A simple pleasure that Shep Messing and I experience after every Red Bulls’ post game show on MSG Networks is the interaction with the team’s fan base after we say good night to the television audience.
It’s often a brief, pleasant exchange that takes place near our studio set, and a window to my understanding how savvy the soccer fan base is in New York and New Jersey.
Watching Tuesday night’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory over FC Cincinnati and its 35,000 fans at Nippert Stadium, a tremendous display of resilience that saw the Red Bulls claw their way back from a 2-0 deficit to advance, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a long-time season ticket holder.
There was envy in his voice as we discussed the galvanization of the game in the United States: Crowds of 50,000 regularly in Atlanta, more than 90 consecutive sellouts in Kansas City, and how soccer stadiums in the Pacific Northwest had become must-see destinations. “If Red Bull Arena is the premier soccer venue in the country,” I asked, “why can’t it be that way here?”
The fan did not hesitate.
“Because when you fire a coach and get rid of a captain that we love, there’s a price to pay for that.” It was an honest answer from someone, who despite the firing of Mike Petke in 2015, and the trade of Dax McCarty to Chicago in January, continues to support the club.
That brings us to the here and now. At what point do you embrace this team for what it is, and not what it used to be? Was Tuesday night’s incredible triumph a tipping point in the often tumultuous, and sometimes disconnected relationship between a team that’s been fun to watch for most of the 89 regular season games it has played under Jesse Marsch, and its fan base?
Reality can’t be distorted, of course. There may never be a player as talented as Thierry Henry to represent the home team at Red Bull Arena, and one of the greatest strikers of his era could not singlehandedly sell out the 25,000-seat venue. With exception of a 2013 Supporters’ Shield triumph, Henry retired with the Red Bulls’ trophy case empty.
Championships define the success or failure of any organization, and at present, that simple fact sticks in the craw of the organization and its fans alike. To the delight of fans in the nation’s capital, where D.C. United has celebrated four MLS Cup titles, and across the Hudson, where New York City FC supporters would relish the chance to win the league despite its neighbors having a nearly two-decade head start in that quest, Red Bulls’ fans have grown weary of the chase.
But has the team failed its fan base? Lately, hardly.
The club is on course to qualify for the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season. It has claimed the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs three times in the past four seasons. It’s 275 points earned at home since 2010 are the most in MLS, with those home victories produced at a venue that is largely the envy of MLS. It has not signed Jozy Altidore or David Villa at a $6 million dollar per year price tag, but secured Bradley Wright-Phillips with a multi-year extension at 15 percent the cost.
Ask a GM or Sporting Director if such a signing is to be admired or ridiculed. For the second consecutive season, the Red Bulls claimed the top score in the J.D. Power Fan Experience Study, which measures fan satisfaction at major sporting events. That’s an accomplishment of which the organization should be proud. Red Bull Academy is considered one of the best associated with MLS. Denis Hamlett will tell you that it’s THE best.
“We’ve had good two-and-a-half years, this club,” said Marsch after Tuesday’s victory which sets up a Sept. 20 showdown with Sporting Kansas City for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title, and an automatic berth in CONCACAF Champions League.
“But ultimately teams and players are judged by championships and that’s something that’s been barren with this club … no one wants to tip their hat to what’s been happening here at Red Bull and the only way to force people’s hands is to win.”
It was a bit of an “us against the world” approach by Marsch during the post game press conference, but the coach likely sensed that only Red Bulls’ supporters were in his corner for the semifinal at Cincinnati. Neutral observers love Cinderella stories, and the USL side gave the tournament one that expired Tuesday night.
The Red Bulls have suffered two defeats in their last 15 competitive games. Tuesday’s victory that saw goals scored in the 75th, 78th and 101st minutes displayed everything you want out of your team: Toughness, poise, clutch moments, an 18-year-old player saving the day by running endlessly to save a potential game-tying goal in the waning moments.
The proverbial ball is now back in the hands of its fan base. This season has seen the rival Villa stamp his reputation as the league’s best player. It’s seen ESPN’s top shelf analyst Taylor Twellman say of the Red Bulls, “they just don’t scare me.” And it’s seen the trading of a player who embodied the fans’ spirit.
Was Tuesday’s victory the longest olive branch the Red Bulls could have extended to its paying customers? Thirty months after the infamous town hall gathering in the winter of 2015, are they ready to embrace this team again?