Some are calling it the worst week in New York Red Bulls history. Even for a club with a history as depressing as the Red Bulls, there must always be a lowest point; it would be very hard to argue that this isn’t it.
It’s not often that you will see three dedicated supporters’ groups protest against the actions of their own club, but that’s exactly what Red Bulls fans did on Saturday before their match against the Houston Dynamo. In response to MLS and club’s handling of the recent incident of racial abuse in New York’s previous game, the members of the Empire Supporters Club, Viking Army and Torcida 96 supporters’ groups all chose to vacate the section behind the goal known as the South Ward at the opening whistle.
It started with last week’s match at Red Bull Arena against the San Jose Earthquakes in which Designated Player striker Dante Vanzeir, making his first MLS start, used a racial slur in the 54th minute, resulting in an 18 minute delay in the contest as referees underwent an investigation into the incident. The investigation was initially inconclusive and the game played on with Vanzeir on the field as manager Gerhard Struber elected not to remove him.
In statements released by Struber, Vanzeir and the club prior to Saturday’s match against Houston, it was made clear that Struber expressed regret in not initiating the substitution for Vanzeir but his omission of a clear apology was noticed by fans. This hasn’t helped Struber’s reputation of not taking accountability for his actions, which continue to be the central point of reactions to his media appearances. In Vanzeir’s statement, he admitted to using the slur, claiming that, “while I did not intend to cause any harm or offense with my language, I know that I did and for that I am deeply sorry.” The club denounced the incident and racism within the game of soccer in their public statement, declaring, “we always strive for an environment that is inclusive and anti-racist. Our organization is committed to providing the resources to further educate our players and staff, as well as rebuilding trust within our community.”
In the days following the match, fans, pundits and observers took to social media to voice their frustrations with Vanzeir’s deplorable language and Struber’s inability to read the gravity of the situation and remove the player. Likewise, fans were disappointed with MLS’s eventual sanction against Vanzeir, which amounted to just six games. Voices around the league seemed to be anticipating a much stricter punishment after there was a very large amount of backlash after DC United’s Taxiarchis Fountas went completely undisciplined after being accused of using a racial slur in a match against Inter Miami in 2022.
On the Friday prior to matchday, the three supporters’ groups released a joint statement with their intention to walk out of Red Bull Arena following the playing of the national anthem, citing, “the lack of punishment by MLS and RBNY for Gerhard Struber” as the reason. Additionally, the groups had indicated that they will not be returning to support their beloved club and they “plan to continue protesting RBNY and MLS until [their] conditions are met or [they] feel the organization has made meaningful and acceptable changes.”
The matchday feel at Red Bull Arena was unfamiliar and eerie on Saturday, not made much better by the intervals of down pouring rain, but even with a community hurt and broken, the season must go on. Just under 13,000 fans were reported to have attended the match, a mere 51% of Red Bull Arena’s full capacity. Of course, the Red Bulls have struggled to draw a large attendance consistently for several years, but Saturday brought about a different feeling entirely. As the final words to the national anthem were sung, all eyes drifted away from the American flag and towards the section behind Carlos Coronel’s goal, where the South Ward remained somewhat full with fans. Those who were there brandished signs denouncing racism and the club’s actions, chanting “Fire Struber” until the start of the match.
At the opening whistle, the supporters began filing out of the South Ward, leaving behind three empty sections and a quiet environment that rivaled quarantine-era soccer in its lack of crowd animation. Despite everything that went on off the field, the Red Bulls put up perhaps their strongest first half performance of the season, but once again couldn’t find success in front of goal and had to chase the game after conceding to Adalberto Carrasquilla in the 68th minute. The Red Bulls were able to draw one back through Omir Fernandez in the 90th, whose strong play in attacking midfield has made him one of the brighter spots of New York’s lineup recently.
The draw marks the Red Bulls’ second straight 1-1 finish, both of which came at home and required late equalizers from Tom Barlow and Fernandez respectively. New York will travel north of the border to Stade Saputo this Saturday for a tilt with the struggling CF Montreal, a place they have only won once in the last ten years, as they look to get their season back on track. More important than winning games right now for the Red Bulls, though, is winning back the trust of their community. That may take some more time and, potentially, some action from the club.