Running With The Bulls
THE GREATEST SHOW ON TURF DRAWS A FAN EXPERIENCE UNPARALLELED BY THE OTHER MAJOR AMERICAN SPORTS.
The Jackson Street Bridge looks like it is on fire. Traffic is stymied over the mighty Passaic River by a phalanx on foot that swells into the lanes without regard for the tonnage of the sedans. Clad in red, some with bandannas or scarves wrapped around their faces, and a few wearing Viking helmets, the army moves slowly but deliberately toward a cloud of smoke. The source is the army’s leader, who holds road flares that are throwing off a red flame. He has rallied the troops to leave their barstools in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ, and traverse the bridge to get to Red Bull Arena and support their team’s match against the Houston Dynamo.
Their team is the New York Red Bulls , a Major League Soccer team that plays in Harrison, NJ, which is a town known for nothing. When the arena is at capacity, the crowd outnumbers the town’s population almost two to one. Bordering Harrison to the north is the mainly Scottish-, Irish-, and Brazilian-American suburb of Kearny, nicknamed “Soccer Town, USA.” The black- and blue-collar hamlet is known for churning out international soccer stars. Even if you aren’t versed in the sport, you’ve heard the names of Kearny’s favorite sons—John Harkes, Tony Meola, and Tab Ramos. To the south is the hardscrabble Ironbound, a real neighborhood in which fictional Tony Soprano was raised that now fosters a Portuguese community craving futebol of any kind. The two communities meet amid crumbling factory buildings in Harrison, where the Red Bulls, with living legend Thierry Henry on their squad, have created the most dynamic fan experience in American sports, just a 20-minute train ride from Manhattan’s World Trade Center.
America’s in-stadium soccer fandom is a lot like it is in countries where “The Beautiful Game” is the national sport, in that the superfans belong to supporters’ clubs. These are highly structured groups that take over a particular section of the arena, stand the entire 90-plus minutes of the match, and are constantly cheering or singing songs in unison.
Although there are a few bad people in every collective, the Red Bulls supporters’ clubs aren’t made up of hooligans; sure, they swear, taunt, and mosh, but they are welcomed by the front office. When the Red Bulls played in Giants Stadium, members of the clubs were scattered across the seating chart, and a Latino contingent intermingled with members of English-speaking clubs, often leading to warbled, multilingual cheers. With the move to Harrison, the organization designated the South Ward, an area feet from the south goal, as a home for the supporters, and each club now has a defined section within it. There are even stands from which the cheerleaders, or whips, lead their clubs. Before they followed their commander and his red road flare onto the bridge, the members of the Empire Supporters Club (ESC)—the oldest supporters’ club in Major League Soccer—had been singing and fortifying themselves with grilled meats and beers at El Pastor Restaurant. The ESC is a collection of white and Latino fans, including middle-aged punks and hipsters, who turn the outdoor section of the humble Portuguese restaurant into their own block party before all of the Red Bulls home games.
The Viking Army, also part of the crowd, prepared closer to the bridge at Catas, a slick bar that one online reviewer called “romantic.” It was anything but the day of the game, unless you counted the Viking Army members who were swooning over a blond bartender with a neck piece. Fans drank beer by the pitcher and $10 sangria, which was served in the quart-sized plastic containers that are typically used for takeout orders of soup. When the Army’s leader called on his members to march, there was at least one non-member joining the group. Brennan Davis, a tattoo-covered soccer fan from Turkey, was only in town for the weekend, but he skipped the sights in New York City to take up with the Vikings and see what American soccer had to offer. “I heard these games are fun and want to be able to experience it,” he says.
After their traffic-stopping march, the clubs and their members make their way to the stadium. Outside, two preteens unaccompanied by parents take off their church clothes, stuff them into SpiderMan backpacks, pull on Red Bulls jerseys, and join the crowd on its way in. The club supporters head to their seats in the South Ward. Just above their area, a rockabilly dad with tattooed arms sits with his three young children. Another father emerges from the tunnel with a #1 Red Bulls foam finger affixed to the end of his inked wrist. He isn’t just pumped for the contest and the atmosphere; he’s also stoked that a ticket costs only $12 (the price of a Beck’s beer at Yankee Stadium).
On the pitch, the Red Bulls are trying to find their rhythm, but the supporters’ clubs are already tuned up. The Viking Army—a non-profit organization that “strives to participate in charitable endeavors” and is “open to all Red Bull NY fans as long as you hate the Philly Bimbos, The D.C. Scum, and Cardboard ‘Cosmos’”—is belting out a sped-up version of “I Will Follow You,” waving Scandinavian flags, and blowing vuvuzelas. Frank Pasqua, who has a skull tattoo by Mike Di Dia of White Lotus Tattoos in Toms River, NJ, and other work by Ty Pallotta of Premium Blend Tattoos in Manahawkin, NJ, sings along with the throng. Pasqua is new to soccer—the affliction was sexually transmitted by his girlfriend—but he’s a quick learner and has already picked up the intricacies of the game play and the songs that permeate the stadium. “This is awesome,” he says. “To be able to stand with thousands of people, watch soccer, sing songs, drink beer, and yell at the opponent—what could be better?”
In the 15th minute of the match, Henry, once the top-ranked soccer player on the planet, takes a shot on goal that goes wide. The Viking Army is apoplectic. The action goes back and forth as the Red Bulls and the Dynamo try to figure out each other’s weaknesses, but the stadium is rocking thanks to House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” An hour in, the match is still scoreless when the announcer urges the Red Bulls to “Charge.” Eric Alexander advances the ball from the right flank, and Fabian Espíndola runs onto it and takes a shot that tucks under the arm of Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall for the first goal of the match.
The sea of red in the South Ward looks like a tidal wave that’s about to wash out the pitch in celebration. The Garden State Ultras—one of the more extreme Red Bulls clubs, with the motto “Blood Is Honor”—whip off their shirts, fling their beers in the air, smack each other with their scarves, toss up smoke bombs, and create a free-for-all mosh pit in their section.
“This is good soccer,” says sleeved-out Kearny resident Harold Pineda as he removes his Wayfarers.
But is it as good as it is overseas? “We’re not there yet,” says Roy Somers, who has a collection of traditional American ink. “The MLS is still young, so hopefully it will get to where it needs to be. I hope they don’t screw it up.” And then in true Red Bulls supporter fashion, he yells, “Fuck Philly!”
At most other sporting events, fans record the action on their phones and devices, but in the South Ward there isn’t one iPad outstretched; these supporters are in the moment. Lucas, who declines to give his last name, came alone but is surrounded by hundreds of friends in the ESC section. He follows along as the club’s whip, a sleeved dude wearing a polo shirt and a driver’s cap, leads his charges in Oi! band covers. Between songs, Lucas explains that he comes in from Brooklyn for every home game—he’s willing to travel for quality, as his Japanese work was done in Senzala Tattoo in Puerto Rico.
The song has switched to “Runaround Sue” when the ball comes toward the Dynamo goal beneath the South Ward. Lucas’s singing gets louder as the ball makes its way down the field, but when the Red Bulls break through the Dynamo defense, he falls silent, concentrating on the play with two minutes to go in regulation. Henry sneaks the ball to Jonny Steele, the Red Bulls midfielder who is covered in black-and-gray tattoos. Steele corrals the pass, sets, and then blasts it into the top corner of the net. Pandemonium erupts as “Bulls on Parade” blasts from the stadium loudspeakers. The tenor stays at fever pitch until time expires, with the Red Bulls besting the Dynamo 2-0.
As families begin to exit the stadium, “Empire State of Mind” plays on the arena’s PA system, but Alicia Keys is drowned out by the supporters who form bullhorns with their hands and chant, “Let’s go, Red Bulls! Let’s go, Red Bulls!” After the two teams exchange pleasantries, the New York players make their way from midfield to the South Ward, where they clap to the crowd in thanks for their support and help with the victory.