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How NYCFC wound up at Red Bull Arena for its CONCACAF Champions League matches

New York City FC midfielder Alexander Ring waves

New York City FC midfielder Alexander Ring waves to fans as he leaves the field after NYCFC defeated San Carlos in the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League match on Feb. 26, 2020. Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

New York City FC chief executive Brad Sims felt a sliver of hope ahead of a call between himself and CONCACAF leadership last month.

The club was just a few days from announcing Red Bull Arena as the site of its first CONCACAF Champions League home match, something it hoped to avoid, and Sims thought the call just might be to approve an alternate venue within the five boroughs.

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t what that call was,” Sims said. “And it was disappointing that at that point, it turned to where we were and we didn’t have any options.”

That disappointment was just one of several in the saga surrounding NYCFC’s search for a suitable stadium for CCL play, which has stretched across the city, Long Island, Westchester and eventually over state lines to Harrison, New Jersey.

NYCFC returns to Red Bull Arena on Wednesday to face Mexican club Tigres UANL in its home leg of the quarterfinal round, two weeks after hosting its CCL home opener at the Red Bulls’ home with no suitable solution within the city available.

Searching for a venue

The process of finding a CONCACAF-approved venue began immediately following NYCFC’s MLS Cup playoff elimination last October, Sims said. The club earned a spot in the 2020 Champions League thanks to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference during the MLS regular season, but any potential home venues, including Yankee Stadium would require a review by CONCACAF before use in the intercontinental competition.

This wasn’t the club’s first search for alternate venues as it remains without its own permanent stadium. Citi Field hosted a regular-season and playoff match previously, and four MLS games are scheduled for the Queens ballpark in 2020. NYCFC has played U.S. Open Cup home matches at Fordham’s Coffey Field and Belson Stadium at St. John’s. The club also once played a regular-season match at Rentschler Field in Hartford, Connecticut, although Sims said that venue actually falls into the market area of the New England Revolution and was not approved for future use.

Sims, who took over as CEO last January, said the club had already compiled a list of potential venues within the market footprint for similar situations before he arrived. That included the previously used stadiums and other locations across the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.

“We had 60 to 70 [potential venues] and it did not include the one we ended up at,” Sims said.

The club narrowed down its choices to four main options to submit to CONCACAF for review: Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Belson Stadium and MCU Park in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets' minor-league team. The club also considered Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island as a fifth option.

A request to CONCACAF for comment on the venue search was not answered.

CONCACAF rules out City's top options

Sims said the club immediately knew both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field would be unavailable for the club’s opening matches in the Round of 16 because of winterization and field work scheduled over the baseball offseason and turned its attention to St. John’s.

“Ultimately, we felt our first choice was going to be Belson Stadium, because we've already played there, and quite frankly, we knew it was going to be a weekday, likely a Wednesday, in February, in New York, it's probably going to be cold, we're going to be playing an opponent that is probably not a big-name opponent,” Sims said. “And so, we felt that for a number of reasons that was actually an appropriate venue size. It's the same reason why we use it for U.S. Open Cup, kind of similar reasons why. That was an appropriate venue size, and if we could get 2,000 people to come out to Queens on a cold Wednesday night in February against a team they've never heard of, that would be great.”

Sims said the club received reports of varying lengths on each venue following in-person reviews by CONCACAF officials. Yankee Stadium and Citi Field each had two pages of problems to solve. MCU Park’s report was four pages long. The report for Belson Stadium had seven pages worth of concerns from CONCACAF.

“It's stuff where you're measuring to like, a centimeter or millimeter,” Sims said. “Like, this run-off is supposed to be 2.3 centimeters and you only have 2.2 centimeters. From their standpoint, it's not meant to say ‘it's not approved,’ it's more like, ‘there's a lot of work to do.’”

With unfavorable reports from CONCACAF on each venue, the club began work for approval of MCU Park for the CCL opener. Eventually it became apparent to the club that approval there would not be possible, forcing their efforts back to Belson Stadium.

Sims said the club had the backing of Major League Soccer to use Belson Stadium and continued working to gain approval as long as possible, but CONCACAF did not relent.

“They said essentially, because they didn't have time to come out and do another site visit — I mean, we were three weeks out from the game — at that point it was that we had to play at a venue that already was CONCACAF approved. And really the only CONCACAF approved venues are venues that had hosted Champions League games over the last couple of years, and the only one of those close by happens to be Red Bull Arena.”

With the home of the Red Bulls set to be a temporary home for NYCFC, the club’s supporters groups responded with a collective boycott of the match. That, coupled with a 6 p.m. kickoff on a chilly Wednesday night, meant a mostly empty Red Bull Arena, which seats up to 25,000. The official attendance announced was 4,396.

Despite the large swaths of empty seats, Sims said the club was pleased with the turnout considering the circumstances.

“If we could’ve got 2,000 people out to Queens on that Wednesday night, we would have thought that was a success,” Sims said. “Instead we got 3,000-plus to New Jersey and the narrative was that it was a tiny, small crowd.”

City and its fans reach an understanding

Sims was even more pleased with the result on the field. A 1-0 victory over AD San Carlos clinched a spot in the quarterfinals but also meant another home leg with no guaranteed venue. The club long had planned to play this leg at Yankee Stadium, but the ongoing field work for its March 14 MLS home opener put that in jeopardy. The club also knew Citi Field would be unavailable for all quarterfinal dates, and CONCACAF’s issues with other venues wouldn’t be resolved in time, keeping Red Bull Arena very much on the table.

The morning after City’s victory, an inspection of the Yankee Stadium field did not bode well. Because of the short turnaround between the CCL match and the MLS home opener, the club was advised not to hold two matches on the new grass in such a short period of time.

Before any official decision was made, Sims made contact with leadership of The Third Rail, NYCFC’s only officially recognized supporters’ group.

“I know that our fans' frustration is coming from a place of passion and that ultimately, we all want the same thing, we want our team to win,” Sims said.

Sims said he explained the possibility of a return to Harrison not just for this leg, but for other potential scheduling conflicts until the club has a stadium of its own.

“I said, hey if you're going to do it again, that's your prerogative, but potentially, you're kind of setting precedent in terms of saying you're never going to go see us play at Red Bull. We have a few years to go until we have our own stadium and one of the toughest times of the year for us to find a venue to play is October, when the Yankees could be in the playoffs or the Mets could be in the playoffs, and we plan on being in the playoffs not just this year, but every year. That can be a challenge for us. In February and March, we hope to be playing, we hope this Champions League thing is a regular occurrence for us.

“We're going to do everything in our power to play at Yankee Stadium first, Citi Field second and somewhere else in the five boroughs third, but the reality of the situation is that this is a potential and all things being equal, we as a club want you there, and I know for a fact our players and our coaching staff want you guys there.”

Following the official announcement of the second game at Red Bull Arena, the Third Rail released a statement ending its boycott.

“While playing at RBA is far from ideal and many questions regarding the future home of NYCFC remain, we’re encouraged by the efforts of NYCFC to openly discuss and improve the situation in a meaningful way,” the statement read. “The Third Rail will return to RBA on 3/11, loud and energized, to support our team. We encourage all NYCFC fans to join us.”

Future Champions League matches

Between a later 8 p.m. kickoff, a fairly prominent opponent in Tigres and the end of the boycott, a fuller, rowdier crowd is expected at Red Bull Arena for the quarterfinal home leg.

But no matter how successful Wednesday is for NYCFC on and off the field, playing in New Jersey remains the last resort for future Champions League rounds.

Yankee Stadium will not be available for any potential home legs for the remainder of the tournament because of baseball scheduling conflicts, while Citi Field seems to be the club’s best hope, however slim that is.

“The toughest thing is that you don't have full flexibility. Essentially, CONCACAF says, ‘here are three days for Leg 1 and here are three days for Leg 2’ and they want you to have a venue for all six dates. For us in the semifinals, Yankee Stadium is available for zero of six and Citi Field is available for one of six,” Sims said. “We’ve shared that with CONCACAF and essentially it comes down to them having the flexibility and hopefully scheduling us on the one day we can play there, and in the finals it’s the same thing.”

Citi Field is available only for the first leg of the semifinal based on the baseball schedule. The Mets are on the road on April 7-9 when the first leg of the semifinal is scheduled, but back home during the second leg on April 14-16. The Yankees are home for the first leg and on the road for the second leg, but return home on the April 17, making all dates ahead unavailable.

Interestingly, a strong performance by NYCFC in the quarterfinals could hurt its chances of playing within the five boroughs. Home field will be determined by performance in the previous rounds, with the lowest-ranked team scheduled to host the first leg.

Scheduling aside, Citi Field still needs work to meet CONCACAF’s standards. Sims said that includes adjusting broadcast sightlines and similar issues, but believes them all to be manageable.

Should that not pan out, NYCFC and Sims at least have an unlikely partner in the Red Bulls willing to lend a hand from across the Hudson River.

“Everyone for these first two games has been extremely helpful and cooperative and working as a partnership,” Sims said. “You hear fans say ‘they’re going to rake us over the coals on the negotiation.’ And it has not been that way at all. They’ve been totally cooperative, helpful, professional. Probably neither of our fans want to hear that, but it’s the truth and we appreciate it. We are in a tight spot and they didn’t have to handle it that way, and they have.”