28 March ~ The New York Red Bulls were winning 4-1 against the Colorado Rapids in their first home game of the MLS season. The official Red Bulls supporters' section indulged in choreographed chanting and flag-waving, relieved to be leading comfortably after two tepid defeats in their opening away matches. At the opposite end of the ground, another group of red-shirted fans started singing about Arsenal being the "greatest team the world has ever seen". Thierry Henry was then congratulated in the tunnel by film director Spike Lee, also wearing an Arsenal baseball cap. This lent a surreal and slightly jarring north London background to a game played in Harrison, New Jersey.
The presence of American Arsenal fans at the Red Bull Arena shows just one of the challenges facing MLS. Football is one of the fastest growing televised sports in the US, but only for the big European clubs. After the first four Premier League games, Fox Soccer reported that ratings were 76 per cent up on last year among the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
The New York Red Bulls promoted Sunday's home opener aggressively, including stunts such as unlimited hot dogs with a $25 (£16) ticket and lighting up the Empire State Building in club colours on Friday night. While the attendance was announced as over 21,000, this is the figure for the tickets distributed rather than the numbers through the turnstiles. There cannot have been more than 14,000 inside the ground.
Henry, the player that most of the crowd came to see, linked well with the midfield against Colorado, scored twice and should have completed a hat-trick. Yet this good performance is a marked improvement on the first two games of the season, where he cut a surly presence as he strolled around the pitch. While his ability to take apart defences is not in question, his motivation and attitude seem much more dubious.
Worse still is the Red Bulls' other star name, Rafael Márquez. The Mexican international is deeply unpopular with many fans after a disastrous and error-strewn 2011 season. Márquez was also suspended for saying: "I think this is a team game and unfortunately there isn't an equal level between my team-mates and I." The former Barcelona player claimed he is "more committed and more embedded into the club" this year. It was his mistake, however, that led to Colorado's goal, in his first game following the suspension carried over from last season's play-off brawl.
Hans Backe, the New York Red Bulls coach, described Sunday's game as "not a must-win, but almost". The result has certainly eased the pressure on Backe but Colorado gifted two goals with defensive mistakes in the first six minutes, making for a flattering scoreline. Backe was at Notts County for nine matches during the ill-fated Munto Finance period, however, so he can probably take most things in his stride after that.
Montreal Impact visit the Red Bull Arena next Saturday. The new expansion club attracted 58,912 people to their first home game and, with Toronto also getting over 40,000 for a Champions League game against LA Galaxy, there is a sense that MLS is taking off in Canada. If the Red Bulls don't get a two-goal headstart, it will be a very different game. What would the Arsenal fans think of that? Ed Upright