HARRISON, N.J. — Two hours before NYCFC kicked off the second leg of its CONCACAF Champions League round of 16 clash against San Carlos on Wednesday, Chris Brenner walked up to Gate C of Red Bull Arena with a sign that read in all-caps, “This is not a home match.” Donning a grey NYCFC hat, a hoodie and jeans, Brenner stood in front of the gate and waited alone in the chilly afternoon for the doors to open.
“One thing that makes me a good fan is that I’m never a troublemaker,” Brenner said. “There’s no cursing. The sign is very G-rated.”
But the message was clear: By electing to play a home match at their arch rival’s stadium, NYCFC had upset a portion of their fan base. Some fans elected to remain home out of protest. The club’s five supporter groups released a statement claiming that contributing to their rivals financially was “unacceptable to our respective members and fellow fans.” One group, New York City SC, tweeted out a demonstration outside of the Dugout bar near Yankee Stadium, holding a banner that read “Homeless.”
“Everybody agreed this is not what we want,” NYCFC manager Ronny Deila said on Tuesday. “We want to play at home, but when the situation is like it is, it’s important that we think about winning. To win, it’s important that we don’t travel a lot. This was the best option around here. We just have to take the consequences and prepare really good. Hopefully — it’s a big game for us — hopefully our fans will come and support us.”
Yankee Stadium, the home venue for NYCFC, was not available due to preparations for the baseball season. Neither was Citi Field, the home of the Mets, where NYCFC will play four times in the upcoming MLS season. According to the club, none of the other venues it submitted were approved by CONCACAF, and season ticket holders were offered free tickets to the match due to “inconvenience to our loyal fans.”
“It’s not what our fans want,” NYCFC striker Héber said before the match. “But they should come to support us, because with them we are strong.”
As some fans protested across the street from Yankee Stadium, 4,396 people did show up to watch NYCFC beat San Carlos 1-0 (and 6-3 on the aggregate) to advance to the quarterfinals. It was far fewer than the 21,107 fans that NYCFC averaged at Yankee Stadium last season. But other than the Red Bull paraphernalia around the stadium, there was no indication that fans in attendance were making any kind of statement about the situation.
They chanted, cheered and applauded their players after the win. Alexander Callens scored the lone goal on the night, breaking free off a corner kick by Alexandru Mitriță in the 41st minute. Héber, who netted a hat trick in the first game, did not play. NYCFC could afford to rest him as they still dominated possession and shots.
“The atmosphere was good,” Deila said. “Not so many people, [but] people here were making a lot of noise. The pitch was really good. The players, I think they enjoyed playing today. It was a good atmosphere and a good game. I’m very happy with that.”
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who faced just two shots on target, added that the odd situation was out of the players’ control. NYCFC has established itself as one of the top franchises in MLS after beginning play in 2015, finishing first in the Eastern Conference last season and making the conference semifinals each of the last four seasons. It has a budding star in Héber and a new coach in Deila who preaches a constant attacking style of play. The consistent success, the talent and the up-tempo style should set NYCFC apart as one of the league’s top tickets.
But the stadium frustration remains. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the club was nearing an agreement for a 25,000-seat stadium in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. But the deal has not been finalized, and constructing a sports arena in New York City lends itself to a unique set challenges.
“There’s no words for it,” said Cesar Ruiz, a relocation specialist who made the trip from Queens. “It’s insane. We’re homeless. It’s been over five years.”
Sipping on a Modelo outside the arena, Ruiz, a season ticket holder, talked about waiting since MLS was established in 1996 for a franchise in New York City. He couldn’t root for the MetroStars (who became the Red Bulls) because they weren’t in the five boroughs. But when NYCFC came along, he found his team.
So did Angel Roman, a probation officer from upper New York who made the one-hour trip down. He understands why some fans are staying away in protest.
“With that said, I’ll watch them wherever,” Roman said. “I’ll watch NYC wherever they go. I was always holding out hope we would have a team in the city, and now we just need that next step of having a real home.”
Other fans lashed out at their peers who stayed away in protest. Alen Arenson, a consultant from Manhattan, believed fans were hurting their team by not showing up.
“If you’re a fan, you support your team,” Arenson said. “No matter where your team is playing, no matter who your team is playing against. You don’t boycott your team. What good does that do? If we lose tonight because there’s 2,000 people in the stadium, would they be happy? Is that what they want?”
NYCFC will host the first leg against Mexican power Tigres UANL in the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League. And again, the location is to be determined. NYCFC’s MLS home opener is Mar. 14 against FC Dallas, but it is uncertain whether Yankee Stadium will be available before that date.
Fans may have to once again make the choice between commuting to rival territory or staying home in protest. The decision weighs on even fans who have already made the trip.
“Great atmosphere,” Ruiz said, looking out at the stadium gates. “Besides playing at Red Bull Arena.”
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