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There goes the neighborhood?

NYCFC comes to Harrison

MLS: New York City FC at New York Red Bulls Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the tropes and traditions unique to the routine of global soccer fandom, one of the most fascinating is one of the most simplistically primal: my team is bigger than yours. When people discuss the “size” of their club or the other’s, it’s an inherently subjective and freestyled argument that makes it all the more fun. Trophy cabinets, transfer fee outlays, media profile all jockey for attention when the inevitable pissing matches about whose particular set of shirts and shorts deserves more respect on their name.

But it almost always boils down to the brick and mortar. Few markers are as permanent, as visual, and as connected to all of the other measurements as the club’s stadium. Whether your home ground is big or small, state-of-the-art or old-fashioned, nestled downtown or out in the suburbs, it sets the most consistent guideline for what your club is and what it is capable of. Players, coaches, owners, and even generations of fans come and go before a team’s venue does. While the modern American game is not yet long-established enough to develop some of the deeper spiritual aspects of this dynamic, MLS’s upward trajectory can be correlated with noticing it and focusing on venue building since its early ‘00s rock bottom, and stadium situations are an ever-present feature of league discourse – intensely so in New York.

Last week it was confirmed after a swirl of rumors (including an ambush of City staff at an event in a Times Square) that New York City FC will play their home leg of this month’s CONCACAF Champions League tie against Costa Rican side San Carlos at Red Bull Arena due to logistical conflicts at Yankee Stadium. After years of righteous ridicule of the baseball park’s comical unsuitability for soccer even when schedule conflicts didn’t force NYCFC to use satellite homes in Flushing and Hartford, the Red Bull fanbase has been thrown a curveball.

Without doubt, the situation remains an embarrassment for NYCFC and the bizarrely sincere rhetoric of Five Boroughs chauvinism rampant in their fan culture. After five years with no stadium plan in sight (suspiciously-timed reports not withstanding) City is nowhere close to the permanence that their fanbase and the league that oversees it should desire, and questions regarding the franchise’s continued existence should only grow in number and urgency.

But for Red Bull fans the immediate reaction has not necessarily been that of pride that their own venue – one that remains among the league’s most acclaimed even after a decade of constant new competition – is passive-aggressively saving a rival’s day. In a year that will mark RBNY’s first absence from Champions League action since 2015, having RBA’s 2020 soccer program opened by their neighbors stings. This spiritual anxiety regarding a rival’s on-field performance in home territory carries over into the stadium infrastructure. While NYCFC fans may be behind the curve on most aspects of soccer fandom, their past record of vandalizing Red Bull Arena and invading the South Ward displays a strong awareness of the spiritual power that the cathedral in Harrison grants to the Metro faithful.

It is unknown and likely inscrutable even with the deepest sources what led to this situation being settled on. From one vantage point, Marc DeGrandpre and the Red Bull front office can be praised for avoiding this situation for the first five years of City’s wandering. Surely there must be powerful pressures from the notorious single-entity corporate structure of MLS to help make it easier for the league maintain an artificial rival across the Hudson.

But now the seal has been broken, and RBA will from here on out be at the top of the list every time NYCFC are forced to barnstorm by their indifferent landlords. Under no circumstances can Red Bull allow the stadium and the pride it instills throughout the fanbase be sacrificed for the sake of facilitating a rival that has shown no serious effort to build the same for itself. The club must show the awareness of the stadium’s sanctity and inspirational power that was lacking when last year’s home Open Cup tie was moved to the reserve team ground at Montclair State University with painful results.

All the things that make a stadium powerful are magnified in RBNY world – especially in relation to City. Red Bull Arena is a monument to the club’s organizational coherence since its opening and a symbol of achievement and longevity for the fanbase that inhabits it. That City has so visibly and painfully faltered in their efforts to replicate the same legitimacy only strengthens the need to keep RBA from becoming their crash spot. Our club is bigger than theirs, and we need to act like it.