Simon Borg, MLSsoccer.com

Red Bull Arena opener raises the ethnic-signings debate

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.”