“Let’s go,” I tell the kids as I switch off the ignition. “Scarves? Hats? Gloves?” I ask rhetorically. I look away from the rearview mirror to avoid the invariable rolling of her eyes. I can picture her thinking, in exasperated emoji, “You know I’m almost a teen now!” As we walk towards MSU Soccer Park, I’m perturbed by persistent thoughts that have sprung up like an unwelcome guest this off-season. Do I want to be here? Why am I doing this? What am I looking for?
Inside the stadium my eyes search for hints of familiarity while staring at the starting eleven for the Baby Bulls. I scan for recognizable faces and find no comfort looking at the crop of new players. Reality hits seeing Evan and Jordan in the opposing team’s colors. It’s disorienting and a stark reminder that change has always been the norm for this team, perhaps even more so this season. My comfort level goes into zen mode when my eyes rest on Alex, Omir, Jared, and Chris.
We sit in the bleachers with the game underway. I make mental notes trying to memorize new faces with their jersey numbers. The atmosphere is blissfully ideal. There are no 50-50 announcements to take the focus off the game, or an in-game host to drum up enthusiasm. The surroundings are sparse and the vibe feels authentic.
It’s very much in tune with the Red Bull II model of developing homegrowns and college kids. There isn’t even a video board to replay a moment I miss grabbing a hot dog while she mulls over the candy selection. Yes, I want to be here. I’m here to enjoy an unadulterated atmosphere of soccer. It’s 90 minutes of quality time sharing a game I love with them. As in previous years, we will compare notes about the rookies, delight in the spontaneity of wondrous goals, and agonize over shared screams when we’re scored upon.
As we’re eating on the standing tables while observing the guys go up and down the field, my thoughts turn to this year’s squad. Will Preston make the leap this year? Does Kyle put his stamp on this year’s squad? How high is Omar’s ceiling? I’m really curious about Caden, Cherif, and Deri. Then there are the question marks- Ben and Roy. Do they both remain healthy enough to contribute and become part of the conversation for the first team? How will integrating playing time for ‘tweeners like Matti, Omir, Jared, or Chris affect development of the new prospects? I’ve seen Woly and Ibra weave enough of their magic over the years to know deep down that the kids will be alright. We’ll revel in the unbridled joy of getting to know this team over the season. The intimate confines of the stadium along with an opportunity to better know them is why we keep coming back for more.
I think back to 2015 when we started this journey. Little did I know New York Red Bulls II would become such an important part of our lives. They’ve both grown up alongside this team and have learned to appreciate different phases of the game. His memories are full of indelible conversations with Tyler, Brandon, and Jared. Over the years, she’s formed a personal bond with Derrick, Hassan, and Tom. I remind myself that I’m doing this as much for them, as for myself. It’s detox from digital trappings. A welcome opportunity to experience something genuine, tangible, and pristine.
They’re both now at an age where they seldom want autographs or selfies. A meaningful conversation with a player they admire is enough to satiate their curiosity. As for me, RB2 will remain a time capsule as I try to photograph them without being met with typical teenage disapproval. Looking back at some of the pictures over the years brings so much joy while being a reminder of that cliché about kids growing up too fast.
As the game ends and the bleachers empty out, they make a beeline to meet the team on the sideline. I look at their faces and see exuberance and joy as they fist bump the lads. It’s amusing looking at the rookies who are somewhat bewildered at the sight of an adoring audience. There’s something pure and magical as I observe the kids have a word with Jared and Chris before we make our way to the parking garage. I look in the rear view mirror as she straps herself in. “Let’s go,” she says as I catch a twinkle in her eyes. A smile crosses my face. This is exactly the experience I’m looking for.