It was a rare quirk in the MLS and NASL schedules: four NYC-area home games in four consecutive days. It was the perfect opportunity for a look at the situation of all three area teams, as well as an excuse for stunt journalism. Our lone soccer nut Dan Dickinson suffered through all four games; here are his thoughts.
THURSDAY: THE MIDWEEK STRUGGLE
NYCFC 1, Philadelphia Union 1
At Yankee Stadium, the scene is subdued as the stadium officially opens. None of the gates show the labyrinthian lines from the home opener, with most metal detectors sitting idle, waiting to violate someone's privacy. A few staff with Yankees branded "May I Help You?" signs mill about, and I don't think much about a scalper repeating "Anybody got an extra?" until I realize I'm the only person near him.
Inside the stadium, things are quiet. I take my match-day meal with Graham Parker, who is similarly resigned to doing four-in-four, and Jonathan Tannenwald, a Philly.com writer who is afflicted with covering the Union. The Union, for all their hype and energy upon joining MLS in 2010, have been a failure on the field, making the playoff only once in five seasons. Needless to say, Tannenwald has seen brighter days.
As kickoff draws near, I am struck—again—at how weird the seating assignment for away supporters is at Yankee Stadium. They're two sections to the left of the press box, right at the midfield line - most away fans get stuck behind a goal, but Yankee Stadium's geography doesn't want to allow for that. "Don't Cross The Line" PSAs play in the stadium, advising fans to send a text message if they see bad behavior going down. Presumably the club would like to avoid a repeat of the incident at the SKC game.
Kickoff arrives, even if the fans are still slowly filling seats. An announcement goes out that coach Jason Kreis is sick, and not with the team for the evening. The first half continues a rather miserable trend for City: good possession and decent attacks forward, but a complete inability to turn that into goalscoring chances. Seven shots in the first half all go off-target, none more noticeable than Mehdi Ballouchy missing a sitter. (Ballouchy's frustrating play was memorialized in a chant when he played for the Red Bulls—sing "Tequila", but with the word "Ballouchy" instead.)
The second half sees face-of-the-franchise David Villa get subbed off with his nagging injury flaring up again; I half wonder if it may just be out of frustration. He is replaced by Kwadwo Poku, who has somehow had a narrative built up around him that he'll be the NYCFC version of Yaya Toure.
Soon, NYCFC gets on the board, and as luck would have it, it's a skillful move and finish by Mehdi Ballouchy. The Moroccan rips his jersey off to flex in celebration - his first goal in over three years, given injury struggles - and earns an automatic yellow card. The home supporters pop a blue smoke canister in their section, and Yankee Stadium security freaks out.
Three points seem within reach, but then things start to fall apart. On an 86th minute Philly attack, a headed ball finds an unmarked CJ Sapong, who rifles the tying goal past Josh Saunders. In the press box, the announcement that there would be no post-match press conference with whoever was coaching the squad makes a handful of reporters shake their heads. A foul call against City deep in stoppage time causes a club staffer near me to slam his hands into the desk in frustration.
Some very faint boos drift across the field as the final whistle blows: NYCFC have earned that great soccer cliche, "a draw that feels like a loss". We snake down into a rather dour locker room, where Ballouchy gets the most questions. (Jokingly asked if the celebration was worth a yellow card, he ponders for a moment, and then gives a very stern "No comment".) Saunders reflects that the quick turnaround is great for the team—and just then my feet start to hurt.
Back to the 4 train. Back to Jersey City. Three games to go.
FRIDAY: FIGHTING THE PAST IN HARRISON
New York Red Bulls 2, San Jose Earthquake 0
To suffer through self-inflicted wounds is nothing new for the New York Red Bulls, nor the Metrostars before them. Whether it was the Curse of Caricola in 1996, the ridiculous name change in 2006, or countless head scratching roster moves, few clubs in the country have the ability to shoot themselves in the foot the way the Red Bulls do. Which is why their current situation is perhaps the cruelest fate: some of the best play in MLS is not translating into attendance at the gate, partially because of how their off-season played out.
The rush hour PATH ride to Harrison is filled with commuters, not fans in gear. The parking lot outside the stadium is not even half full when I arrive an hour before kickoff. Even the press box feels a little subdued, despite the team widely being ranked atop league Power Rankings. But the crowd (later announced as 16,406 fans) perks up slightly when the club announces their "20 in 20" honor roll of players from club history, cheering quite noticeably when departed head coach Mike Petke's name is read. Former beloved defender Rhett "Mr. Clean" Harty is trotted out to a warm ovation.
The club is taking extra steps to connect with their past in meaningful ways, trying to regain the goodwill of fans who wrote the club off for what were seen as sins against Petke. As the game kicks off, and the Red Bulls attack starts to amp up, I have to wonder if those sins can—or will—ever be forgiven. Because for the first time since 2007, the Red Bulls are off to a tremendous hot start.
The style of play the club has declared this year—high tempo, high pressure—continues to work. In the middle of the first half, Sacha Kljestan and Mike Grella both score similar goals on the back post in a span of six minutes. Four defenders that few put much faith in keep San Jose's forwards in their pocket for almost the entire match. The match ends 2-0, in what feels like a pretty complete performance.
Except...few on the team seem to agree. Answers to media questions indicate coach Jesse Marsch gave the club a dressing down for how they were playing in the first half, even with a two goal lead. Sacha Kljestan, who won Man of the Match, says "I'm not too happy with my performance tonight if I'm being honest." And so on down the line: Lloyd Sam, Dax McCarty, Luis Robles all agree the team could've been playing much better.
Marsch himself made a strong declaration about how perceptions had been around the team, and how it was time to move on:
"I understand some of the things on the outside, but I think it's time to move on. I think it's time to look at this team and say, this team is pretty good. The way this team is playing and the commitment they have for each other, talking about the past is not really worth any of our time. Now it's only time to talk about what this team is becoming and who they are, and what they are showing to each other and to the fans. I said from the beginning that I wanted this team to be a team that the fans could be proud of. The fans should be pretty proud of the way this team is committing and playing they're aggressive and entertaining and fast and talented so I think it is time to appreciate this team for who they are."
Fans, meanwhile, are struggling to put faith in the hot start. While plenty are enjoying the results, many following this club have had their hopes systematically crushed every year. There's a constant believe that this will be the game where it falls apart. Easy opponents are trap games; tough opponents are just going to decimate the club. It's an interesting duality: the players talk about "not drinking the kool aid" and not getting ahead of themselves, while the hardcore fans will never buy into the hype because they can don't feel safe believing.
The Red Bulls end the night atop the Eastern Conference, and will end the weekend as the only unbeaten team left in the league when Salt Lake loses the next day. But for me, it's back to the PATH train. Back to Jersey City. Two games to go.
SATURDAY: QUIET CONTEMPLATION AT HOFSTRA
New York Cosmos 2, Tampa Bay Rowdies 0
The first thing that greets me when I step off the LIRR at Mineola is a big yellow school bus. There's no glitz, no glamor for the ten minute shuttle bus ride that ferries myself and ten fans to Hofstra University. The bus radio blasts "the best of the 80s" as we roll through the suburban sprawl of Long Island.
As I wander around Shuart Stadium, the word "suburban" strikes me again a few times. Shuart is a typical college stadium (metal bleachers, open top) that's traditionally used for lacrosse. The ticket office is a little temporary trailer. Families mill about, not just before the match but during it. Kids race up and down the bleachers. The press box meal is Sbarro pizza and soda, which I decline on arrival.
It doesn't quite jive with the image the Cosmos want to project: storied history, top stars, as good as any team in MLS. It goes without saying that Pele, along with a number of other former Cosmos players, are trotted out for a ceremony before the match. The club now features a bonafide legend in Spanish attacker Raul, who it's clear a number of people are out to see play on Hofstra's turf.
Before the match starts, I spot a familiar face intently staring at a monitor: Mike Petke. On the scene as an analyst for the broadcast team at One World Sports, I'm struck by how strange it is that Mike, someone who always had a love-hate relationship with the media, is now in the box with the rest of us. He asks how I'm doing, and conveys to me that this is just something he's trying out for a game or two, and not necessarily a long term plan. I resist the urge to ask about his mess of a firing by the Red Bulls' Ali Curtis, even off the record. That story will eventually be told, I have no doubt.
I take my seat in a box two doors down. The press box at Hofstra is enclosed, muting most of the sound of the crowd. The Five Points, the designated supporters section behind the north goal, bounces up and down and throws streamers onto the field, but their chants are muffled through the glass. There's no television for replays, although I can hear JP Dellacamera's calls occasionally from the broadcast booth. Raul may be the star on the field as the game gets underway, but it's Marcos Senna who impresses me more, converting a penalty and being a part of the build up for a Leo Fernandes goal.
As I eat a slice of Sbarro that I will deeply regret the next morning, the soundproofing of the room gives me time to consider what the Cosmos need most. Very clearly, they need their own home. The quality of play is as good as what I saw from NYCFC two days prior, but City can at least do enough to make Yankee Stadium feel like they're occupants on game day. Hofstra has its charms, but it's hard to ignore the "HOFSTRA PRIDE" on the scoreboard, the name of the school on the field, and the big H that fills the center circle. Outside of a few banners in the bleachers, it doesn't feel like a home ground. Even the surface is lacking - an artificial turf that both Raul and coach Savarese acknowledge after the match as being less than ideal.
The game ends 2-0, and the announced 12,550 fans go home happy. The media, however, are not. The Cosmos press operations leave much to be desired. Despite RSVPing, I didn't actually have a seat assigned—I was told the overflow press box was in the stands, but that I could come back up if I needed food or wifi. (I took the seat of a friend who I knew wasn't there.) The WiFi password distributed didn't work, and when it did work, at least one colleague found his site was blocked by the university's firewall. And the post-match press conference, which takes place in a college auditorium, wouldn't start for 45 minutes after the final whistle, causing at least one reporter to storm out of the room because he had to file.
With the delay and the distance, even with a ride back to mass transit from a friend, it takes me over three hours from the final whistle to get back to my apartment. I collapse, knowing I just have one more game to get through.
SUNDAY: SOMETHING ROTTING IN THE BRONX
NYCFC 0, Portland Timbers 1
Around 3PM, my body hit a wall. ("Please, don't subject me to more press box food. You put Sbarro in me yesterday. Doesn't a nap sound great?") But because I had committed to this completely unnecessary drain on my sanity, I pulled myself together and headed back to the Bronx for the final match.
By the time I arrive, the lineups are out, and NYCFC has a new problem on their young hands: an injury crisis. David Villa is not in the lineup, nor is midfielder Mix "Nordic Messi" Diskerud, Nor is defender Jason Hernandez. It's the second game Villa will have missed with little notice, which stirs concerns that this might be the sort of reoccurring injury that neutralizes any impact a big name signing can have on an MLS team.
To my left in the press box are the Timbers Army, who always travel well. Helped by the large number of transplants in the Portland-Brooklyn Cultural Exchange Program, the Timbers are the first visitors who fill the entire away supporters section and spill into the overflow section next to them. In the front of the section I can see four capos leading the chants, a few security staff, and one very confused NYPD officer.
The match gets underway, and the deja vu sets in. City comes out a little more strongly in the first half than they did against Philadelphia, but they still can't finish. Portland, who have struggled this year with Diego Valeri still recovering from an ACL tear, can't get much going. But the match rhythm changes when NYCFC forward Tony Taylor plants his foot awkwardly, sending his knee the wrong way, and adding to City's injury crisis.
The first half expires, halftime disappears, and it feels like we're heading towards a scoreless draw. Triggered by a Twitter conversation, I try to dig up the last time there was a scoreless soccer match at (either) Yankee Stadium—I settle on May 31, 1968. Both sides have opportunities to score, but both fail to in equally spectacular fashion. Poku is subbed on and the crowd (announced as 21,891) roars, hoping that he will bring signs of life into the match.
The deja vu kicks in hard as the Timbers score a weirdly deflected goal in the 79th minute. Out of six goals conceded, NYCFC have given up 4 in the final 15 minutes of their matches. The Timbers Army celebrates, as someone in the Delta SKY360 Suite below the skybox screams something to the effect of "not this shit again". City huff and puff to try to get back into the game, as the Timbers Army sings "Take Me Out To The Ball Game". Home fans are shouting "puto" on Timbers goal kicks, which sets off a wave of concern on social media because the chant is deemed homophobic in most circles.
Five minutes of stoppage time feel like a gift to the home side, and a late free kick brings the crowd to their feet. But Pablo Alvarez decides against lofting it into the box, instead passing it along the ground to Poku. Poku reaches the endline with the ball and...he shanks it into the stands. The final whistle blows.
It's down again into the bowels of Yankee Stadium to hear an explanation of what went wrong. I'm unable to tell if Jason Kreis is shellshocked or sincere when he says the team is "moving in the right direction" and "the results aren’t going our way but the performances are". In the locker room, Jeb Brovsky and Josh Saunders both hit similar notes in their comments: performance was good, it was a bad bounce, they'll keep plugging away, can't put their heads down.
But it's not any of the quotes, nor the performance or even the result that strike me the hardest after the match. It was the smell fish going bad on the 000 level as the stadium crew started breaking things down for the night. The metaphor is not lost on me.
NYCFC certainly have time to turn it around. If there's any league where a team can quickly rebound into a playoff position after a poor run of form, it's MLS. But results (and the perceptions they build) matter to fans. A team where the goals don't come, the stars don't play, and the losses pile up is not going to keep the casual fans packing in the seats.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Was there anything to take away from enduring 24 cumulative hours of soccer—8 hours of match time + 4 hours of pre-game + 4 hours of press conferences and player interviews + 8 hours of commuting to and from stadiums—over a weekend? Surprisingly, there was!
- The Red Bulls are quite good this year, but no one—not the players, not the long time fans, and not the casuals—want to acknowledge it, albeit for different reasons.
- The Cosmos are entertaining and have quality players, but desperately need to ditch Hofstra for their own location.
- NYCFC may be in for a long inaugural season, but there's still time to get back on track.
- There's every indication that the NYC metro area can support three professional soccer teams, although no one team is in position to run away with the hearts and minds of soccer fans.
- Don't eat Sbarro, no matter how hungry you are.