New York City FC’s Champions League match against Tigres UANL one week ago was a lot of things.
It was the first time City played a competitive match against a Liga MX team, a clash of two fan bases where the visitors outnumbered the home fans, and a heartbreaking loss for New York.
It was also the last professional soccer match to take place on U.S. soil for the foreseeable future. The following day every professionally sanctioned soccer league in the United States announced that it would suspend their seasons due to the on-going COVID-19 outbreak.
Major League Soccer announced it would not be playing any games for the next 30 days while the Champions League itself also suspended play following Wednesday night’s games. It wasn’t alone as other sports leagues like the MLB, NHL, and NBA all suspended or delayed their seasons as well.
The New York Post’s back page on Friday claimed that Thursday, March 12 was “The Day The Sports World Stopped,” but for a moment I think there’s a missing piece.
That previous night in Harrison, New Jersey needs to be looked at, when the first dominoes began to fall and the full extent of the viral infection began to seep into the public conscience.
The final half-hour of that game was played while a major sports league suspended play, the President of the United States made a critical order affecting borders, and all the while thousands of fans screamed in hoping to gain an advantage.
Just prior to 10 PM EST, the final whistle blew right as City kicked off from the middle of the pitch. The team, fresh off two straight 1-0 losses in regular season play, ended its’ first Champions League Quarterfinal with the same result of a stoppage-time goal. Tigres’ forward Eduardo Vargas was able to punch in a loose ball after City keeper and former U.S. Men’s National team star Sean Johnson was unable to fully save a shot attempt. A crowd of just over 10,000 people was mostly happy as the well-traveled Tigres fans celebrated. City fans looked on in disappointment, as did the media and team staff, wondering where the season would go from here.
Hoping to get a few quotes from fans, I dropped my bag in the press area and rushed up the stairs towards the public concourses. The setting of fans being at Red Bull Arena, the home of City’s local rival, has been a constant topic during the tournament. Despite the loss, I hoped some fans might still be willing to talk so I broke away from the rest of the media.
Thirty minutes prior, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski posted on twitter that the NBA would be suspending the season. The large crowd being herded out of Red Bull Arena did well to stay in a single line as most of them, no matter which jersey, had their heads angled down towards their phones. While some had seen the news as it came out, possibly due to the game’s slow pace midway through the final half, other expressions clearly indicated they were just finding out.
The news broke the language barrier and the letters N, B, and A all sound the same no matter who is speaking. Fans from two different countries that support two different leagues were now all at the same point thinking they could be the next ones to lose the season, with MLS just starting and Liga MX halfway through its Torneo Clausura, or the spring half of its split season structure.
In the section behind one of the goals where NYCFC supporter groups had gathered, opposite the “South Ward” section where Red Bulls Supporters Groups usually cheer, many fans racked with disappointment also began to show concern for the league as a whole. Their team’s struggles following its success in the Champions League Round of 16 started to decrease in importance.
Two fans near the field began to worry not only for the team’s season but also for their families and if anything else needed to be done. The fast pace of the news had brought the post-game feeling away from the game that had ended 10 minutes prior and back into the real world where health and safety could be at risk.
After being politely declined by some fans, and dead-eyed by others, I quickly realized not much could be done and headed back to the media area.
In the lower levels of Red Bull Arena, the situation was calm but unsettled. Media gathered in the hallways waiting for players to walk by while some arena staff gathered in groups.
“What will happen to the game this weekend”
“I heard the NBA was gonna play without fans, will (the New York Red Bulls do that)?”
“Is there any word on the (New Jersey) Devils season?”
While both New York City and Arena staff continued to work in a professional manner, both seemed to know, or at the very least could predict, something was coming down the pipeline. The news began to come in more. Adam Silver would be addressing the NBA and media soon, a player from the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the virus (latter identified as Rudy Gobert), a few hockey games including the New York Rangers west coast match-up in Arizona would be played but a meeting would be set for tomorrow.
I think in all of this, one of the oddest moments came during the press conference with NYCFC manager Ronny Deila. None of the questions asked focused on the virus and nothing would even suggest the possibility of delaying the season was on the table.
When he was asked about his team having six big chances to get a goal during the match, with many coming in the final stages, he was adamant that his squad needed to settle down under the bright lights.
“I think we have to be calmer in the situation and take our time, because then you will get the balance (and it will be) more easy to finish. I think that’s the main part,” Deila said.
The quote stuck with me. Maybe because it’s true as the team did struggle to finish on its chances. Maybe its due to the strange irony it has since it could be interpreted to how the public needs to be right now, taking our time and being calm. Or it might be because as it was said, my phone buzzed alerting me that the NHL was planning to have a meeting tomorrow with owners to discuss the next steps in regards to the season.
There was also the odd moment that came at the end of the conference when I thanked the coach for coming and told him “good game.” Deila put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me right back. It might be the week of social distancing but, considering the 10,000 people in attendance and more staff that I had walked through, the thought of “I really hope I didn’t just kill the NYCFC coach” has bounced in my mind.
The night ended, a police escort led the bus holding the Liga MX players away from the stadium, and soon Atlanta United would finish its humiliating game on the road in Mexico to Club América as the final pro-soccer game to include a U.S. team.
A week into social distancing, with the American sports world on pause besides NFL news, has made me realize how many dominoes had to fall to get us to this point. Being in a place and seeing the people affected react, continuing to do their jobs while the uncertain future becomes more terrifyingly clear, is something you can’t process right away.
While I hope to cover more sports in person soon, more urgently I hope people can begin to pick up their own dominoes one-by-one and return to normalcy as best they can.
Featured Image: AP/Adam Hunger