They came from around the country. They packed onto the PATH train, into cars and buses, and even some in a NYC yellow cab. They wore red, yellow, and sometimes purple jerseys, almost all with scarves despite the hot, humid weather. They frequently joined each other in gleeful reflection that what they thought of Tottenham was "shit", and what they thought of shit was "Tottenham."
For American Arsenal FC supporters, it was their first chance in 25 years to watch their beloved club lose on American soil, suffering a largely meaningless 1-0 preseason friendly loss to the New York Red Bulls.
Red Bull Arena, usually moderately full of Red Bulls fans, felt like North London for a few hours, with local jerseys being scattered in a sea of Arsenal supporters. (Many RBNY season ticket holders were seen thanking Arsenal fans on social media, as it was not difficult to flip tickets to the match for the full cost of their season ticket packages.) The only real display from home supporters: a large tifo display honoring Thierry Henry, showing the Arsenal and Red Bulls legend in a jersey that reflected both clubs.
"Oh, [the display] was amazing," said the usually unflappable Henry after the game. "I didn’t know about it and I was actually surprised. It was pretty cool, to be honest."
The first half saw both teams trot out full-strength sides, albeit with Arsenal missing a number of stars due to post-World Cup vacations. Some good attacking from both teams saw the goalkeepers called into action, and plenty of eyes were on Gedion Zelalem, a 17-year-old German midfielder who is rumored to be contemplating a switch to the USMNT. Zelalem's only real contribution to the match was a nice one-two to put Jack Wilshire in on goal, but Luis Robles made a point blank save to keep the Gunners off the scoreboard.
The lone goal came in the 32nd minute, as a Thierry Henry corner met the head of NY defender Ibrahim Sekagya. Sekagya's header found an unmarked Bradley Wright-Phillips at close range, who easily turned the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
As is traditional in friendlies, the second half saw both teams make wholesale changes to their squads to give the youth and reserves some minutes. Typically, this is where MLS teams break down against foreign opposition, but the Red Bulls kept it together with calm defending and none of those characteristic mental mistakes. Arsenal looked to have a goal from Abou Diaby, which sent the stadium into ecstasy for 4.6 seconds. Then Arsenal fans saw that the offside flag was up, and cheers shifted to jeers.
The result may not mean anything: as Thierry Henry put it after the match, with the Gunners in early pre-season, this was not "the real Arsenal". But it could be argued that the performance does mean something. As inconsistent as the Red Bulls have looked in 2014, they put together a strong team performance against Arsenal. Roy Miller returned to the lineup after his injury at the World Cup, and Ambroise Oyongo put in a strong performance at midfield to help cement his place in the lineup. If the Red Bulls can carry that form forward—an admittedly huge "if"—they might just get the kickstart their playoff push sorely needs.
"This really means nothing more than a good victory, a good thing for the supporters because it’s not three points, it doesn’t mean anything in our standings," said coach Mike Petke after the match. "There was some very good play for us, especially in the first half on our counter. This is one of the best passing teams in the world and we were patient and sat back and looked to counter and exploit and we did some good things. It was good to see some things that we need to improve on that we did well today. For me, it’s a positive for the players, now it’s onto Salt Lake City Wednesday."
As the Gooners emptied out of the stadium, and as the Red Bulls turned their focus to Wednesday's game, Bradley Wright-Phillips summed up a lingering frustration about the atmosphere perfectly:
"I was surprised [at the number of Arsenal fans] in the beginning and I was a bit upset, I want these guys to be coming every week. Thierry plays every week and if they love Arsenal that much they should try and come more."
POST MATCH REACTIONS
Mike Petke on Arsenal: "Obviously they’re early in preseason. Are we a better team than Arsenal? When they’re in their peak and we’re at our peak, I’d like to think it would be a good game, but obviously what kind of club they are and the level of talent, the money they put into that, they’re a world-class club. We knew they were going to have bulks of possession and we were fine with that. I enjoy watching them play. The biggest thing that I enjoy watching out of Arsenal, no matter if it’s a preseason game or regular season game, is their off ball movement and their ability to create space to possess that ball is something that I would love to climb into Mr. Wenger’s head and figure out exactly how he does it. It’s impressive."
Tim Cahill on "friendlies": "He knows what I’m all about. I went into the changing room with all the boys and straight away the manager, Arsene Wenger, said don’t ever change. Never change because that’s what I like about you. He’s one of the best managers in the world and for me just shaking his hand was great, but speaking and sharing a few words was special. It felt good and really happy to come out on top because it means a lot to the New York Red Bull fans, regardless if it was a friendly. For me there are no friendlies and there never will be. You can see that in the way I play. Overall, it’s nice for our fans because they deserve a bit of praise for sticking by us all season."
Arsene Wenger on Thierry Henry: "Thierry can be dangerous from everywhere. He understands very quickly what he can take advantage from. He was sharp today as well in the one-on-ones and you could see why he was a great player because when played in midfield, his passing was excellent and his vision as well. You could see that he can play everywhere."
Gedion Zalelem on his U.S. experience so far: "Yeah, Eli Manning was really nice. Seeing the Giants play was really nice as well."