Red Bulls fans salute bittersweet rivalry memories of RFK Stadium

Steve Ferrezza was a 20-year-old, relatively new New York Red Bulls supporter when he made his first journey to D.C. United’s RFK Stadium in 2010.

He had heard all the lore about the venue from his friends in the Empire Supporters Club. Even so, seeing was believing.

“I don’t think anybody could really prepare me for what it was like walking in there,” he recalls. “We were up in the upper deck for the first couple games there, and we were looking at weeds growing out of the upper deck. And the first thing I thought when I walked in was, 'This is like [former New York Mets home] Shea Stadium, but if nobody played there in 20 years'.”

Ferrezza is among the fraternity of Red Bulls fans who have become regular pilgrims on what is MLS' last original away trip. RFK closes its doors to MLS play for good on Sunday afternoon, when D.C. United host the Red Bulls as part of Decision Day presented by AT&T (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE). That day, many New York partisans will pass through the turnstiles one final time to part with a place that, despite its warts, is almost as much a part of their identity as it is of their Atlantic Cup rivals.

“I think it’s one final chance to look around and take a glance at history,” says Red Bulls supporter Mark Fishkin.

New York supporter Mark Fishkin and family at RFK; photo courtesy of Mark Fishkin

For some, the history can get pretty expansive.

Take Brent Gamit, who has made more journeys than he can count since 1997. Over the years, he’s seen away fans housed in every conceivable corner of the ground. He’s taken in the view at the 100 level and the 400 level, “the Loud Side” and “the Quiet Side,” seats that seemed dangerously close to the D.C. supporters' groups, and seats so far away that both sets of fans literally couldn’t hear each other sing.

“Most of them were not exactly the best results, so they kind of blur,” Gamit confesses.

An early New York away trip to RFK Stadium; photo courtesy of Brent Gamit

But it’s the little details that stick out. Like when Hurricane Sandy made hiring buses impossible, forcing everyone with enough gas to make it to South Jersey to pool their cars together. Or like the supporter who would order pre-order pupusas for everyone at a well-known concession stand at halftime, then pick them up on their way back to the parking lot following the game.

Fishkin also knows RFK from several journeys down for US men's national team games, where opposing fans could sometimes transform the upper bowl.

“I was there in 1997 for the Jamaica qualifier during the France '98 cycle,” Fishkin recalls. “I will never forget the sound of the Jamaican fans who were all in the upper deck. I will take that to my grave -- this low rumble when Jamaica scored to tie the US.”

Most of the time, though, RFK didn’t feel like a big stage. And sometimes, Red Bulls fans felt quite literally abandoned.

“We’ve had games [in the upper deck] where there were no food options, where they didn’t even turn the lights on in the bathroom,” Ferrezza recalls. “People were just walking around with their cell phone lights on, trying to find a urinal.”

Red Bulls supporters away at RFK during the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Nov. 1, 2015; photo courtesy of Jen Muller

The nature of the trip has changed over the years. What was once a gem of North American soccer fell behind the times. Meanwhile, the team formerly known as the MetroStars became the Red Bulls, and themselves transitioned to a sparkling new building. The influx of new owners throughout the league the league saw D.C. shift from a giant in its first decade to a Little Engine that Could in its second.

And although the Red Bulls still couldn't equal D.C. in terms of trophies won, their fans held an edge they hadn't before, even clinching aggregate victory over D.C. in an Eastern Conference semifinal second leg at RFK in 2015. And with D.C.'s stadium uncertain for most of that stretch, they cam armed with chants of “you’re moving to Baltimore” and tifo displays featuring RFK’s raccoons.

“I kind of did like the fact that it was a miserable dump as the years went by,” Gamit admits.

That said, underneath the veneer of a derby, most of the Red Bulls supporters appear ready to welcome the Black-and-Red's long-anticipated move to Audi Field next summer.

When you're this closely linked to another club, sometimes what's good for them is also good for you.

“I think we’ll still have fun at their expense, because of the issues they’re now having with the supporters’ section and the size of the stadium, amenities and things like that,” Ferrezza said. “But we’ve wanted D.C. and New England to get out of where they are and get a place of their own, really just to help the league. But also, if they have something shiny and new, they might bring in some new people and reinvigorate the rivalry a little bit.”

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