I’m writing this from the middle of a 13-and-a half-hour drive home. Google Maps says we’ll be home just before midnight. It has been a solid, and stressful, 29 hours since the final whistle blew in Atlanta. Twenty-nine hours since the New York Red Bulls lost 3-0 to Atlanta United in the first leg of the 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final. Twenty-nine hours since 225 RBNY supporters watched the team they traveled 850 miles to cheer turn its back on them and walk off the field.
I’ve thought a lot about this moment. My feelings at the time were vicious anger and resentment towards the players. I was bitter, not at the result on the field, but at the response from the players. They hung their heads and walked out on the fans.
I’m not writing this to shame the players that walked off the field. If anything, I want to motivate them. I don’t expect they’ll read this and understand what we felt, but bashing them doesn’t feel right. Instead, I want to try to remind everyone that we really are true believers. That no matter the adversity or obstacles thrown our way, we are always there for our players and our team.
Last year at the US Open Cup semi-final in Cincinnati, 70 supporters journeyed to Ohio for a midweek game. We brought banners, flags, and our drum and supported the entire game. Even when we were down 2-0 in the 70th minute, we were still making some noise.
Then RBNY scored to make it 2-1. We got a little louder. Then RBNY scored again: 2-2. People started crying.
When Bradley Wright-Phillips scored in the 101st minute to make it 2-3, the entire team ran over to the supporters who didn’t give up on them. The supporters who took days off from work and spent hundreds of dollars to watch the team play. We could have easily shut down and given up, but we didn’t. We kept going.
There were 350 RBNY supporters who traveled to the 2017 USOC Final in Kansas City, another midweek game. Once again, we sang in full voice. Not only for the full 90 minutes, but well after the final whistle blew. I will never forget the players staring up at us, dejected and disappointed after a 2-1 loss, watching us sing “We Love You” for 10 straight minutes. We may not have won the Cup, but we weren’t going to turn our backs on the players and let them wallow. There were still games left to play and we were going to continue to be there to support them, no matter what.
My point is twofold. First, the supporters will always be here. We will always sing and travel whatever distance is necessary to support our team. Second, the players have experienced hardship before and have seen us supporting them, no matter the outcome. The supporters don’t walk out of the stadium at the final whistle, we stay until the players come over to us. Win, lose, or draw, we clap for them. Whether we get a response or not, we sing for them.
I get that the players were disappointed in their performance in Atlanta. Like I said, I’m not writing this to shame anyone for walking out. But I would like them to remember they have supporters who love them unconditionally. Supporters for whom being there - for good or for bad; whatever it takes - is the whole reason for being there. Among our number at the Benz were those who’d seen their car totaled in an accident on the drive down. They found a rental in Virginia and continued on their way to Georgia.
When the players turned their backs and hurried to the changing room on Sunday night, there were many like myself that felt slighted. But we will still be there on Thursday in full voice. We will sing as long and as loud as we need to, just like we did in the final regular-season game when the Supporters’ Shield was on the line. We knew we were behind the proverbial eight ball that day, but we believed. We believed that the team could win the game and win the Shield. And so they did.
On Thursday, we’ll be just as loud as we were before, during, and after the second leg against Columbus. The team had to flip around a first-leg deficit that day too. I’m not going to say the Red Bulls won because the South Ward was rocking, but being loud and not giving up definitely has an effect on the players. They feed off of us, even if just a little.
Some have been doing this for more than 20 years and haven’t given up on the team. They still believe. This is my 10th season in ESC. I have seen us win three Supporters’ Shields and I have seen us crash out of the USOC to Harrisburg City Islanders twice. The highs are euphoric and the lows are heartbreaking, but I still believe in this team.
And I believe this team is special and unlike any team I’ve watched before. I believe they can overcome anything as long as they don’t quit on themselves and the fans. The body language of the players as they walked off the field in Atlanta looked like that of a team that had already given up on the second leg. I truly hope they haven’t. I know the supporters haven’t.
We are down 3-0 with 90 minutes to play. We may have to be better than perfect against arguably one of the best-assembled teams in MLS history. But the players should not doubt their abilities. This is the same team that won five in a row and won the Shield. This is the same team that came within one goal of making the CONCACAF Champions League final this year.
And when they fell to Chivas, they didn’t tuck their tails between their legs. They didn’t phone in the rest of the season. They didn’t use CCL as an excuse to play poorly. They used it as a motivating force: they came up short in CCL, but they wouldn’t come up short in league play.
Now the Red Bulls have a mountain to climb at home. I’ll be there on the perch doing my best. Hopefully my voice comes back by then, because I plan to sing until the very end. Beyond the very end: whether we win or lose, I’ll be singing well after that. There’s a reason I have “As Long As I’m Breathing” tattooed on my arm.