Even the early afternoon announcement that Major League Soccer and the player’s union had agreed on a deal to a new five-year collective bargaining agreement couldn’t overshadow the buzz Saturday night outside the Red Bulls’ new home in Harrison, N.J.
As fans milled around outside the newest Mecca of soccer in the U.S., a 14-year pilgrimage which began in Giants Stadium ended with the Red Bulls making themselves at home from the opening whistle in the sparkling $200 million Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls dominated play for long stretches in front of a sold-out crowd to christen their new stadium, culminating with a 3-1 win over Brazilian squad Santos in the stadium’s opening match.
The Red Bulls will open league play in their new home against the Chicago Fire on March 27.
“Tonight was a special night,” said veteran defender Mike Petke, who scored the second of the hosts’ three-goal outburst in the first half. “But the season starts next week.”
Both teams struggled with footing on the sod, which beaten up the last week by torrential rain just a handful of days before the stadium’s opener.
In the 10th minute, however, the Red Bulls opened the seal on the stadium thanks to Joel Lindpere. The Estonian international one-timed a rebound off his own direct kick just outside the penalty box for the club’s first goal and an early 1-0 lead.
Petke got on the board in the 43rd minute, when he finished off a scramble that started with a corner kick from newly-acquired midfielder Carl Robinson. The Welsh import sailed his corner ball to a streaking Tim Ream, who headed the ball to Petke before the captain pounded it home for a 2-0 lead.
The hosts finished off the half with a brilliant strike from the top of the box from an on-rushing Dane Richards. Mac Kandji picked up the assist on Richards’ goal after Sinisia Ubiparipovic streaked up the left side and found Kandji open in the attacking third.
The second half inevitably turned into the Bouna Coundoul show, with the athletic goalkeeper making two sprawling saves within a minute of each other in the opening 10 minutes.
“If the defense plays like that every week, I won’t complain at all,” Coundoul said.
A late goal in stoppage time by Santos’ Germano failed to derail the evening for the Red Bulls, who savored the night as a seminal moment for the franchise.
As substitutes worked their way into the field in the second half, the Red Bulls’ play hardly suffered. At one point in the half as the Red Bulls kept possession, the yellow-clad Brazilian fans began the chant of “Ole” as the home side almost effortlessly kept possession.
“It was a sign that we were playing well,” Richards said. “Hopefully, they all come back.”
If Saturday’s deal between MLS and the players’ union is any indication, they will. The two sides came to an agreement on the Collective Bargaining Agreement that will avoid a work stoppage before Thursday’s season opener, meaning the 2010 season will continue as scheduled.