The largest supporters groups of the New York Red Bulls made sure that the game against Houston Dynamo FC on Saturday, April 15, was quieter than any played at Red Bull Arena since 2020, when COVID emptied the stands. Empire Supporters Club and Viking Army Supporters Club, two groups officially recognized by the club, were joined by Torcida 96, and staged a Red Bulls walkout immediately after the opening whistle sounded.
These Red Bulls fans felt they needed to make their feelings known after the team’s newly-signed striker Dante Vanzeir made a racist remark during the previous match against the San Jose Earthquakes. Vanzeir was handed a six-game suspension and an undisclosed fine, later revealed to be $10,000. But that punishment didn’t seem harsh enough to many in the New Jersey team’s fan base.
The striker was signed for a team-record $5.3 million earlier this year, which means the fine comes to just 0.19% of his current contract. The amount of time given is also suspect to some, considering the league’s “zero tolerance” policy against racism while other offenses have received longer punishments. One noted example of this was Sporting Kansas City’s Kortne Ford who was suspended 10 games last season for the use of performance-enhancing substances, and fined 20% of his annual salary.
The supporters were also upset with head coach Gerhard Struber, who refused to take Vanzeir out of the game immediately following the incident. Red Bulls players on the field seemingly called for the Belgian forward to be substituted off, but Struber waved them away and kept the player in the lineup. Struber’s insistence on keeping Vanzeir in the game has become one of the main points of protest for the supporters groups.
A silenced stadium
Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Houston had none of the songs, chanting, and cheering you normally hear at Red Bull Arena. The only exception were the chants calling for Struber to be fired following the national anthem but before the opening whistle.
In addition, the match was Autism Acceptance Night at Red Bull Arena, which meant music and public announcements were at a lower volume as well. Outside of the sporadic, generic cheers (“Let’s Go Red Bulls!”), everything was lowered.
Red Bulls winger Cameron Harper, who is in his third year with the club after joining from Celtic, noted just how different playing on Saturday was.
“They’re such a special part of the atmosphere around here,” he said. “They’re the fans that have been here since day one. It was sad to see it but I understand. It’s a tough time for the club right now. The fans have the right to feel the way they feel. Hopefully we can come to a compromise.”
The three groups in the South Ward released a statement on the Friday before the game expressing their feelings and detailing their plans.
“MLS has failed to live up to its policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ towards racism,” the statement read. “We call on MLS to reevaluate their findings and set a precedent that racism in any form will not be tolerated.”
Public reactions from across Major League Soccer were overwhelmingly supportive of the walkout. The Faultline, one of San Jose’s main supporters groups, retweeted Empire’s statement last Friday with the simple comment “Solidarity.”
After protestors left, counter-protestors took their seats
What was fairly interesting about the walkout was the police presence in the stadium concourse prior to it happening. More armed police were present than usual behind the South Ward despite the Empire’s Supports Club and the others promising the protest would be peaceful.
However, this show of force might not have been for those walking out. Since Vanzeir’s suspension and the calls for a boycott, a vocal group of “fans” have defended the player and coach both online and in person. As the supporters groups left the stadium, many people left behind signs in their seats with statements against Struber and racism. But several fans who remained ran in almost immediately and ripped those down. Some of those fans are people known to the supporters groups.
Others still took the opportunity to stand in the South Ward in the now empty section. Usually, only ticketed fans are allowed into the section. But Red Bull Arena staff did not follow protocol and allowed any person to enter the section, with a security guard audibly saying “my supervisor said it’s okay for tonight.”
Instead of three mostly-empty sections – some supporters groups members didn’t take part in the protest – the sections filled back up with random fans. Some of them heckled both goalkeepers during the game. A few chanted a homophobic Spanish soccer slur during Houston’s goal kicks in the second half. These were caught on live television microphones during the MLS Season Pass broadcast on Apple TV.
In the press conference following the game, I asked head coach Struber about the demonstrations calling for his removal. He gave a convoluted response that was less an apology and more a call to move on.
“I feel that and this was not a good feeling, this was a painful feeling today for me,” Struber said. “It was the first time that I realize a situation like that. But at the same time I have respect for the opinions, also the feelings from our supporters.”
“I understand that and I realize what we did, all together, in the last Saturday game,” Struber said. “I will say this again, I apologize for the leaders of the supporters group last week when I speak with them in front. But also today, I can say again, I apologized the last Saturday night game. But we have to look forward, and I hope the healing process has started.”
A coach saying he understands what “we all did” when it was very much his actions, along with his players, that got it to this point is pretty interesting. Should also note that Struber’s team has just one win in eight games and they sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
“I hope that we can come together closer in the next time but I also the feeling with our supporters, this could um, yeah, this needs time,” Struber said.
Hudson River Derby walkout?
What will happen next? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Ahead of Saturday’s match, multiple supporters said they were willing to keep doing this game after game, week after week, until they feel something changes. Whether that something is anything besides Struber being fired isn’t clear.
The Red Bulls will play Philadelphia Union at home on May 6, and should the walkouts continue at that game, the club’s response will be interesting. Will it be full panic for the front office? Or will the protest movement take a giant reality check?
A high-ranking member of a supporter’s group said that the telling sign will be if this lasts until May 13, which will be the first Hudson River Derby of the year. Depending on the club’s response, it’s entirely possible that there will be walkouts when New York City FC plays in Harrison.
We shall see. But as Struber said in his closing answer in Saturday’s press conference, he believes the healing already began.
“I think when we start the healing process on Tuesday (the day Vanzeir voluntarily stepped away from the club). I think we have very very good conversations and I think this helps that everyone has the chance to bring his feelings out, speak about that and give everyone the chance,” Struber said.
“This is for my white boys, also very important, and for my black boys,” Struber said. “In this direction I think everyone has the chance to speak, to say something, what’s going on with his personal feelings and I think this helps to bring the group in a good direction, on a good level and for myself, of course, in this direction you learn, you grow but we have to grow together in moments like that. We create a frame, a very trustful frame over the whole week and especially the basic of what we have together here with our staff and our players. This makes a situation like that not easy, but we can do it.”
Hopefully, it’s not the same “black boys” he brushed off during the San Jose game. Or maybe they are the same players, and this time the coach will actually listen.