I hadn’t even completely introduced myself to a group of New York Red Bulls supporters in the second deck at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati when I was met with what sounded a lot like a perfectly succinct Twitter reply in real time.
“You know you guys aren’t our rivals right?”
Since I had just been reading through comments on Reddit about Phang’s little excursion into the city with a guy sledgehammering a red car a few days earlier I wasn’t even a little surprised by this.
They may hate on us when we visit their stadium — one of my favorite memories was when a guy I’m pretty sure I went to summer camp with gave a group of us the finger at an Open Cup game — but we are constantly being reminded that Red Bulls fans don’t consider the Philadelphia Union a rival.
I wasn’t looking for a fight but I did voice my thoughts about growing up in South Jersey and the chip you can’t help but grow on your shoulder for a place I like to call the land of off-ramps. I have beef with North Jersey so it’s only natural that I wouldn’t care for a team from there. That I would revel a little more in a PK win in an Open Cup game in Harrison or the fact that the Union are looking down at them in fourth place right now.
I’m also familiar with the conversation you have with someone you meet on vacation who is from New Jersey but with whom you have basically no shared experiences beyond a license plate. Those of us from South Jersey walk away from those conversations saying something along the lines of “typical North Jersey” while they walk away going “what state did that guy say he was from?”
The conversation I had with these Red Bulls supporters wasn’t like that. It was pleasant, jovial and further proof that traveling supporters are often the very best kind of supporters no matter what team they are backing.
The FC Cincinnati fans were a lot of fun too, but there were also so many of them it made me uncomfortable. It was a beautiful night in Cincinnati — an utter contrast to the monsoon game the Union played there earlier this season — so they packed it out with a crowd of 28,290. The open concourse and the campus setting only added to the event atmosphere of the day.
When I arrived it felt more like I was attending an event from my college days the school I went to called Spring Arts than an MLS game. The dead giveaway was that there were about 27,000 people wearing FC Cincinnati gear. Something tells me FC Cincinnati gear is much easier to come by in stores than Union stuff is.
The supporters section was impressively loud and energetic as you would expect, but beyond that the entire game just felt like an event major enough to get top billing in the local media on a Memorial Day Weekend. Not unlike a college football game.
Impressed as I was with the setting and the crowd, when the Red Bulls took a lead and the Red Bulls supporters went nuts I found myself relating more to them than anyone wearing orange and black (with the odd Reds ball hat scattered in) in a city I have fond memories of going to see Reds games in as a kid when my family lived near Dayton.
I’m an East Coast-raised guy with a Midwest heart, but if I’m being honest I’m also a bit of a pay your dues traditionalist type that feels like part of having your favorite team join MLS is that you have to struggle a little. I want Cincinnati to do well long term but in the mean time the less we see teams like Atlanta United show up on day one in domination mode the better the league will be. Soccer has done the flash in the pan thing many times before.
Had I been hypnotized by the Red Bulls supporters?
When Omir Fernandez — a kid I loved watching score goals for Wake Forest — made it 2-0 with a low header in the box I was honestly happy for the Red Bulls supporters, who interestingly enough were seated next to a group of kids all wearing matching red shirts that had nothing to do with the energy drink or the team.
One of the anecdotes that came out in our mini-debate about fan rivalries on my visit to the away supporter section (note to the Union: it’s not directly next to their main home supporters section) was about how a Red Bulls supporter had lent a drum stick to a Sons of Ben drummer who forgot his at a game at Red Bull Arena. The argument is that Red Bulls fans wouldn’t be so kind to a Union fan if the teams were bitter rivals. That they wouldn’t be so nice to me visiting them in their section, etc.
Which is an interesting question. Would I be writing nice things about Red Bulls fans if we were really rivals? Maybe, maybe not. I do know who I want to win on Saturday when the Red Bulls come to town to visit, perhaps even more so after the beat down applied by the Red Bulls II against Bethlehem Steel on Friday. The more lopsided the final score the better.
But that pretty much applies to every team that comes to town, even the Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids, who I followed at various times in the pre-Union days of MLS. Are the Red Bulls the Philadelphia Union’s rival? Does it matter? Do they play in MLS? Then yes.
Would it be extra special if the Union win MLS Cup for the first time before them? Of course it would. No amount of indifference from the other side could change that. Not even a fun night in Cincinnati where the experience outweighed a 2-0 result for the visitors I didn’t mind getting to see.