NEW YORK — It was a weird scene at Red Bull Arena on February 26.
With the stadium's occupant (and namesake) New York Red Bulls preparing for their home opener in a few days, it was rival NYCFC kicking off the first competitive match of the season on the grass at RBA in a Concacaf Champions League clash against San Carlos. The South Ward, RBNY's supporters' section, was empty. San Carlos wore red just like the Red Bulls, while the stadium still featured many of its red accents despite the light blue kits running around on the pitch as the home team. The banter that usually follows that particular shade of blue to that particular patch of grass was nowhere to be heard.
It was eerie.
“Everything about it was a little strange," NYCFC CEO Brad Sims told MLSsoccer.com from the club's media day last Wednesday at the Adidas offices in downtown Manhattan.
Of course, a home match for NYCFC at Red Bull Arena wasn't the plan. It's never the plan. Yankee Stadium was unavailable due to the "winterization procedures" of the field while their chief back-up option, the New York Mets' Citi Field, had the same story.
They then looked at Belson Stadium in Queens, home of the Red Storm at St. John's University, which was actually their first choice for the CCL Round of 16 matchup given its smaller size, similar to how Atlanta United have played early CCL matches at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Belson wouldn't work, either. Concacaf denied the venue as it did not meet field quality standards.
They begrudgingly opted for Red Bull Arena, despite fan opposition that led to supporters group The Third Rail and other fans to abstain from attending as a point of protest.
"The lead-up was pretty painful, but once the whistle blew and the game started, you’re playing a game — and we’ve got to call it like it is — it’s a quality pitch," Sims said. "We had more fans than we were honestly expecting.”
Unfortunately for NYCFC, it'll be more of the same against Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals. There was a chance that if NYCFC drew Leg 2 of the series at home they could have played at Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, but when they asked Tigres or Alianza if either would be open to switching should they advance, it was a swift no.
The semifinal would still be dicey for NYCFC should they advance past the Liga MX giants. There is a genuine scenario in which NYCFC could be the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League only to lift the trophy at the home of their New York Derby rivals.
The framework of the remaining CCL schedule is already laid out. Leg 1 of the semifinals will be between April 7-9 and Leg 2 from April 14-16. The final will kick off April 28-30 then culminate between May 5-7. Essentially, there's three potential match days for every leg. Yankee Stadium is unavailable for every single one, as the club announced at the end of February, while Citi Field is only available for one of the six per round. To further complicate things, Citi Field hasn't officially been approved by Concacaf as a CCL venue.
“Yankee Stadium is not an option at this point, it’s out," Sims said matter-of-factly. "Citi Field has not formally been approved but we believe that there aren’t any major hurdles that we’ll be able to get it in compliance. We’re not super concerned — maybe we should be, based on how things have gone — but we’re confident we can get that venue approved.”
The one day Citi Field would work in both rounds happens to fall on Leg One. If NYCFC draw a home match for Leg Two, which is generally preferred across the globe in these scenarios, they wouldn't be able to play at Citi Field unless they asked their opponents to swap.
"If we draw a home game for Leg 2, we have a decision to make," Sims said. "Is there enough of a competitive advantage to hosting leg two to stay there, but not be able to play at Citi Field? If we draw Leg 1, we would hope that Concacaf would accommodate us on the one of the three dates (Citi Field is) available. But we’d have to make a decision. If we draw Leg 2 and ask to trade, they could say no and we wouldn’t have a choice. Or we could decide that, competitively, we’d be better off hosting Leg 2. Hopefully, that’s a situation that comes into play because we’ve advanced.”
Of course, the stadium discussion for the rest of this tournament is moot should Tigres eliminate NYCFC. The club have gotten a boost, as The Third Rail have pledged their support despite the annoyance of venue.
The ultimate goal of The Third Rail is to support #NYCFC players, week in and week out. While playing at RBA is far from ideal, we're encouraged by the efforts of NYCFC to openly discuss this situation.— The Third Rail (@ThirdRailSC) February 28, 2020
The Third Rail will return to RBA on 3/11⚡️
Full statement in image below. pic.twitter.com/vDg2OuTUla
"When it was a possibility or probability that we might be forced to play our second-round game, I engaged in dialogue with (The Third Rail's) leadership," Sims said. "It was very productive. These are our most passionate and loyal fans, they want to support the club. We were able to talk about all the challenges we had, try to get on the same page. They’re still not thrilled it’s at Red Bull Arena, I’m still not thrilled the game is at Red Bull Arena, but the most important thing is to win.”
The club have sold out tickets for Tuesday's match. Their rental agreement with the Red Bulls is such that only the lower bowl is open, which is just under 10,000.
"Every little thing is going to be important against Tigres," Sims said. "Getting as many fans there, our supporters’ group there, we need it. We need every little edge we can get.”
Looking down the road, this problem isn't going away anytime soon. After all the work Sims and the club did this offseason, they expect more of the same next year should they qualifying for the CCL again.
“No is the short answer," Sims admitted. "With everything we did this year, it was made pretty clear to me that those other venues would not be options in future years while Yankee Stadium and Citi Field won’t be available in February ever.”
Given MLS's natural hurdles in the competition given it starting before the league season kicks off, putting American and Canadian clubs at a disadvantage, there ostensibly was hope the tournament may be pushed back at some point. Sims discussed any potential timeline with Concacaf who said, if anything, the tournament would be even earlier rather than later.
"We expect to be in the MLS playoffs every year," Sims said. "If we have a situation where the Mets and Yankees are both in the MLB playoffs, those venues will not be available to us. Then what? You know, it’s going to be the same kind of situation. For us, we want to be realistic with our fan base. The better we are as a club, the more challenges like this we’ll be dealing with. Our full expectation and anticipation is to be a club competition for MLS Cup year in and year out, and hopefully playing Champions League football year in and year out. If that’s the case, October, November, February and March are going to be times where we could have issues.”