The date is March 11, 2020. And I’m kind of scrambling.
Having received my press credentials for New York City FC’s CONCACAF Champions League game against Tigres the previous night, I’m debating what I should wear — the white shirt or the blue shirt. Having already pigeonholed myself as an anti-establishment iconoclast, I have already decided on jeans with my blue-and-white Jordan 1’s. But the choice of shirt is killing me. The white shirt is more neutral, but I find it boring. I feel more comfortable in the blue shirt, but does it make me look like too much of an NYCFC homer?
I decide on the blue shirt. Because screw it, I am a fan! I quickly pack up my laptop, grab my keys, and rush out the door.
Shortly after 6:00 PM, I begin my walk to the Elizabeth train station, phone in hand. Destination: Red Bull Arena in Harrison.
“I really hate that place!”, my completely biased self says internally. This is the second game that we have played on this side of the Hudson River, in the home of hated rivals the New York Red Bulls, this year. It’s become borderline embarrassing to cheer on a club that is in no uncertain terms “homeless.” And odds are, this game isn’t the last to be played there.
For me, these are normal problems. But upon arriving to the train station, it’s obvious that it has become a small one in comparison to the highly dire and abnormal one society at large is facing.
There, the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the country is on most people’s minds. A handful of people traveling to or towards New York have begun wearing masks and gloves in an effort to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and nobody is really acknowledging each other. But for now, it’s still only a developing issue. Things could certainly be better, but nobody is losing their minds yet.
In desperate need of escapism, I put on my music and bury my face into my phone looking for MLS news, Tigres scouting reports... Anything to get my mind off of the weirdness around me.
The train finally arrives. I make the short trek to Newark Penn Station before transferring over to the Path towards the World Trade Center, where the Harrison station is one stop away and right across the street from Red Bull Arena.
At RBA, things are about as normal as they can be whilst still existing within an abnormal timeline. Most of the chatter reflects either frustration from NYCFC fans having to travel to Jersey for a home game, or enthusiasm from Tigres fans — both local and abroad — who are relishing coming into this particular night as overwhelming favorites.
But even within a gameday atmosphere with over 10,000 people in attendance, the rapidly spreading pandemic is still omnipresent. Some stadium staffers wear gloves and/or masks. Fans of both teams are generally more lax, but not without their paranoid few.
After going through the strenuous task of getting through security, I settle into RBA’s press room. If the ongoing pandemic is on anyone’s minds, they’re doing a good job of hiding it. Members of the media quietly help with player name pronunciations, scouting reports, etc. Being a little freaked out from the increasing craziness going on beyond RBA’s walls, I quietly settle into one of the available chairs and hop on Twitter.
After some initial anxiety, I walk to the outdoor press area and get ready for the game to begin, hoping NYCFC can play way well enough as the underdog to keep my mind off the madness.
Sure enough, they did. Initially.
Throughout the first half, City looks like the better team and seems to be up to the big occasion. The attack looks crisp and the defense is stout. In a game that many considered to be easy money for Tigres, New York City looks poised to spoil the party in their home leg.
Generally speaking, NYCFC’s press booth is a tame place. Though not without its occasional cheers and chirps, most resign to being professional. But not on this night. Everyone has bought into NYCFC’s claim to pull ahead of the Mexican giants and our button-up area has now become an extended City cheering section, minus some members of the Mexican media covering the Tigers.
After a roller-coaster first 45 minutes, NYCFC and Tigres are still scoreless. But City’s valiant performance through the first half has turned that little twinge of doubt I had coming into the game into a ravenous source of confidence and fearlessness.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. Though NYCFC would have their chances, the second half was all Tigres as the game opened up and the attacking chances became abundant. And in the very last minute of the game, the Tigers would grab their goal to go up 1-0 heading into their own home leg.
But that wasn’t the news. Shortly before Tigres’ Eduardo Vargas snatched away all of City’s hope, my friend Mike — who traditionally covers the Red Bulls — leaned over to me. “Have you seen this?”, he asked. “Seen what?”, I replied.
Mike, with a concerned look on his face, shows me the alert he just received on his phone. Rudy Gobert — French center for the Utah Jazz — has tested positive for COVID-19, the first major sports star in America to do so. In response, the NBA has temporarily suspended their season. No words are said between him and I. My facial expressions of aggravation and disappointment tell the whole story.
As members of the media gathered for the elevator down to the locker room and press conference areas, there was no talk of the game. None at all. In the minutes since Gobert’s positive test and the NBA’s suspension of play, the NHL had announced that they would be having a meeting the following day in regards to the future of their own season. And that is the conversation that has become dominant — COVID-19, the subject I had been avoiding so militantly, has breached the walls of sport. And I know deep down in my being that things are about to change.
I only stay partially for the press conferences of Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti and NYCFC boss Ronny Deila. Often, press that covers New York City have two choices: talk to the manager or talk to the players. On this night, I’d rather talk to the latter as they are generally more forthcoming and candid.
Several NYCFC players line up in the corridor to talk to the media. Tigres players, however, are walking right past everyone. Though I have asked several of CONCACAF’s staff why that is, nobody is giving me a straight answer. But I already know the answer — the fears surrounding coronavirus have the foreign players anxious to return home and get away from this particular region of the world, where it is only a matter of time before things go ‘boom.’
The last City player to engage with the media is Maxime Chanot, one of my personal favorites to interview as he is super approachable, a nice guy, and always ends his conversations with a handshake (except for this one for obvious reasons).
Most of the conversation involves the usual you would expect from a team leader. But his final answer to a question about City’s poor start to the domestic season is haunting. “There is no crisis,” the Luxembourgish defender stated. “Everybody is positive. And... you can trust me, we’re gonna bounce back against [ FC Dallas ] and get to three points for the fans and for the club.”
In the audio I recorded, Mike comes up to me in a frenzy. “People are wondering if the season’s suspended now. [Stadium] employees are trying to figure out what the fuck is going on.”
I try to shrug it off. But I already know deep down that shit just took a huge turn for the worst.
As I make the trip back home, things are a bit crazier than they were when I arrived in Harrison. Most people have begun wearing gloves with the odd few now sporting masks they seemingly just bought. I once again bury myself into my phone, just hoping it’ll all disappear by the time I lift my head.
Less than 24 hours later, my worst fears are confirmed — MLS has suspended play for at least a month. The NHL has already followed the NBA’s lead, and the XFL — America’s hottest new football league — caves in shortly after. Only a few days after that, the MLB cancels Spring Training.
It’s been a little over two months since that fateful night in Jersey. And while some aspects of normal, everyday life have begun a “soft reboot”, many things are still objectively abnormal. And it’s possible that it’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future.
First, let’s look at the good. The Bundesliga is back! So that’s cool. But their games aren’t played in front of the typical raucous German fans we all know and love and are instead played in completely empty arenas. The Korean Baseball Organization has also begun their season with no spectators, whereas the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) in Taiwan have slowly been easing back into normalcy with up to 2,000 fans being allowed to attend games at the time of this article being published.
Things here in America, however, have not looked nearly as promising. While talk of resuming professional sports has begun (RIP to the XFL), things are highly contentious among the populace in regards to whether re-opening, even in the smallest regard, is the right decision moving forward. Social media has become a battleground of differing ideologies and solutions to the current crisis that our country — as well as the whole world — faces.
Part of me hopes that this is just a temporary setback; that this will all be over soon and in a year, we’ll look back on it as another one of those monumental historical moments that we were forced to overcome.
But another side of me thinks this is the new normal — maybe there’s no coming back from this.
(Character break alert!)
Regardless of anything, I miss all of you. I miss writing about NYCFC for you. I miss your support, your criticism. All of it! And should we ever get through this, I vow to never take any of this for granted ever again.