It was late on Sunday night. Red Bull Arena had hosted back-to-back games. There were players, staff, and fans who had been in and around the stadium for more than seven hours. Were they tired? Maybe. But it was hard to tell in the aftermath of watching New York Red Bulls II winning the USL Eastern Conference playoff final on October 16. People had to be tired, but there was too much jubilation in the stadium for it to show.
In the tunnel, huddled with the press pack, waiting for post-match comments, I saw Jesse Marsch run to John Wolyniec and ask to speak the II team. Then I heard my name: "DANIEL!" Ali Curtis, beaming and delighted, gave me a high-five and a hug in lieu of a comment. Marsch emerged from his chat with the II team: another high-five, another hug. I'm not sure either of those gentlemen would hug me if I handed them a winning lottery ticket, but NYRB II had just put itself in the USL Cup final and they were in the grip of unbridled joy. And in such a moment, even the guys carrying recording devices get hugs.
John Wolyniec appeared, smelling of cider. We shook hands.
But those hugs were perhaps the most eloquent post-game comments I got. They spoke to the significance of the II team's achievement to the entire New York Red Bulls organization. And they summarized one of the most memorable days at Red Bull Arena since it opened in 2010.
RBNY has come a long way since. The Arena opened in the shadow of one of the worst seasons in the club's (Red Bull or MetroStar) history. But the stadium has seen more good days than bad, including the experience of watching the team win its first trophy: the 2013 Supporters' Shield. There has been another Shield (clinched on the road) since then. And all that was won on October 16 was the regular-season MLS Eastern Conference title. Well, it was as good as won that day - and when it is official, it will be the Red Bulls' fourth Eastern Conference title in the last seven seasons. But that win and the win that saw the reserves through to a national championship game had the club's leadership as giddy as the fans who stayed for the games, and the players who participated in either.
It was a special day. Outside the Arena before RBNY kicked off the first game of the double-header, there was a buzz among the fans filing in. A scoreless first half between the Red Bulls and Columbus Crew might have dampened that a little, but then Mike Grella brought the crowd to its feet.
And Bradley Wright-Phillips did it again.
The game had a nervous finish but the right result to send the home team's fans home happy.
Except many didn't go home. They stayed to watch the club's young reserve team battle back from a goal down to get to 1-1 and extra time.
And then to penalties.
And then another celebration.
It was a very happy locker room after RBNY beat Columbus to all but seal that MLS Eastern Conference title and the first seed in the East for the upcoming playoffs. But there were no hugs.for the stray reporters trespassing on the team's achievement. Those didn't come until the end, when the club could safely celebrate a successful Sunday.
They were stepping-stone victories: the wins both teams needed to set themselves up for a shot at bigger prizes. And both teams hope to celebrate bigger moments in the near future. But the double-header day was a special moment because it was one few would have predicted when RBA opened in 2010, when the primary question was whether the RBNY squad was retooled sufficiently to get past the epic embarrassment of 2009. No one was thinking that in just seven seasons there would be four Eastern Conference titles (that fourth is one coming; count on it), two Shields, one NPSL Championship, and not one but two successful teams calling Harrison home. And that - at least once - that success would overlap on the same day.
For the rest of the season, all the games at Red Bull Arena will be for high stakes: the USL Championship on October 23; MLS playoffs roll into town on November 6.
These are the big games RBNY wants to be hosting: commercially, competitively, and maybe - as a couple of unexpected hugs on a Sunday night communicated - just because the organization loves itself some soccer.