fan since I was a child during Pele mania, and got more into the sport as ESPN showed games leading up to Italia 90. I saw the atmosphere at matches when I took a trip to England when there was still standing at their stadiums, and wanted to have something like that here.” To be a diehard MLS fan in the late 1990s was to care significantly about a league that had its energy focused elsewhere. Fans developed a decidedly defensive posture. They devoted themselves to a mediocre version of a sport that was at best ignored, at worst despised by American culture. MetroStars fans, in particular, faced rooting for a mismanaged, poor quality team that barely registered in a metropolis with nine other professional franchises. In 1999, as attendance at Giants Stadium reached a new low of 14,706 per game. Part of being a MetroStars supporter was embracing this marginalization and futility, to the point where one of their most common chants, “That’s So Metro,” followed incidents of game play that negatively affected their team. The team’s most popular fan website, Metrofanatic, hosted a polling tournament to determine the worst player in franchise history. There was no poll for the best player.
“Embracing that crappiness and supporting our team despite it gave us a real chip on our shoulders, I think,” said Poremski “And the DC [United] rivalry built it up further. Our first "large" away trip (in a rental coach) was to DC for their first home game in 1997. The team showed their trophies from 1996 off to the crowd, and I think DCU even gave away replica championship rings to the fans. We were in a corner at field level and were determined to disrupt their celebration with insulting songs. The DC crowd got out of control, shooting a bottle rocket into the MetroStars bench and hitting the equipment manager in the face, surrounding our section and forcing us out onto the field at the end. (We lost, to no one's surprise.) Stadium security escorted us to the stadium exit and left us to get to the bus on our own. Going through that gauntlet of hate definitely gave us a sense of our identity.”
Equally Awkwardly Named And Blatantly Corporate: The Arrival Of Red Bull
As the supporter section struggled to gain a foothold, the team was sold again. In March 2006, the Austrian based soft drink manufacturer Red Bull GmbH added the team to its global portfolio of sports teams. As they had elsewhere, without input from the supporters, the company completely overhauled the team’s identity to match the advertising for their signature energy drink. The MetroStars became the Red Bulls, the badge became the company’s logo, the colours changed to the company’s shades of crimson and white, and the kits featured two large red bulls. In buying the club, Red Bull also promised to complete a soccer specific stadium in Harrison, New Jersey that had been pledged by the previous owners, but had stumbled through construction delays.
The change left supporters, who had slowly taken on and defined the not completely formed MetroStars identity, torn. Several of the original members of the ESC abandoned the team. But others maintained their loyalty. Supporter club organizer Jason Corliss explained on the website, The Inside Left, “I’d finally developed a connection to my (awkwardly named) local team and now that identity was being replaced by an (equally awkwardly named and blatantly corporate) new one. The franchise and supporters had been aching for a new stadium for years and Red Bull stepped up to not only purchase the team but also build a proper, soccer specific stadium of its own. So, back to reconciling hypocrisies. A local team owned by a corporation in Europe? Ummm, ok, as long as they build a stadium, right? Many purists and original supporters felt differently (and still do), and who could blame them? But, for me, a supporter of the New York franchise – thus far a laughing stock among the league’s fans for not only its onfield futility, but its revolving door front office and managerial seat? I saw, and still see, no choice but to be a clear-eyed pragmatist about it.”
The branding change did little to alter the fortunes of the franchise either on the field or in the stands. The team scraped along in the bottom half of the league standings and attendance continued to slip even as league wide attendance finally began to rise. Many of the Americanisms like the shootout had been abandoned, while the league embraced the intimacy of soccer specific stadiums and embraced supporter sections along with their style of active engagement with the team. This attempt to create a more authentic league culture, did not, however, greatly improve the league’s level of play nor did it temper any of the commercialism that had dominated the first decade.
“This wasn’t the soccer I wanted to see,” wrote Michael Agovino, describing David Beckham’s first game at Giants Stadium in 2007, in his memoir The Soccer Diaries, which chronicles his relationship as an American and a New Yorker with the game for 30 years starting in the mid-1980s. “It may have been exciting for non-soccer fans, for the moms and dads, but for knowledgeable fans, and there were a lot of us, we didn’t need such superficiality.”
ESC persevered through the small crowds, an abysmal team and factions within their own group. In 2006, a group known as The Garden State Supporters (GSS) broke off from ESC and attempted to establish another section with more virulent songs. After two years of acrimony the ESC and GSS reconciled, just in time to see the team performance and attendance crater in 2009 with 12,491 fans per game watching their last place team finish with the worst record in franchise history. Next to section 101, a group of Philadelphians known as the Sons of Ben, who had been instrumental in convincing MLS to expand to their city in 2010, made trip after trip to Giants Stadium to sing, “We have as many cups as you, and we don’t have a team.” ESC had few allies, least of all the people who ran the team they supported.
“When I was active with the ESC, I believe that the Metro (front office) were barely interested in the supporters club and paid very little attention to us,” said McAllister. “They were peripherally responsive to us, but I do not think that they realized how important supporter culture would become in MLS.”
A Huge Competitive Advantage: MLS Markets Supporter Culture
In 2010, two years later than planned, the Red Bulls finally joined the ranks of MLS teams with a soccer specific stadium, Red Bull Arena. The new stadium included a large designated section for the supporters groups. ESC and the renamed Garden State Ultras were joined by the Viking Army behind the goal at the South end of the Stadium. The franchise called it The South Ward. Flags, songs, and standing were permitted and encouraged, but also carefully controlled.
“At Red Bull Arena whenever there has been an issue the [front office] has brought it to the supporters groups to try to work it out,” said Mike Vallo, a member of ESC. “At Giants Stadium the yellow shirts [security] would just bum rush the section belligerently and make situations far worse than they were. For example, at RBA they set up an area in front of the section to light smoke bombs when the team scores, that way there is smoke but it’s not in the section itself.”
After a decade of marginalizing organized supporters with a combination of ambivalence, hostility and minor accommodation, MLS began to recognize the value of their most ardent fans. Organized supporters took significant roles in the formation of new franchises in Toronto (2006) Seattle (2009), Philadelphia (2010), Portland (2011), Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012). In each case, supporters groups lobbied the league and local officials, assisted in forming the team’s name, badges, and colours, and sought out stadiums sites. As a result when the teams took the field for the first time, there was already a passionate fanbase behind them. Seattle set MLS records for attendance in each year of its existence and their fans obtained a unique mechanism, where they got to take a vote of confidence on the general manager each year.
For organized supporters of older MLS teams, such as the MetroStars, the relationship with the front office and the league was often more fraught. Part of the supporter clubs identity, culture and indeed power had come from their opposition to the league’s efforts to brand soccer games as professional class family events. The supporters groups had attempted to create an atmosphere that was novel in American sports, where the focus was on the game instead of the broader consumer experience. New stadiums provided a way to make peace, but at the cost of the supporters losing some of the culture and independence they had enjoyed when the league was less interested in making them part of the its financial strategy. Criticism of front offices and the league were carefully policed in the new supporter sections.
“The arena atmosphere became a central theme of the marketing and the supporters groups were obviously a big part of that,” said Vallo. “On the whole it hasn't been a bad thing, we love bringing the atmosphere and if that can help get people interested in soccer, that's great. At the same time, the few times the team has tried to police our chants while at the same time using us for marketing has been a bit galling. That seems to be a league wide issue. MLS really wants the supporters groups loud and large, but they also want them to stay within these family friendly parameters that they set. There's a contradiction there. The organic nature of soccer supporters is what draws people to them, once you start using it as a marketing tool or try to make it an official fan club it loses its allure. I'm not saying we want to be hooligans or something, but part of the culture includes mocking and trying to intimidate the opposing team. Every chant isn't going be family friendly.”
The Red Bulls new stadium in Harrison provided some relief to the problems fans had faced at Giants Stadium. In addition to obtaining the larger supporters section, ESC and the other members of the South Ward adopted local bars in Harrison and nearby Newark as their home bases. They inserted themselves into the fabric of the industrial community that surrounds the stadium, as fans could now settle into the bar before the game and then walk over together just before kick-off. The stadium was also a 10 minute walk from a train station with direct access to Manhattan. The ride from the city was 30 minutes, although on weekends it often ran less frequently and could require a transfer. Inside the stadium, capacity was limited to 25,000 and a roof kept noise of the fans directed at the field. For the league, the atmosphere created by the fans became something they could leverage for new investment.
The team also stepped up efforts to engage with supporters. In 2014, for the first time, the team paid tribute to the MetroStars with a banner in the old team’s red and black colours and the phrase “As Long As We’re Still Breathing” from one of ESC’s songs. In the build up to the 2015 season, the team made the term “We Are Metro Soccer” part of their ad campaign. Commenting on the tribute, Marc de Grandpre, Red Bull GmbH’s local Head of Operations said, “Look at the South Ward, those folks have been around cheering us since '96, '97. It's a passion we have to get make sure we leverage. We need to communicate to them and ultimately engage with them. I know our team does great, meets with them regularly. We're going to integrate their experience in the stadium into our communication because I think that's a huge competitive advantage for us.”
Season attendance raised significantly in the first year of Red Bull Arena, to 18,000 a game even though the first sell-out for an MLS game did not occur until August. Despite all these improvements, the arrival of French striker and World Cup hero Thierry Henry, and the team’s first major trophy, the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, per game attendance did not pass 20,000 in any of the first five years after the stadium opened. The MetroStars’ 23,000 per game in the 1996, the first year of the franchise, remains the benchmark. Even with an state-of-the-art facility, improved access to the city, a better team and a growing interest in the game itself, a significant portion of soccer fans in the New York area still found something lacking with the Red Bulls.