It happens before Luis Robles settles into goal in the south end of the stadium. The New York Red Bulls goalkeeper places a scarf into the side netting and turns to the three supporters clubs that comprise the 'South Ward' and applauds. It is a tradition just a year old but it means plenty to Robles.
After the players breaks from their team huddle before the start of the game or after halftime, Robles begins his slow, loping jog towards goal. In his left hand is his goalkeeper bag and in his right hand is a scarf. It is a custom a century old among soccer fans, the wearing of scarves with their team colors, held a loft while singing and chanting. In the 'South Ward' it is no different than in thousands of other stadiums in the world, with the hardcore supporters standing behind a goal in support of their team. They claim heritage from all over the world and come by car and train from throughout the tristate area to sing and chant, bang drums and wave flags.
Robles has the best seat in the house for all of this, standing yards in front of the supporters section. Even with his back towards them for much of the match it is this appreciation for the 90 minutes of singing and chanting that leads him during this jog to goal to take a scarf with 'South Ward' emblazoned on it and put it on the side netting.
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Robles credits the team's assistant equipment manager, Sean Ruiz, for coming up with the idea. Ruiz, whose father Fernando has been the team's equipment manager since inception as the MetroStars in 1996, is well known and loved by the supporters. It isn't uncommon for him to applaud the fans before each game, smiling and waving in appreciation from the recognition of his efforts. He and Robles wanted to do a tribute to the supporters so Sean came to the Red Bulls 'keeper with an idea.
“It's something he brought to me and I said 'Why not?' I think it's a good way of including the 'South Ward' in the game. It's a small gesture, putting the scarf there on the net,” Robles told Metro.
“I'm not sure how they feel about it. I want them to be aware and appreciative of our support. We want them to bring a pulse, a real advantage to the game. Physically, I'm closer to them for half the game than anyone else. I hear them, I can feel them sometimes like it is a wave of noise. They create a great atmosphere here.”
Robles, who has one appearance with the United States national team while he was playing in Germany earlier in his career, has been among the best goalkeepers in MLS over the past three seasons. He's steady and calm, even when the stands behind him are filled with fans bouncing up and down and singing.
He admits that sometimes, the supporters are so loud he has difficulty communicating with his own teammates.
Having played in Europe, Robles can appreciate the supporters culture that is embodied here in the United States and growing. There is the Empire Supporters Club in section 101, the oldest and largest of the three groups in the 'South Ward.' Founded in 1996, they will sing in English and Spanish, banging drums and blending European and South American elements with chants fashioned after hip hop and pop culture. The other two groups, the Garden State Ultras and Viking Army, were founded after Red Bull Arena opened in 2010. Both have seen impressive growth with their own unique culture in their sections.
The groups tend to work in unison – for the most part – ensuring that their chanting is coordinated. While the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers seem to hog the headlines for their massive supporter followings, Robles isn't ready for his 'South Ward' to concede the title of being the best fans in the league.
“When Red Bull Arena is full, I think back to the New England game, Philly at the beginning of last year, I can't think of a finer soccer-specific stadium in the league to play,” Robles said. To be more specific, I feel that even Seattle and Portland have nothing when its full. I really enjoy going there, I acknowledge they have great fanbase but the way [our] stadium is built, to keep that noise in, it creates a very intimate setting, very European. When Red Bull Arena is full, it is the best in MLS,” Robles said.
“If you want to get the full effect of Red Bull Arena, I recommend getting a seat in the South Ward.”