After the first open public training session in New York Red Bulls history, nearly all the players were signing autographs, but only one turned to a member of the public relations staff to ask if she had any more of his cards to sign.
"Sorry, I brought as many as I could hold!" she said apologetically.
You'll have to forgive her for underestimating the love of Newark's largely Portuguese Ironbound community for its native son, Carlos Mendes. The 28-year-old centerback is from Mineola on Long Island and of Portuguese descent, and was excited to be a part of what is only the first of many planned community initiatives.
"It's huge," Mendes said. "This is a community that loves soccer, one of a lot of different backgrounds and can really help this club with its support."
On Wednesday, the Red Bulls gathered under an overcast sky at Riverbank Park in Newark's Ironbound section for their second training session of the day. Techno music blared out of four speakers surrounding the turf field while planes thundered overhead from nearby Newark Airport. About 150-200 fans and curious on-lookers lined the fence while head coach Juan Carlos Osorio put his charges through an hour of light stretching and possession drills.
Once the professionals finished their practice, the Red Bulls training staff stayed on the field to work with 85-100 kids of the local Ironbound Soccer Club for an hour.
All of this was done at a park that was a stone's throw over the Passaic River from the new stadium that the Red Bulls will call home in March of 2010. Thus explains the first of many community outreach programs by the Red Bulls intended to cultivate and promote their product to a passionate soccer fan base in their own backyard.
"These are the people we'll be playing in front of [at our new home], so it's great to establish a relationship and build some roots," midfielder Seth Stammler said. "We're trying to parlay their love for soccer into a love for us."
After several delays and unintended interruptions, the Red Bulls took a tour of the new stadium earlier this month, and are excited about its debut.
"It's amazing just have to a place to call home, one that's going to be among the best stadiums in the league," Mendes said. "It's just a dream come true -- and [for me] to be able to play next to family is a bonus."
While the details of future community outreach events are still being finalized, the first public practice since 2002 seemed to go off without a hitch.
"It's very important because we need to establish a relationship with the community and especially in this case, the Portuguese," Osorio said. "The more we come out here, the more we are helping to promote this beautiful sport in this country."
William Hupp is a contributor to MLSnet.com.