Red Bull Arena’s steel girders and translucent roof conquer the Harrison skyline, or lack there of. The stadium is the attraction here. Its location, 5 minutes from Newark and 40 from New York, is a space where its hulking modernism seems permanent in the face of local transience. The big red barn parking structure and the water vendor huts all seem permanently motion blurred from the train, car, or brisk walk to the modern and oblong design. I’m not sure if the stadium is a monument to football or the hope of a new New York sports culture cultivated through metallurgy and obeying Field of Dreams central praxis, “If you build it they will come”. Over the past week they have come. Roughly thirty or forty thousand people have mostly attended the mostly meaningless matches contested between teams from Italy, El Salvador, France, and England.
My friend Lando and I arrived at Red Bull Arena from different backgrounds; I was a chiseled veteran of two matches there in the previous week and this was his first live football match. During the march to the match from the rusty PATH train Lando found out that his English family supports Spurs, so, logically, he would too. He chuckled when I informed him of their reputation as “the Jewish team”, his family’s support made sense now. Wikipedia ensued and so did more laughter. The laughter mainly concerned the irony of the sect of Spurs supporters who appeared to “summer” in WASP Stronghold’s like the islands of Cape Cod belting out “Yid Army”. I asked him if he was going to by a kit, to which he responded “baby steps”. There was a small carnival going on outside the arena, with the Barclay’s Premier League trophy on display and a surprisingly exciting freestyle football circle going on outside of the match, I was most impressed by a twenty-something Orthodox Jew named Levi who effortly performed a spinning Around the World while keeping his Yarmulke on, respect. We entered the terraces of Harrison, New Jersey to the Red Bulls doing small side drills and Spurs stretching and doing calisthenics, seemingly in sync with the electro-house coming through the speakers. Odd.
I don’t know if I’m the first person to point this out, but Red Bull Arena has to be the MLS’s foremost purveyor of EDM. Half hearted pounding remixes of songs in the styling of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and original tracks like Skrillex’s smash hit (eye roll) “Bangarang” are all you’re going to get during pregame warm-ups and half time. It’s more funny than bothersome, but who in the Red Bulls’ staff decided to belie the traditional rule of warm-up music: “A stadium PA shall only play old school hip-hop or classic rock before a game.” How much more badass would it be if the saxophone solo in Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”1 was booming out while Cahill practiced some flicks and the keeper and (current) Billy Joel goatee subscriber, Bill Gaudette, worked on his positioning for set pieces? The answer is a lot more (and none of that 80s Joel bullshit please, enough is enough).
After the obligatory national anthem, the Spurs support start up with a surprisingly rousing rendition of “When The Spurs Go Marching In” that impresses Lando and the other casuals amongst us. Spurs supporters are an interesting slice of Manhattan. They appeared largely middle class, mostly white, and consumed by displaying more than a passing knowledge of their team (in a mostly admirable way). Suffice to say their songbook went a little deeper than the New York Chelsea supporters club; well either that or the stadium was just smaller, making their chanting prowess more obvious. The group behind us were pleasant: a half New Jersey half Filipino couple with three kids that all sounded like the little girl from those annoying “Despicable Me” commercials. These young Jersipinos, as I will now call them, knew a surprising amount about the club and were all replenish with Spurs gear, shirts, scarves, flags, bracelets, and thundersticks (which were in mind-boggling short supply. Come on Under Armour, who doesn’t want free thundersticks?)
Kick-off comes. The Red Bulls immediately start on the front foot and as the brighter side. The pitch is, as Andre Villas-Boas noted earlier, less than immaculate, but certainly playable and the ball skips across the grass to find Red Bulls’ new signing Tim Cahill. The Australian passes it around with ease and, and when the ball finds itself at the feet of Dax McCarty, he makes a brilliant run to split the defenders, gets behind Vertonghen, and earns a penalty as the Belgian defender crashes into his back. Not ten minutes later Cahill receives possession in midfield and makes an ill-conceived back pass that is picked up by Tom Huddlestone who barely misses the back of the net from twenty yards. We all must take the good with the bad.
Spurs’ new blood seems to still be settling into the team for the entirety of the first forty-five. Vertonghen is constantly communicating from the back and Sigurdsson floats in and out. They would, with the rest of the team, figure much more prominently in the second-half. What excites me here, more than anything else, is the resurgence of Spurs past. The corpse of David Bentley’s ego is there, attempting to spray passes. Eccentric keeper Heurelho Gomes is there, looking like a frog. The thing about David Bentley is that he wasn’t always shit, and something about seeing him today suggests that he isn’t now. Bentley is just the kind of guy who sulks after he gets told to “fuck off” by the passer who hits a ball ten feet over his head. He wasn’t always lacking in confidence, but he was always a little lacking in backbone. Push over.
Here is a brilliant video of Gomes playing football with a fox (start at 4:10)
The second-half begins with a bunch of changes to each side. Cahill is off, decent debut from the lad. Bale and Sigurdsson start the half with a fire that wasn’t seen in the first half. Something tells me AVB might have dug into them a little, even though it was a friendly. The duo continue to press, showing not only great pace and movement, but wonderful technique. Sigurdsson seems like he might be anonymous for 60 minutes and then bag a lovely goal and an assist in 10. This pure technique can, did, and will, change matches. The Red Bulls supporters club, apparently called “The Vikings” start doing a goofy dance (that seems like it has been done somewhere else, but I cannot recall where). They put their hands on each others shoulders and bounce left and right through the aisles. The mutant Poznan is a success. The ball rolls out for a Tottenham corner, Sigurdsson puts in a wonderful outswinger, Bale leaps what looks like three feet from our vantage point, scales the cherubic frame of Dax McCartney, and powers his header into the top-left corner. A heart symbol follows and the Spurs support is dancing now.
Sigurdsson’s corners have been a constant threat this match, finding heads at good angles and pace. I dare say that they are bordering on “his corner’s are worth 10m alone” territory and, speaking of, a refrain of “FUUUCK CHARLIE ADAM” belts out of the Spurs section after both Bale’s goal and his substitution. A little later Sigurdsson pops up on the left, leaves his defender with nausea as he turns him to and fro, and calmly curls a ball into the top-right corner. Brilliant strike. The Icelandic wonderboy tantalizes and this scoreline holds, 2-1 Spurs. After the match Bale says, regarding one pudgy Liverpool 26, ”people like that aren’t worth commenting on. He knows what he’s done wrong”. Bad blood.
During the humorous conversation and sideways glaces that dotted the train ride home I picked up on a well-groomed British business man saying to his friend “I’ve never been at a ground quite like it and it was a brilliant match, but hearing this guy behind me try and pronounce Huddlestone “HUD-UL-STONE” was going at my ears with a carving knife!” No single sentence has been more emblematic of the matches I’ve been to in New York. The passion is here, evidenced by angry El Salvadorian supporters pelting Bojan Krkic with the 24 oz. sodas that will soon be banned, but something still feels off. It is ok. The sun sets as it always does, a rooftop game is being played somewhere midtown, the piers are crowded with the baggage that accompanies 5-a-side games. Football is alive in New York City. Pele, Carlos Alberto, and Franz Beckenbauer are smiling in Rio and Munich. Giorgio Chingalia is looking down at it all. The master plan is slowly and finally unravelling.
1. This is the only time that I will ever refer to Billy Joel as badass, promise.