82813_isi_redbulls_mlshcs081713124 Howard C. Smith/isiphotos.com
Major League Soccer

Are the Red Bulls Ready for A Crosstown Rivalry?

We wanted to know, so we asked Jerome de Bontin, Mike Petke, Dax McCarty, and Ryan Meara how the Red Bulls are preparing for the arrival of another New York-area MLS team in 2015.
BY Chris Gigley Posted
August 28, 2013
10:00 AM
NEW YORK, New York—The atmosphere was electric at Red Bull Arena during the Aug. 17 scoreless draw between the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls. The enclosed stadium amplified the roar of the sell-out crowd. Many of those loud fans wore Red Bulls jerseys that cost more than $100 a pop at the stadium.

Those are tangible reasons the Red Bulls say they aren’t sweating the new MLS team coming to town in 2015. It took the Red Bulls about a decade to reach this point. General manager Jerome de Bontin says he wonders how long NYCFC will need, regardless of its deep-pocketed owners, the New York Yankees and Manchester City.

“We’ve all looked at the map and asked ourselves, ‘Where could they put a new stadium?’” says de Bontin.

So far, there is no answer, although there has been plenty of speculation.

Because of the Yankees’ stake in the expansion team, the primary assumption is it will play at Yankee Stadium, at least in the short term. The Yankees, however, are noncommittal. Then there’s the land near Citi Field in Queens. Depending on who you ask, those negotiations are either dead or barely alive.

The Red Bulls endured similar rumors, political haggling and red tape leading up to the debut of Red Bull Arena in 2010, which is why the organization built it in such an unlikely place, in Harrison, on the southern edge of downtown Newark, N.J. It was as close to Manhattan as they were going to get.

Three years later, the area is finally gentrifying. New, contemporary-looking apartment buildings are already up. And a day before the Philly match, the town of Harrison announced plans for a $256 million renovation of its PATH train station, the gateway for Red Bulls fans coming from New York City.

Those renovations won’t be done until 2017, however. Will that be too late to keep city-based fans coming?

“I think it depends on what kind of supporters they are,” says Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke. “If they truly follow the Red Bulls organization and the MetroStars before that, I would be surprised and bewildered if they would just jump ship because the team is closer to them.”

Petke has a better sense of that than most. He not only played for the MetroStars and Red Bulls, he grew up there. The Long Island native pulls for the Yankees and football Giants, and he can’t imagine ever changing allegiances. He can’t imagine any New Yorker switching.

“I expect to keep the supporters we have,” he says. “And if they do jump ship, good riddance. Bon voyage.”

There’s certainly one way the Red Bulls can stem any losses. They can win the MLS Cup, which the franchise has never done. Goalkeeper Ryan Meara, another native New Yorker, knows how much a championship can define a future fan base. He is a Mets fan despite growing up squarely in Yankees territory in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx.

“My dad was ten years old in ‘69, when the Mets were pretty new and won the World Series,” says Meara. “He just caught on with the Mets after that. Sometimes I wish it never happened, because then I wouldn’t be a Met fan suffering through all this losing right now.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty insists NYCFC gives the team no extra incentive to win now, before the expansion team has a chance to cultivate its own fans.

“I always feel pressure to win, but there’s only the pressure you put on yourself,” he says. “There will always be pressure from outside things like fans and the media. That’s stuff you have to block out.”

But McCarty says he has thought about the potential rivalry. The North Carolina alum knows how good it could be. One of his fondest memories from college was sneaking into the Tar Heels’ final regular season men’s basketball game against Duke, a game that decided the regular season conference champ.

“I didn’t even have a ticket for the game, but a friend of mine was working the door, McCarty recalls. “So I just took an old ticket stub, she ripped it for me, and I got in. When we won and everyone rushed the court, I was right there having fun. You could feel that intensity the whole game. You get that sense of passion.”

Both de Bontin and Petke are more cautious about discussing any rivalry at this point.

“You can’t step on the field the first time you’re playing a team and say it’s a rivalry,” says Petke. “It’s like someone getting traded to a new team and saying, ‘I love this organization. I’ll do anything for this organization.’ How? You just got here five seconds ago.”

But Petke adds that he does expect the rivalry to develop among the players over time. And for the fans, he thinks it will be immediate.

de Bontin isn’t so sure.

“When I hear [NYCFC] is going to position the team in some strongly ethnic part of town with the hope of building a fan base among those ethnicities, I think about L.A.,” he says. “There’s a danger there. You have to let a team develop it’s own identity. You don’t force it onto people. At the end of the day, where the team plays and who they’ll cater to will impact greatly the kind of rivalry we’ll have. It’s not a slam dunk to me.”

Nothing really is until the new team has a place to play. So until then, the Red Bulls are focused squarely on winning the MLS Cup right now. Whether they admit it or not, their place in the hierarchy of New York soccer may count on it.

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