In the shadow of New York City, where the lights shine and the stars crowd, Lionel Messi will make his debut in the Major League Soccer regular season on Saturday.
People who follow Major League Soccer (MLS), or those accustomed to other world leagues, might expect one of the country’s two largest and most influential cities to host the biggest and most influential soccer club in their domestic league – or at least another club. Reasonably starry. But in this league in 2023, that simply isn’t the case.
The Red Bulls haven’t boasted a true MLS superstar in half a decade, and they haven’t been home to a world-class superstar on the field in nearly twice that time. Along the way, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has been consistently good, if not usually great. The Red Bulls have made the MLS playoffs more than any other team in league history, and would set a new record for consecutive playoff qualifications with 14 if they did so again this season (they currently occupy three points out of the postseason spots). The club owns three Supporters’ Shields, awarded to the team with the best regular season record in the league.
However, despite all those playoff appearances and an excellent regular season, the Red Bulls have only played in one MLS Cup Final (2008, which they lost). They are one of three original MLS teams founded in 1996 that have not won the top prize in the league, along with FC Dallas and New England. The last four seasons have ended in first-round eliminations.
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It’s an ‘almost’ club – perhaps apt for a New York team playing nearby, about 10 miles west of New Jersey. The club’s stadium, Red Bull Arena, is still considered one of the best and most impressive stadiums in the league when full. But the club is 24th out of 29 MLS teams in terms of home attendance this year, averaging just over 17,000 fans in their 25,000 seats.
Combined, the Red Bulls have struggled to fit in. This is due at least in part to the jam-packed sports market in which they operate. A team that includes at least two professional teams in the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, some of which are commercial and cultural giants. This is in line with teams in the WNBA and NWSL, small matter is local MLS rival NYCFC which plays (usually) within the five boroughs.
Although the Red Bulls represent the league’s largest market, the club has faded into relative irrelevance at the Major League Soccer level and local significance. Welcoming Messi isn’t just a big game for the Red Bulls’ playoff ambitions – it’s a potential opportunity to bring new fans into the team, and perhaps start repairing relationships with those who have left. It’s a reminder of what star power alone can achieve in (or near) New York City.
“It’s the responsibility of the local clubs to build their fan base,” said Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s commissioner. ESPN said When asked how teams, such as the Red Bulls, can maximize Messi’s presence. “The league isn’t going to tell them what to do when someone else comes to town.
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the Red Bull Arena was the place to see the stars line up for the home team.
The New York Red Bulls signed Arsenal legend Thierry Henry from Barcelona in the summer of 2010, after Henry’s participation with France in the World Cup. It was an ambitious signing. Three years after David Beckham’s arrival at the Los Angeles Galaxy, the club has added another truly global star to the league, and they’ve reaped the benefits. In 2011, Henry’s first full season, the Red Bulls finished fifth out of 19 MLS clubs with an attendance of just under 20,000. Their attendance remained around that number until his retirement after the 2014 season.
On the field as well, he was a great success. Henry has led the club to the playoffs every season, including their first ever Supporters’ Shield for 2013. He has scored 52 goals and 42 assists in 135 appearances for RBNY. Along the way, New York added Mexico legend Rafa Marquez (who was far less successful). Former Everton striker and Australian international Tim Cahill also joined with better results.
After the end of the Henry era (and the Marquess and Cahill), New York changed tack to target emerging talent rather than the big names, more in line with the broader global Red Bull ethos such as Red Bull RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg known today. It was also successful for the next half decade. The Red Bulls have won two more shields from fans around home-grown talent and clever additions inside and out. A successful and entertaining group led by Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sasha Kljestan and Dax McCarty. None of them were superstars, but the trio became big names in the league through their performances with the Red Bulls, while young players like Tyler Adams made their professional first steps under coach Jesse Marsh.
New York replaced McCarty in 2017, much to the anger of fans (and McCarty). They gave the armband to Gugliestan that year… and replaced him in 2018, which again pissed off the fans. After an injury-plagued 2019, RBNY declined a contract option with Wright-Phillips and allowed him to leave in free agency.
The three club legends were ushered out the door with little regard for their status and the fans’ feelings; Even worse, none of these players have been directly replaced. It’s a deadly combination for fan support, and it shows in attendance numbers, which have only fallen since the club hit a record average of 21,175 in 2017.
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In a city that welcomes and encourages big stars, the Red Bulls have gone a long time without their superstar. In the wake of Messi’s arrival, general manager Marc de Grandpre promised the club’s spending would increase this winter.
“I can tell you that, next year, we will make a significant investment in our roster to make sure that we can compete at the highest level in Major League Soccer consistently,” de Grandpre said. Return on investment – New Jersey. “There is no doubt that we will do it.”
The club’s fans are skeptical, but time will tell. In any case, it’s not as if New York doesn’t necessarily spend any money.
This season, they have spent an initial transfer fee of $5.3m to sign Belgian striker Dante Vanzier, with the additions of which could make the deal a new club record. Vanzier has not found his form on the pitch with just two goals this season, and was banned for six matches for using a racial remark in April in his debut match. Forward Patrick Klimala ($4 million north) and midfielder Luquinhas ($3 million) have also been important additions in recent years, but Klimala had already been transferred to Israel and Loquinhas was sorely disappointed after a solid start.
Whether or not more investment comes as promised by De Grandpré, Red Bulls still have to rebuild society in terms of their fanbase. Or at least rebuild the roster, because the fans showed up when the team was good, whether it was Henry or not.
This weekend they will be backed by huge crowds with Messi in town. After that, in all likelihood, they will return to regularly scheduled programming for their next home game against Austin FC.
(Top photo: Evan Yu/Getty Images)
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