New York City FC’s debut in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League is off to a good start.
The team won both legs of its Round of 16 series against Costa Rican side A.D. San Carlos, Brazilan striker Héber leads the competition with three goals in two games, and the team looks strong going into the Major League Soccer season.

What isn’t going to be fondly remembered is the team’s first home game in the SCCL.

While New York earned the win, 1-0, behind a late first-half header by Alexander Callens, the home crowd was not as loud as it normally is. In fact, the lesser crowd of about 2,700 did not watch the game from the team’s usual grounds at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx but instead saw it played out in an arena built specifically for both soccer and their biggest rivals, The New York Red Bulls.

City defender Anton Tinnerholm caught himself in a post-game interview nearly calling the Harrison, NJ arena home and took note of the unique situation.

“It’s good to be back in… outside New York,” he said, pausing midway through his thought and laughing. “It’s a little bit special to play here. I don’t have any good memories here, I’ve only been losing here, so it’s finally good to win a game here.”

First-year City coach Ronny Deila told the media after the game that while the crowd was small, he and the team felt the fans that were there did a great job keeping the atmosphere positive.

“There were not so many people but the few people that were here were making a lot of noise, so that was good, Deila said in the post-game press conference. “I think the players enjoyed playing today. I think it was a good atmosphere and a good game. I’m very happy about that.”

Fans were altered to the possibility of having to play games outside of Yankee Stadium not long after the 2019 season concluded. Yankee Stadium and Queens’ Citi Field were unavailable due to the fields being “winter-ized” in order to protect it from the harsh conditions of the off-season. More reports later stated that the team’s secondary location, Belson Stadium at St. John’s University in Queens, was not approved by CONCACAF for the competition. The team officially announced Red Bull Arena as the game venue on February 7, with the notice that all City Members would be given free tickets.

“The Champions League is a very important competition for us, and we’re looking forward to playing in this tournament for the first time in Club history.” said NYCFC CEO Brad Sims in the announcement “We do feel it is important for the game to be played at a venue in the greater metropolitan area, providing our fans with the opportunity to attend in person and support the team if they choose.”

“As always, I’d like to sincerely thank our loyal fans as they continue to support our team with great passion across multiple venues. They are vital in guiding our team to this competition, and it is greatly appreciated by the Club, coaching staff and players.”

In Harrison, fans’ moods varied throughout the game. Gerardo Uriel Martínez, a City fan since the team launched back in 2015, lamented prior to kickoff that he wished the match could have been played somewhere else. Even still, he was not going to miss it.

“I’m following the club no matter where they play. I want to be there, ” Martínez said. “Even though it’s at the Red Bull Arena I still had to be here to be present for the first game of the Champions League”

Another fan, Chris Teitel, was far more pleased with the situation than others. The fan of four years said seeing his team play a home game on an actual soccer pitch was “awesome” to watch. He also took note of similar situations that had happened to other teams in the SCCL’s Round of 16.

Photo: Michael Battista/New York Sports Nation

“If you look at some of the other first-leg matches, I think it was the Honduras team had to travel three or four hours to get to their match,” Teitel said. “Even San Carlos had to travel an hour to get to theirs. I get where CONCACAF is at with wanting it to be at an actual stadium.”

Both Honduran teams in the competition, C.D. Olimpia and F.C. Motagua, played their first leg matches at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, which is a six-hour drive away from the venue both teams use in the countries’ capital, Tegucigalpa. Stateside, Atlanta United FC played Motagua in the second leg at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia. The stadium, primarily used by Kennesaw State University, also houses United’s 2 team in the USL Championship and has previously been used by the first team in both the Champions League and U.S. Open Cup.

The common issue among most of these teams is that either field don’t meet CONCACAF standards or the venues themselves are multi-purpose and can’t accommodate soccer being played outside the standard league schedule. While some teams such as the Red Bulls or Atlanta have venues where they have invested time and funds to help develop players, City has yet to build a stadium for itself.

In a recent update, released just after the location of the Champions League announcement, Simms told fans that the club had made “significant progress” in its hunt for a soccer-specific stadium.

A New York Times article released the same day suggested that the long-rumored site down the street from Yankee Stadium, which currently holds parking lots and an elevator parts factory, is where the team is aiming.

Five years into its MLS existence, however, has left some fans more skeptical than enthused with progress. The announcement that the Champions League game would be played at Red Bull Arena became a somewhat contentious topic. The Third Rail, NYCFC’s largest supporter’s group typically seen standing and chanting in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, and four other groups announced they would boycott the game in protest. The supporters cited the venue selection as “the latest and bitterest setback in a secretive stadium search on which fans have not been updated and has yielded little tangible progress.”

One woman at Wednesday’s game proudly held up a sign during the match claiming “This Is Not A Home Game.”

Another fan at the match, who wished to not be named, went further with his distaste for how the club has operated these past few seasons.

“You’re looking at five years of poor club to fan relations,” he said when talking about the game itself. The fan, who claims to have been with the team since its founding, lamented at the fact that he feels the team is always going to be treated as an afterthought by both its owners, the Yankees and City Group, and front office staff like Simms don’t inspire confidence for the future. When asked why he came, he replied he nearly didn’t but “the tickets were dirt cheap.”

Dominic Campanile, a former New York Metrostars fan and City fan since 2013, doesn’t believe the fans who didn’t come should be shamed because of it. 

“It’s unfair to judge people who didn’t want to come today,” he explained. “I can understand why they wouldn’t want to come, being in the rival’s arena and everything. For every fan it’s different. For me, you gotta support the team because they need the support… Everyone supports their team in the way that they can and I think that’s what’s important. That’s what makes the culture so great.”

When factoring in the predicted poor weather (which never truly came), the additional travel to New Jersey, and it being played on a weeknight, the smaller crowd could be attributed to a lot more than just a boycott.

“Honestly, looking at the turnout tonight, I think that’s a small group of people looking to be vocal and heard,” Teitel said when talking about the crowd. “But it looks like there’s a really good turnout.

“I wanna support the team,” he added. “I wanna see the boys play. I don’t care where they play. If it had been Coney Island I would have gone, if it had been St. John’s I would have gone, if it had been Fordham I would have gone.”

The crowd that turned up was loud to start the game and did heat up at moments such as Callens’ goal and during a scuffle towards the end of the game when San Carlos’ Pablo Arboine gave a hard challenge to City’s Gary Mackay-Steven. From the sideline Deila stood up for his player as both teams crowded around one another, getting the crowd riled up and also impressing a few of the fans who may have had doubts about the former Celtic manager.

However, for most of the second half as NYCFC slowed downplay and hesitates on real offensive chances the supporters that were there quieted down, besides an occasional chant for either the home team that night or a vulgar chant about the other “home” team.

New York has a history of sports rivals sharing stadiums for large spans of time.

The Yankees themselves played two seasons in the Met’s Shea Stadium during the mid-1970s while their home went under renovations. The New York Jets called “Giants Stadium” home for 25 years before the completion of Metlife Stadium in 2010. Both teams still share the neutrally named venue to this day.

Campanile said these comparisons don’t really match up. City has long built a culture around being the only MLS team to actually play within New York City, and playing in its rival’s stadium who go against that is a bit more.

“The name of the arena is ‘Red Bull Arena,” he explained. “It’s not some random company arena. When you’re playing in your rival’s named home, with the stands painted in their colors, it’s not fun.”

He went on to say that; “It’s gonna be a memory that’s in my mind and stuff that I’m gonna tell my kids about. The first time I saw them play in the Champions League was at our rival’s stadium. I’m sure every fan can’t wait for us to have our own.”

Despite everything, most fans spoke too were excited to see where the team goes. When looking at the talent, both new and old, along with the club’s play in these first two games Martínez thinks the “skies the limit” for how far the club can go. 

“We have a good team, so let’s see” he said. “It’s a great experience (to be in the Champions League for the first time). It’s just amazing, I had to be a part of it.”

When asked how he would feel about potentially playing a Liga MX team in the next round, Teitel had trouble holding back his excitement. The idea that a team he supported could play a meaningful game against a high caliber Mexican side, and potentially even better down the line, would be a dream come true.

“Yes, absolutely (I’d be excited to see a team play a Liga MX side) in the next round,” Teitel said. “If we could make (the Club World Cup) that would be awesome. I’d love to see us play some of the European clubs.”

For Campanile, the idea went further than that. He’s supported the team in hopes of one day seeing them achieve what they go out to do every game, win a trophy. With the club’s first-ever win in a two-leg series out of the way, the first piece of silverware might be even closer too.

“It’s exciting! It’s what you play for,” Campanile said right after the win. “You play to win trophies, you play to advance, and if your team doesn’t advance there’s really no purpose in coming to the games. What is the point of watching a team play if not to win something?

“In a month, once we have a few MLS games under our belt, the next series against whoever we play will be much more competitive than today.”

New York City FC will be playing Liga MX side Club Tigres UANL in the Champions League Quarter-Finals. The game will once again be played at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday, March 11, due to issues securing space at either baseball stadiums in the city.

The Third Rail announced on Twitter that they would be attending this match to support NYCFC.

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