Harrison, N.J. — There was no question by the time that the match finally came to an end what a successful night of soccer it had been in New Jersey on Saturday night between the New York Red Bulls and one of international soccer’s biggest clubs, FC Barcelona.
Hours before the scheduled kickoff fans had packed the parking lots surrounding Red Bull Arena and vendors stood on every corner selling Barcelona merchandise. The endless rows of cars were flanked by spectators tailgating and even more waiting in line to get into the venue when the gates had opened.
The friendly, which Barcelona eventually took 2-0, was a reminder of the staying power that soccer has in the New York/New Jersey region. The big draw had of course been the La Liga side, which had been listed as the fourth most valuable sports franchise in the world by Forbes in 2021, that attracted the capacity crowd.
Chants of “Barca” echoed around Harrison, New Jersey, and inside the building it felt more like Camp Nou than Red Bull Arena. Right down to the numerous fans that had jumped onto the field at the end of the game to try get up close and personal with some of soccer’s biggest stars.
“You can see many, many Barcelona T-shirts in the stadium and we spoke about how the atmosphere was a little bit different,” Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber said on Saturday. “But the energy in the stadium and the atmosphere I think was also in our direction. The supporters realized how difficult it is against us. … I think of course we can see a stadium sold out with so many people we be perfect if we could have this at our home games.
“I think this would be amazing for my boys, but maybe some of the (Barcelona) supporters find a little bit good moments today and think maybe I come again to look at the Bulls. I hope we use the moment to make a little bit of promotion in this direction and they come again.”
Soccer has still had to fight its way to get notoriety in the region similar to the other major leagues. New York has predominantly been viewed as a baseball town with the Mets and Yankees kings during the summer and the Knicks Jets, Giants, Rangers, Nets and Islanders in the spotlight during the winter months.
The Red Bulls have averaged 16,289 fans through 10 MLS contests, which is up from the 13,161 from the year prior. New York has also seen back-to-back sell-out crowds with the building packed for the friendly with Barcelona and a regular season battle with rival NYCFC.
The success of Saturday night is sure to make soccer fans happy across the region, especially across the Hudson River after reports emerged that New York City Mayor Eric Adams was planning to green-light a proposed stadium plan at Willets Point for NYCFC. The MLS champions have spent their entire existence as nomads playing games at Yankee Stadium while trying to build a soccer-specific stadium somewhere in the five boroughs.
And for the Red Bulls, the scene could help the front office recruit players from overseas.
“I think situations like that (help) in every direction with promotion for players,” Struber said. “I think when you get an atmosphere like that it’s different and it’s a big push for everyone. This is also very interesting for players to play in a full house. … The atmosphere today was amazing and it would be perfect to have this again and again.”