It’s match day in Harrison, NJ, which means traffic is at a standstill on the Bridge Street Bridge across the Passaic River. And that Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard is a glorified parking lot. And that what seems like the entire Harrison police force are out under the blistering hot sun. But this is no normal match day. This is the kick off to the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup. A day on which almost twice as many people who live in the city itself will pour into the home of MLS’s Red Bulls. Indeed, officially, more people will be in attendance at the two matches than can actually fit into the stadium – 817 more, but who’s counting? Well, I am, since I’m going to be one of those people.
Let’s Dance: The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Kicks Off
Usually when you make your way from wherever you’ve abandoned your car to the stadium, it’s a fairly sedate trek amidst packs of kit-clad fans up streets, along hurricane fences, and past abandoned warehouses to the stadium. But today, as the 2017 Gold Cup kicks off, you emerge from your car directly into a party. Thousands of people, and tens of thousands of grills, coolers, flags and footballs, proliferate amidst the gravel and weeds in the Ironbound. The singing and cheering is relentless – and understand that the game, any game, isn’t due to start for an hour and a half. People see my press pass and offer me beer, curiously barbecued meats, advice and predictions in languages I cannot understand. And I would love to stick around but I have a date with the President of CONCACAF.
Well, sorta. He’s giving the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup kick-off press conference an hour before the first match, and I don’t want to miss out on important news. I shouldn’t have worried though. For although ESPN’s Jose Del Valle starts us off with a nice question about whether the US and Mexican teams were in violation of regulations since neither are fielding their “A” teams (“The A team” President Victor Montagliani answers “is not just the starting XI, and anyway, we have to be cognizant of World Cup qualifiers and Confederations Cup.”), the back and forth that follows is essentially what one would expect: a few interesting questions deflected by a man who’s job it is to basically deflect questions.
Though I must admit that in spite of the lack of substance we’ve just experienced, I was impressed by how effortlessly CONCACAF’s President slid from English to French to Spanish, fielding questions in all three languages and never missing a beat. Well played, sir. Now if you can just keep from being indicted for a crime – a fate that has befallen every CONCACAF president who has served for the past 27 years – you may be on to something.
The First Match of the 2017 Gold Cup – Canada vs French Guiana
Now, I know what you’re saying. Who? But really, it’s a great way to start the tournament.
Because in Canada and French Guiana you have two teams with entirely different goals for the 2017 Gold Cup, goals which are central to why it matters. For Canada, it’s a chance to make a legitimate run out of the group stage and make some real progress in a tournament that is as close as they will get for a while to the World Cup.
And for French Guiana? The 2017 Gold Cup is an opportunity for a handful of unknown players to get on the radar of world soccer generally and MLS specifically. And the ones who looked promising to me? Rhudy Evens, until he got injured (and through whom in the first half it looked like all the attack went) and of course goal scorers Roy Contout and Sloan Privat.
After the match, I spoke briefly with one of Canada’s goal scorers, Scott Arfield, about the challenge of playing a team as unknown as French Guiana. I ask if they could have much of a plan going in or if they had to learn the team as they played. He credited the Canadian staff with digging up tape for them to review ahead of time, which must have been particularly difficult since even the Guianan manager Jair Karam complained in the press conference that the squad only had one game together before the tournament.
The Second Match of the 2017 Gold Cup – Costa Rica vs Honduras
And then the stadium starts to fill up. And what felt a bit like a minor league event for the first match transforms the 2017 Gold Cup into a raucous world class spectacle. For all the partying and celebration that was going on outside the stadium is now here, inside. And because it’s a neutral field, there are no dedicated supporters sections. So it’s impossible to tell which nation’s fans are out in greater force. Regardless, it looks unlikely that anyone of Honduran or Costa Rican descent in the greater New York metropolitan area was not within screaming distance of the pitch tonight.
That’s because for these two teams, the 2017 Gold Cup isn’t some kind of audition or consolation tournament. It’s part of a real CONCACAF rivalry. A rivalry that informs the pace of play on the pitch, and that spills over into the tunnel during the interval.
After the match, Metro Soccer Nation’s Matthew Klimberg, Blue City Radio’s Mike Anderer, Front Row Soccer’s Michael Lewis and I button-hole NYCFC’s Rodney Wallace for his thoughts. About the atmosphere, about the tournament, about that terrific cross in to Marco Ureña that scored the gamewinner. He answers all questions patiently and thoughtfully. I ask him if he caught any of the Canada match and if he had any thoughts about them. Rodney gives me that classic Rodney look as if to say, “Brother, I just finished working my ass off against Honduras; why are you bugging me about Canada?” Yeah, my bad.
And now CONCACAF officials are politely but insistently pushing us out the door, so we emerge into the sultry New Jersey night, and guess what? The party is still going on. “In American sports – football, etc,” Mike Anderer points out “the tailgate is before the game, then you watch the game, then you go home. But in soccer, the game is kind of just the intermission. You tailgate before the game, you watch the game, then you come back and tailgate some more after the game.” And he’s right. Sure, not all 25,800 are still in attendance, but a surprisingly large number are, considering it’s midnight on a Friday in Harrison. Which seems to be the opinion the hundreds of tired and unamused cops also in attendance hold.
I consider telling them Mike’s insight, but figure the last thing they need is one more soccer fan explaining the beautiful game to them tonight.