Ever feel like you won the Premier League when all you did was steal a draw? That was the atmosphere in New York last week after the match. The match was an eventful home draw for NYCFC but the stadium felt like it was a championship game in the MLS cup at the end of the match.
When a new club starts from scratch, especially in the US, it would be expected that there would be growing pains in fan support and how the fans are handled by the stadium. Likewise, it would be expected that it would take time to build a fan base out of nothing. New York just got its first MLS club this season (that is not located in New Jersey). Coming into the league as a mini-Manchester City and kid brother of the NY Yankees, NYCFC had to build everything from scratch. The fan experience for this match was a different experience than is typical, especially for away supporters.
Entering the House that Greed Built
For the Friday May 15th Fire match I had the opportunity to travel to the Bronx and experience Yankee Stadium and NYCFC as an away fan. I came along with some friends who were new to the sport and met up with the Section 8 away fans outside the stadium at the park across the street. Being from New York, but growing up a Mets fan, I had only been to old Yankee Stadium once. Standing across the street in enemy colors the new stadium looked impressive as a baseball structure but it looked out of place for footy.
The next thing I noticed was the crowd trickling in. The crowd themselves appeared dressed more for a baseball game then a typical MLS match. NYCFC tee-shirts and sharp looking new baseball caps (the bill slightly uneven on the head) were a typical style of dress with a smattering of kits and Manchester city kits. It was a very working class crowd. As most walked by, they seemed confused why a group of Fire fans would be collected outside the stadium. However, there was no heckling that one would expect from someone walking towards Yankee Stadium. Perhaps they had the chance to check the table before coming out?
As Section 8 collected their tickets from a very friendly New York staff, the security escort arrived to walk the Fire Supporters to their seats. Nearly 50 strong, the away support marched in with their flags in hands, since the Yankee staff would not allow poles in the stadium. Fire fans marched forward as one towards their seats. Still waiting for friends I hung back and took in the enemy fan base as they trickled off the trains and and into the stadium.
When I finally entered through the main gate my initial feeling was that I was back at LaGuardia Airport emptying my pockets for the X-ray machines and going through the metal detectors. As I got my ticket scanned and walked into the House that Greed Built, my overall impression was how institutional the walls felt. Bare grey walls. Dim tunnels. Wasn't this supposed to be one of those new baseball stadiums with a wonderful fan experience from every angle? I had already been in the rivals across town stadium Citi Field and that was an open stadium with walkways that provided a view while traveling to seats.
I grabbed a $12.00 beer and went to join the section. A block of seats had been put aside in the 2nd level on the third base side for away supporters. I looked down into empty space and realized the away supporters were forced by the security that surrounded the section to fill from the top of the section. Flags dangling on seats in front, we were 4 rows strong staring over a sea of empty seats. Security was in place, partially, to make sure we did not move forward to the front of the section.
All quiet on the 3rd-base side
My next observation was the pitch. The view from the 3rd base line had fans gazing across the partially covered infield at an obscure angle that left the pitch that was set in (mostly) the outfield seem very far off in the distance. Forced to sit in the top rows of the section, it felt very far indeed. Crammed into the outfield, the pitch was thin and not very serviceable in width. There would be very little wing play in this match and all corner kicks would prove to be dangerous coming from so close to the goal.
My impression of the crowd on the 3rd base side was that of a casually engaged spectator. As the match kicked off and the Fire scored off of a Razvan Cocis header in the 20th and then David Accam earned yet another penalty after being tackled from behind in the box (that Jeff Larentowicz converted) the crowd around Section 8 thoroughly deflated. Fifty Fire supporters' voices roared into the thick crowd but the sound dissipated in the unusual acoustics. The nearby crowd rarely roared back.
The NYCFC supporters section, placed in the outfield, were packed into three stands. They seemed to be singing but it was impossible to hear from infield to outfield. After the match I noticed exiting the stadium that there was a gigantic uniformed horn section but it was impossible to hear in the depths of Yankee Stadium.
With NYCFC down a player due to the red card for the tackle from behind of Accam in the box, and the Fire up two goals, it should have been a done deal. Even with David Villa's goal in stoppage time in the first half, the energy for NYCFC fans was not there. They seemed to have given up. The crowd failed to come alive on the 3rd base side but Fire supporters maintain a low hum. The supporters section carried on throughout the 2nd half.
The seconds ticked to the end. The Fire were just a few minutes away from a win. The quiet crowd changed quickly as Khiry Shelton came up with an equalizer in the 1st minute of 2nd half stoppage time. A shell shocked fan base that seemed to be more accustomed to defeat roared to life. Suddenly fans who were cowed and only looked sullenly at the Fire supporters section came to life and found their voice. A comeback yes, but a draw at home? Was this all it took to bring NYCFC fans to life? The song "You only sing when you win" came into my head for some reason, although the fans in our area were neither singing nor winning.
Draw prompts celebration
With no time left to spare the Fire conceded the draw and NYCFC fans walked away ecstatic. They has stolen a desperately needed point at home and they were going to enjoy it.
The stadium swiftly cleared out but Fire fans hung back with security until the stadium staff indicated it was time to be ushered out. I hung back with my wife and a few friends as the Fire procession left Yankee Stadium. The opposition's section carried on for quite a while.
Exiting on my own allowed me to stick around to observe the real NYCFC celebration. As fans filtered out from the dimly lit confines of Yankee Stadium groups collected in the street. Many NYCFC fans blocked the streets of the Bronx and screamed NY chants and cheers into the crowd. My friend - who had never experienced soccer crowds before - said it felt like a World Series final for baseball with the crowd excitement after stealing the draw. I hung back a bit from the crowd. With my Fire colors fully apparent I wanted to avoid conflict. Fans became more rowdy, one even pushing into a person in my small group as he stormed past. The cheering continued for many minutes. Finally a contingent of NYPD officers marched into the street and broke up the celebration moving the NYCFC fans along to the subway and Metro North trains.
Overall it was a fun experience although the venue and setup were not the best. The New York Yankee staff who clearly knows how to arrange for a baseball game has not made the adjustments to make the same positive overall experience for a MLS match. The NYCFC fans ultimately came alive after they pulled one over on the Men in Red. Their celebration for a 2-2 draw at home is admirable. I only wish I could get as excited about Fire draws. If I only could, last season would have been one of the best in history.