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Where you play, we follow: How to see your team when you’re not supposed to see it at all

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Steve Ferrezza follows RBNY, even when that’s presumed to be impossible.

United States v Costa Rica - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Once A Metro is a website that exists to follow the New York Red Bulls. Steve Ferrezza appears to exist for similar reasons. When it emerged that RBNY was going to have to play a CONCACAF Champions League game in Costa Rica in a closed-door stadium, OaM and Ferrezza had the same problem: how to get to the game? The solution: collaboration. The result: a story about getting to a game no one was meant to get to.

I’m not sure I’m getting into Costa Rica today. I’ve been awake since 4:15 am; I’ve been traveling since I backed out of my driveway 20 minutes after that, and my eyes are on the prize of a CONCACAF Champions League game that kicks off in San Jose, at around 9:00 pm, Costa Rica time. But right now, the Costa Rican immigration officer’s eyes are on me - and they’re not looking too impressed.

When you say it aloud, it becomes pretty obvious that “I am visiting your country to watch a football match between an American team and a Honduran team that fans aren’t allowed to attend, and then I’ll be on my way” is not the most convincing explanation for a travel itinerary that involves landing in Costa Rica in the morning and leaving 15 hours later.

I don’t know what stories get told to Costa Rican immigration, but the agents I’m dealing with aren’t really listening to me anyway. They’re focused on what they’re looking at: a lone traveler with no luggage and no place to stay. And my “I’m going to see that game no one is allowed to see” tale isn’t doing a lot to make them feel like I’m on the up and up. But it’s the only story I have, and it doesn’t change no matter how many times they ask me about it, and I do have a plan to be back at the airport shortly after midnight for a 2:30 am flight to Fort Lauderdale.

As much to their own surprise as mine, my passport is stamped. I’m in Costa Rica.

This journey hasn’t really run smooth since I left my house around 4:30 am this morning. Back then, the plan was to hop a 6:00 am flight to Atlanta and connect with a plane heading to San Jose from there. Once in Costa Rica, I’ll watch the New York Red Bulls play CD Olimpia in CCL, and then it’s back to the USA on a 2:30 am flight to Fort Lauderdale. All told, it’ll be 32 hours before I’m back home.

At least, that’s the plan. I’m an airline employee, so I can fly standby - but when I get to Newark International, I realize that the flight out of Atlanta to Costa Rica is looking a little full. I can risk getting to Atlanta but not making it on the plane to San Jose, or I can take the chance of not getting a plane to Costa Rica right here in New Jersey. I opt for the latter: there’s a flight direct to San Jose out of Newark - I’ll take it. I’m third on the standby list with five seats available on the plane heading out to Costa Rica from Newark. I like my chances.

I like my chances less when the last passengers board the flight. Normally, I’d expect to be called for a seat assignment within the first 15 minutes of boarding; now I’m freaking out. But all I can do is frantically refresh the United app hoping to see a seat assignment next to my name, while I try to remember all the other ways to San Jose on a Thursday morning in New Jersey.

Fortunately, the app finally delivers the seat assignment I’ve been looking for and I practically run to the podium, exhaling for the first time in about an hour.

Breathing normally in a seat on a plane to San Jose, I can take a moment to reflect on what I’m trying to do. I’m on my way to my 49th consecutive Red Bulls game. It is a streak that started after the Champions League game in Antigua, Guatemala in 2016. I have not missed a match since then, in all competitions. Now I’m in my seat on a closed-door plane going to a closed-door game, and I can think a little more clearly about what I’m going to do.

I have been to 48 straight RBNY games, followed the team all over in that time, but this match will be completely different from any I have ever seen before - during this streak or otherwise.

RBNY’s opponent in this match - CD Olimpia - has suffered through a series of unfortunate events. Crowd trouble during last year’s CONCACAF League brought Olimpia a six-game penalty: no home games in international club competitions for the length of the punishment; Los Leones must play their home games away from their home stadium and without any fans for six international club tournament matches. The team still managed to win CONCACAF League, and qualify for CCL, despite having to play the semifinal and final rounds without the comfort of a home leg in either series. And the no-home-matches penalty has followed Olimpia into CCL.

Just to add to the Honduran club’s difficulties, Honduras itself has been the site of significant political unrest and protests since a contentious general election in late 2017. CONCACAF decided it was best to keep its competitions out of Honduras altogether for now, so the Honduran teams in CCL were forced to find new places to play their home games for the tournament. For this round-of-16 series against RBNY, Olimpia is “hosting” the first leg in Costa Rica (because of persistent public protests in Honduras), in an empty stadium (because of prior crowd trouble at Olimpia’s home ground).

So to extend my RBNY watch to a 49th game, I’m attending this one as press: repping OaM. There’s a press pass waiting for me at Estadio Nacional in San Jose. All I need to do is get there.

The flight is mercifully uneventful. Getting grilled by customs and immigration was unexpected, but ultimately I’m in San Jose with time to spare. A lot of time to spare. I have about seven hours to kill before I can get into the game.

Luckily, my Uber driver is fluent in English and extremely friendly. He gives me a basic outline of the city to help me get my bearings, and some suggestions on what to do with my time. I check out the stadium - the one place I need to know how to get to - and head for the safe harbor of a local mall to while away the hours.

It’s not my usual pre-game warm-up, but Black Panther in Spanish is a fun time, and that gets me through to 6:00 pm and my cue to head to an empty Estadio Nacional.

Estadio Nacional is not welcoming any fans this evening, so it is locked. There is one point of entry to the entire stadium, and it is protected by a security guard who seems to have one instruction: don’t let anybody in.

He doesn’t appear to know anything about press credentials, both as a concept and as represented by the email I got from CONCACAF approving me to cover the game. And I don’t have nearly enough Spanish to explain either to him. Eventually, he agrees to talk to his supervisors, and someone on the other end of his phone figures out who I am and where I need to go to get a media pass.

Donde esta la press box? I’d have a better chance of finding Wakanda: at least I know more Spanish vocabulary about that place than I do about navigating soccer stadia. So it takes a while for me to get past the confused faces and my own frustration at not having paid more attention in Spanish class at high school, but eventually I find the elevator that takes me to the upper deck and Estadio Nacional’s press area.

Maybe because it’s two hours before kick-off and there are no fans to cater to, the stadium Wi-Fi doesn’t seem to have been switched on when I land in my seat, high above the midfield. An unlimited international mobile data plan and a laptop let me watch go90’s stream of the Cibao-Chivas game that precedes this one. The small crowd in attendance for that match looks about 10% of the capacity of Estadio Nacional.

It’s eery and cold in this stadium. San Jose had been warm during the day, but the sun set about two hours ago and I’m huddled in an Asbury Park FC jacket trying to stay warm. It seems appropriate to be wearing the colors of a team that doesn’t exist for a game that no one is allowed in to watch.

Weirdly, the stadium starts to go through its usual pre-game routine. There is music pumping through the speakers, training cones are out the field for warm-ups, the pitch gets watered before kick-off. But, of course, there are no fans here to take it all in: if the tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see it, it still falls, folks. At least, if that tree is in a CONCACAF forest, the confederation will make sure it falls.

As kick-off approaches, a cluster of people appears just below the press box. They let fans in after all? Did that one security guard get overwhelmed by a small but determined group of Costa Ricans who were really curious about what was happening at their national stadium tonight?

Closed doors or not, every protocol of a normal match is followed with remarkable dedication. The people watching the game are the families of the mascots who accompany the players on to the field.

My usual match routine involves capo-ing with my back to the field, so having a bird’s eye view of the field from the press box is a new experience. I’m also sat next to Matt Harmon of New York Red Bulls Radio. I have the perfect view accompanied by my own personal commentary.

If you’re not familiar with Harmon’s broadcasts for RBR, become so. He’s one of the most knowledgeable voices associated with the club and he seasons his commentary with little nuggets of news about RBNY. He’s a consummate pro and an underappreciated jewel in the crown of the Red Bulls’ regular media coverage.

When I’m not eavesdropping on Harmon’s radio broadcast, I can hear every word being yelled by players and coaches down on the field. Jesse Marsch has a lot to say; new RBNY captain Luis Robles says even more. Without a crowd to drown them out, every word of tactical analysis and instruction is audible. Most of what I get from this is that Robles and Marsch would be excellent capos.

In the 31st minute, Daniel Royer opens the scoring for RBNY. There is no cheering or celebrating, but there is palpable relief in our corner of the stadium. The go-ahead goal offers a glimmer of hope that the Red Bulls might pull off a win in Costa Rica. On the field, the look and sound of the players and staff is more “good but not good enough”; the desire to press on for another goal is visible.

Unfortunately, the Red Bulls leave their momentum in the locker room at half-time. The RBNY personnel around me still seem optimistic that the game is going to work out in their team’s favor, but there are some nervy moments in the opening exchanges of the second half.

And then Aurelien Collin makes one of the most confounding fouls I have ever seen, and Olimpia ties the game from the penalty spot in the 72nd minute.

As the ball hits the net from the PK, the Olimpia camera man becomes a one-man cheering section: celebrating, whistling, yelling words of encouragement to the team he’s covering. It’s a stark contrast to the buttoned-down reaction to the game’s first goal from the RBNY side of the press area, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy me a little.

But I’m not here to see if I can rouse the Red Bulls staff into a chant or two, and those in the stadium with a care for RBNY are mostly focused on the clock. With the game tied, it seems like everything slows to a crawl. Everyone I see appears to be counting down the minutes to the final whistle, as it becomes increasingly clear taking a 1-1 tie and an away goal out of the first leg will be no bad thing, and certainly better than a 2-1 loss.

The game does indeed end 1-1, bringing both relief and disappointment. RBNY had clear chances to win the game, but also a few moments where the match could have been lost. In the end, it feels there is a resigned acceptance that the team could have had something a litte better out of the game, but it was not to be.

The end of the match brings another new experience: the post-game presser. Most weeks at Red Bull Arena, I capo in front of 1,500 people in the South Ward: I can handle a crowd. But there is no crowd at this post-match media chat. I am the only English-speaking media present, and the idea of asking a question that would be broadcast in multiple countries and languages is strangely intimidating. Maybe I’ll ask a question next time, but on this occasion I play it safe.

As I’m leaving the stadium, the Red Bulls turn the tables on me. I get the chance to introduce myself to Jesse, Robles, Ryan Meara and Connor Lade - and they fill about five minutes with a discussion of my efforts to get down for the game and my ongoing streak. These guys are celebrities to me, and that’s an experience that often leaves me tongue-tied, but this is just a normal conversation about an unusual journey. I leave Estadio Nacional feeling like it was all worthwhile after that moment.

It’s been back to business as usual since. I was at the second leg of this CCL series, in the South Ward at Red Bull Arena with my back to the game, cheering on the team’s winning effort and progression to the quarterfinals of this year’s tournament. And that means I’ll have a chance to see if I have another story to write - this time about crossing the border to Tijuana, Mexico, for the first leg of RBNY’s 2018 CCL quarterfinal series against Xolos.

I don’t know where my streak will end or how, but I do know the experience of following RBNY to an empty stadium in Costa Rica will stay with me forever.