How it felt attending one of the last American soccer matches before coronavirus suspensions

Eric He
Yahoo Sports Contributor

HARRISON, N.J. — Andre Tessier, with a gray beard and a cane and a hat in NYCFC colors, sits on a bench next to two other fans outside of the Red Bull Arena gates on Wednesday, an hour before his team plays Mexican giant Tigres UANL in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Tessier bought his season tickets the first day of the franchise’s existence. He has been to every home game but one. He usually gives hugs to his fellow supporters, even kisses them in jubilation.

But with COVID-19 going around, he won’t be anymore. When he enters the stadium, he’ll go straight to the bathroom and wash his hands. He won’t buy any food from the concession stands. He’ll be careful.

“But this is my team,” Tessier said, “and I don’t want to miss it over this.”

Tessier is one of 10,212 fans who attended Wednesday’s match despite the coronavirus continuing to create chaos in the sports world and beyond. On Thursday, CONCACAF announced it’s suspending the Champions League immediately, while MLS suspended its season for 30 days. They’re the latest competitions to be affected, with a wave of news coming down after the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night.

But for much of the evening at Red Bull Arena, it felt normal. Tigres won 1-0 on a stoppage-time goal by Eduardo Vargas to take the lead on aggregate going into the second leg in Mexico next week. A large contingent of Tigres fans showed up. Before the game, they marched in as a group, chanted and gathered around a mariachi band. During the game, they released yellow smoke flares into the air.

UANL Tigres fans hold a sign while wear hazmat suits and a medical masks during the first half against NYCFC at Red Bull Arena. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

On the opposite side behind goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the NYCFC supporters’ section showed up in force after some boycotted the team’s round of 16 match last month, given that NYCFC was “hosting” a game at the rival New York Red Bulls’ stadium. Only 4,396 fans went to that game. On Wednesday, even with the current climate, the lower bowl was sold out.  

“It means the world,” midfielder James Sands said of the support. “We definitely heard it. Especially in tough parts of the game, they really lift us up.”

Subtle scenes at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday revealed inklings of uncertainty. Before and after the game, the media room was filled with chatter about the NCAA tournament and the NBA season. Many stadium workers — ushers, janitors, EMTs — wore masks, as did some fans. Red Bull Arena doubled its pre-cleaning event staff. Additional hand sanitizers were placed at elevator banks, stairwells, common corridors, interior bathrooms and concession stands and Purell wipes were available for use. At halftime, Yahoo Sports observed about a fifth of customers at one concession stand using the hand sanitizer while ordering items.

Around New York City, there are small signs of apprehension. Noticeably fewer people on subways during rush hour. A pair of passengers waving off a crowded 1 train at the 116th Street stop for the next one, though they could have squeezed in easily. A woman talking loudly on her phone outside the arena about schools potentially closing.

These real-world issues have shaken the sports world, removing the escape that sports can provide. Instead of celebrating a win and planning for the next game, MLS teams must now confront the fact they don’t know when there will be a next game.

If there is one, Andre Tessier will be on hand. He will avoid hugs, cheer for his team and probably end up with a sore throat.

“As long as there are games, and the stands are open for fans,” Tessier said, “I’m going to be there.”

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