Red Bull Arena opener raises the ethnic-signings debate

Should New York acquire a marquee Brazillian player?

Germano, Santos

Photo Credit: 
Simon Borg, MLSsoccer.com

When they said that
the area surrounding Red Bull Arena is a Brazilian stronghold, they weren’t
kidding. 

The two largest
factions in Saturday night’s Red Bull Arena inauguration were clearly the Red
Bull fan base and the sizeable contingent of Brazilian soccer fans.

The various patches of
yellow Brazilian national team jerseys and black-and-white striped Santos
shirts were evident in the 25,000 sell-out crowd. Many came wearing jerseys of
other Brazilian clubs. The Santos banners draped around the stadium also
outnumbered Red Bulls signage.

The presence of the torcida
was heard whenever Santos starlet Neymar touched the ball. The winger, despite
being outshone by his Red Bulls counterpart, Macoumba Kandji, in the first
half, created a constant murmur of anticipation from the crowd when the ball
fell to his feet.

But not for everyone.
For example, not for a fan of another Brazilian club, such as Corinthians.

“I didn’t come here to
watch Neymar or Santos,” said Corinthians fan Ewerton, a salesman for a food
service company. “I came to watch the Red Bulls beat Santos.”

Ewerton enjoyed the
match with three friends, standing on the lower level concourse. He immigrated
to the United States eight years ago and said he lives three blocks away from
Red Bull Arena. According to him, if the Red Bulls acquired the likes of
Ronaldo and Ze Roberto, he’d come back for more games.

It was a refrain
echoed by several other Brazilian supporters on hand, and it raised the
question, debated for years in MLS circles, of whether MLS clubs should cater
to local ethnic groups with major signings from their country.

“It’s what Brazilians
want to watch,” declared Ewerton. “We want to see good players make great
plays. Americans don’t play the same way.”

Red Bull Arena is
different from any other MLS stadium and not just for its look and design. It
is also the only MLS stadium where such a large concentration of fans can
actually walk from their homes to the matches. 

The Portuguese and
Brazilian communities live just blocks away and only need an excuse to stroll
down to RBA. It is a group of fans that will be very difficult to ignore. Few
would argue if the Red Bulls sought to appeal to these communities.

Several Brazilians in
the upper deck said that they were in attendance to see the new stadium in
their neighborhood, which they admitted had no rival back in Brazil. They invariably
stated that if the Red Bulls dipped into the Brazilian talent pool, it would
all but guarantee their return.

Carlos, donning his
Flamengo jersey, walked to the stadium from Newark with a Colombian friend. He
said he likely would not be back to Red Bull Arena unless the MLS club acquired
the likes of Adriano or Ronaldo. He was adamant that other fans in the area
would respond in a similar way.

The age-old argument
of ethnic players on MLS teams will certainly be an ongoing theme during this
inaugural season at Red Bull Arena. Saturday’s turnout even begs the question
whether Portuguese public address announcements should have been included in
the game production.

“I saw a lot of yellow
shirts out there,” said Red Bulls rookie midfielder Austin da Luz, whose
grandfather is from Portugal. “It definitely would help [to have a Brazilian
player on the team]. It would give them someone to identify with. But I think
one of the biggest things is the style of play. If you play an attractive style
of soccer that they are used to watching, then they are going to come out and
enjoy it a little bit more.”

Red Bulls officials,
who admit to targeting Brazilian and Portuguese clubs for Saturday’s inaugural
match before deciding on Santos, say that they will not consider signing
players solely on the basis of nationality. While it is a priority to win over
the locals, one Red Bull executive said, players would be acquired first and
foremost if they are a good fit on the field and can help the team play better
soccer.

Ivan Heleno, a Santos
fan from Queens, N.Y., agrees. Dressed in an undersized Santos jersey, Heleno
said he was at the very first MetroStars game at Giants Stadium. He claims to
make it out to five or six matches a year but that last season’s poor showing
took that number down to two.

“The way they are
playing today, I think it is going to be a wonderful season,” Heleno said at
halftime with the Red Bulls up 3-0. “I come for soccer. If the Red Bulls play
like this then I’d come back.  They have to be better than last year.”