Take Me Out To The Soccer Game
New York's newest MLS team just played its first home game, at Yankee Stadium. The team seemed ready. Everything else was very much a work in progress.
Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
"Look at you, already on the bandwagon," I said to the guy holding on to the rail next to me, on a miserably crowded D train bound for Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC would be playing its first game. He had on the team's baby blue jersey, the hat, the scarf.
"Oh, I am total bandwagon, I have no shame," he said. "It was this or the Red Bulls and I wasn't going to go to New Jersey." We looked around the car at the sea of baby blue—a pastel, unintimidating blue that is entirely Man City's fault, as it's their color. "Look at this," he said. "I never thought I'd see the day. This is just the ultimate to me. I mean, I went to see AC Milan play Juventus in Giants Stadium when I was 10 years old." Around us, on the train, a big group of NYCFC fans—mostly young, mostly male, seemingly all Yankees fans—argued about upcoming fantasy baseball drafts.
I had worn no gear; my friend kept the Founding Member scarf for himself, the jackass. While I'll be rooting for the home team this season, I had decided, inanely, that for this first game I might as well root for the visiting New England Revolution, which explained my big, ostentatious Boston snapback. I'm from Boston, but I'm also an NYCFC season ticket holder.
That feels strange to write. It happened because a buddy saw how cheap the tickets were and asked me if I'd want to go in on a full season. His actual text from last May: "I'm betting in 20 years this'll be like having Pats season tix. My kids will be lucky." He was kidding, but he also may turn out to be right. Now we're grandfathered in. "In 20 years, we'll look like fuckin geniuses," he wrote. Two tickets to each of NYCFC's 17 home games—section 214B, in the front row, smack in the middle of the goal box—were ours for under $400, total.
The loud group near me on the train picked up on the Boston hat, as will happen on trains bound for Yankee Stadium. They heckled me, albeit in a friendly way. We talked about Pedroia—"I hate the guy's guts but he's the best second baseman in the league," said one Yankees fan who had quickly forgotten about Robinson Cano—and Tanaka and David Ortiz. "50 dingers this year," the loudest kid yelled. We didn't talk about soccer at all. When we got off the train at 161st Street, men were scalping tickets. For an MLS game. Of a team that had not yet played a home game.
Then I found my friend, and the trouble started.
There was a big metal barrier in front of the gate that could only be passed by moving either right or left. This should not be a difficult thing to do, but this was a huge crowd, it was cold out, and everyone wanted inside, now. No one could actually see that there was a barrier up ahead, either, and so the crowd just kept crushing toward the front, trying to get past it. Two guards kept telling people to go around, which was impossible to do at that point. Our mob of 70 or so stood there, yelling and impatient, for a good 15 minutes, watching other gates flow in more or less reasonably. (These problems were so bad they delayed the start of the match.) A woman started shrieking at the two guards. She wasn't representative of the broadly sports-bro demographic—she looked older than 60, wore a filthy BRONX hoodie, was missing most of her teeth, and she was pissed. "We spent all this FUCKIN' money and you won't FUCKIN' let us in now?!" She sounded like what the Wicked Witch might have sounded like had she been born in Soundview. If she was angrier than everyone else, she also had a point; it seemed as if security truly hadn't anticipated that more than 43,000 people would come to this soccer game. They weren't very apologetic about it, and when people inevitably forced the metal barrier aside and started pouring through it, the guards weren't able to do much about that, either.
A baseball diamond, when converted to a soccer pitch, looks strange and makeshift, which is no one's fault, really. At Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC will be playing at least its first season and most likely its first few, one goal box runs along the first baseline, the other out in left field. On the right side of the pitch is some extra space, by the right field wall, but they've set up barriers there—sponsored and branded, naturally—that make it look passably normal. On the left side of the pitch, however, lies half the infield, from home plate to the pitcher's mound, very much exposed and distracting. The Yankees are already whining about the setup. Mark Teixeira, hilariously, told the press, "it's going to suck."
And yet it was not entirely unlike a Yankees game, in terms of suck or charm. The crowd was awash in NYCFC jerseys, NYCFC scarves, NYCFC gloves; my rough estimate is that 90 percent of the fans were male. Behind us, a guy in a firefighter helmet with the NYCFC logo on it was already deeply, loudly hammered. When Adam Nemec, one of the team's bigger-name stars, missed two good shots on goal early, the fireman put him on blast. "Nemec, you SUCK Nemec!" the guy screamed. "I'm TIRED of this guy already. Nemec, you fuckin' SUCK!"
It felt like a Yankees game in other ways, too. In the outfield, signs for the usual sponsors were arrayed: State Farm, New Era, Steiner Sports, Goldenberg's Peanut Chews. A guy nearby splattered ketchup from a hot dog onto his powder blue jersey. Another kid double-fisted two Bud Heavies. This was MLS in the Bronx.
There was one lone square of Revolution fans, a sea of red way up along the third baseline, and I wasn't in it, which meant that I got my share of shit for the Red Sox hat, though nothing on the order of the "Boston sucks" and "Tom Brady's gay" chants I heard from drunk Rangers fans after wearing a Red Sox hat to a Rangers/Bruins (preseason) game once. Anyway, there were other, more deserving things to yell at.
Early in the game, a Revolution player went down and the ref called time. The "fireman" called him a pussy, and everyone in the stands booed. The boos led to chanting, but, for now, all the fans have come up with for chants is, "NYC! NYC! NYC!," at the same pace as a defiant Homer Simpson U-S-A chant. When the Revolution missed a shot, the faux-fireman yelled, "Nice one, faggot! Try again! Fuck you, Velasquez, or whatever your name is." The kid next to me cringed. No one was safe. At some point the home team subbed in a player named Shay Facey, and they showed his name on the screen, to widespread jeers even from the home fans. "Fuckin' himself in the face, that guy," said someone behind me, seeking laughs. "Fuck him in the... facey."
We didn't have to wait long for a goal. It happened in the 19th minute, right in front of us, when David Villa knocked it into the right side. The crowd went berserk, a "Villa, Villa, Villa!" chant erupted, and an appropriately dorky animation played on the screens: the 4 train pulls up, with graffiti-style NYCFC marked on the sides, its doors open, and the word GOAL emerges. Somewhere in Tampa, watching from a shitty hotel, Mark Teixeira scowled.
The second half had almost the same level of energy. It was something to behold. NYCFC scored again; the Revolution never did. I was curious when they'd cut off beer sales—the answer is in the 70th minute. The suds wore off, the rowdiest fans grew less rowdy, and then everyone was freezing. People started to head for the exits with a few minutes still left. They were satisfied—the home team had won, 2-0, after an anticlimactic 1-1 draw against fellow expansion team Orlando City in the year's first game.
NYCFC will succeed, even if it has not yet succeeded in figuring out some of the finer points of its temporary home. 43,500 people showed up on Sunday—that bests the average attendance last season at Yankees games of 42,500, and was so many people that the food vendor I tried ran out of both pizza and chicken tenders at halftime. He told me, when I finally reached the front of the line after more than 20 minutes, that they simply hadn't anticipated the demand.
Some 30,000 of Sunday's fans had bought a one-off ticket. Chalk that up to the novelty, if you like, but there is also a case to be made that NYCFC, and MLS, are riding a post-World Cup updraft. Stars like Frank Lampard will be joining the team in July; the team admitted it misled fans by letting it seem like he would be on the squad from the start. How many people will show up for the rest of the games, and how much they will care, is not a question anyone knows yet; I certainly don't have an answer. But I have a feeling Mark Teixeira is going to have to learn to deal with it. Sorry, bro.