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Home-Field Disadvantage: Red Bull Arena is no good for NYCFC

The club plays better on the road than they do in Harrison

Not a lot of reasons to smile in front of the empty stands at Red Bull Arena.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Out of all of the factoids being tossed around after New York City FC defeated an over-confident, under-prepared New Jersey Red Bulls by the crystal-clear score of 2-0 on September 17, one stood out to the analysts here at Hudson River Blue: It was the first match at Yankee Stadium since New York City defeated Inter Miami in the Bronx on July 23.

That was 10 games ago. In case you forgot, that 10-game run ranks as one of the worst in club history, with NYCFC going 1-2-7 and taking just five points from a possible 30.

It’s no coincidence that the last time Taty Castellanos suited up for NYCFC before going on loan to Girona FC in la Liga was in that Miami triumph. It’s also no coincidence that it was the last game NYCFC played in the Bronx for eight solid weeks. Yankee Soccer Stadium is a citadel for the club, where they are an imperious 7-2-1, with 26 goals scored and just 8 goals allowed.

To put it simply, NYCFC are better in the Bronx.

Home is where the heart is

More than that, Yankee Stadium is the team’s emotional center, where they go to ground themselves and remind themselves who they are. How could you look at that championship banner and not feel inspired to do great things on the field?

In all seriousness, it is where NYCFC rebounded on that sunny April day after a disappointing 1-1 draw to Seattle Sounders at “home” in Red Bull Arena knocked them out of the CONCACAF Champions League. The team’s nine-game undefeated run wasn't just launched in the Bronx, it started with five consecutive home games — three of which were at Yankee Stadium. Only two of those magical nine games were played on the road. The remaining seven were in New York City, four in the Bronx and three in Queens.

That homestead allowed then-head coach Ronny Deila to amass the points that put NYCFC at the top of the Eastern Conference. It’s safe to say that without that run of games New York City might not be in the playoff picture right now.

NYCFC 2022 MLS Record by Venue

Venue W D L PPG GF GA GD Avg Attendance
Venue W D L PPG GF GA GD Avg Attendance
Yankee Soccer Stadium 7 2 1 2.3 26 8 17 19,652
Citi Field 2 2 0 2 7 5 2 16,432
Red Bull Arena 0 0 2 0 2 5 -3 8,323
Away 5 3 8 1.13 18 21 -3 -
Total 14 7 11 1.53 53 39 14 -

Where NYCFC play matters – a lot. New York City are an elite team at Yankee Stadium, where they dominate the opposition and whip the home crowd into a lather. They’re an exceptional team at Citi Field, where their two points per game could win them the Supporters’ Shield.

They’re an upper-midtable team on the road, with a good-not-great five wins after 16 matches.

But they’re a dumpster fire at Red Bull arena, where the crowds are depressingly small and the dispiriting ambiance brings to mind the empty arenas of the games played during the height of the pandemic.

There’s no reset button in Harrison

During the pandemic, we learned that home-field advantage essentially disappears when the stadium is empty. It turns out that the benefit of playing at home isn’t the familiarity of the grounds, or knowing the staff, or waking up in your own bed, it’s playing in front of thousands of screaming people who create an atmosphere that fuels one team and diminishes the other. The crowd also instills an unconscious bias in the refereeing: You tend to get favorable calls at home.

To put it another way, soccer doesn't have a home-field advantage as much as a home-crowd advantage.

But NYCFC have no home-crowd advantage at Red Bull Arena, where the announced attendance of around 8,000 feels generous by half. (Is that number inflated by season ticket holders who didn’t opt out of the New Jersey games because they misunderstood the email sent by fan services? And could’ve sworn they returned those seats that appeared in their ticket manager? And were politely told by unhelpful reps that there was nothing to be done but they were welcome to donate their tickets?) The echo-y stadium is essentially a neutral venue where NYCFC have gone 0-0-2 as the “home” team in MLS games and 1-1-3 in all competitions this year.

Deila hit the reset button in the Bronx — twice. First in the 4-1 victory over CF Montréal in the home opener for NYCFC’s only win in their first five games of the MLS season. Then he did it again in the 6-0 triumph over Salt Lake City that opened the nine-game undefeated streak.

Interim head coach Nick Cushing didn’t have that luxury. Instead, he tried to hit the reset button in Harrison — twice. NYCFC’s skid started with consecutive away games in Montréal, Columbus, and Miami (OK, Fort Lauderdale). Then the Pigeons returned “home” to host Charlotte FC at Red Bull Arena. As you might recall, it didn’t go well.

NYCFC 2022 MLS Record by Head Coach and Venue

Head Coach Venue W D L PPG GF GA GD
Head Coach Venue W D L PPG GF GA GD
Ronny Deila Yankee Stadium 4 0 1 2.4 15 3 12
Citi Field 2 1 0 2.33 6 4 2
Red Bull Arena - - - - - - -
Away 2 1 2 1.4 4 3 1
Nick Cushing Yankee Stadium 3 2 0 2.2 11 6 5
Citi Field 0 1 0 1 1 1 0
Red Bull Arena 0 0 2 0 2 5 -3
Away 3 2 6 1 14 18 -4

Is the venue to blame? Not entirely. But playing a midweek game on short rest in the steamy August heat in front of a loyal but tiny group of supporters that was swallowed up by the empty stands didn’t exactly lift the spirits of the players on the field. There was no home crowd advantage.

That loss was followed by two more away games (one of which was a win at Chicago), then another midweek August game at Red Bull Arena played on short rest. Once again, here was a chance to hit the reset button. Once again, the crowds were thin. Once again, there was a shambolic loss, this time to DC United.

This isn’t to say that the venue will determine the result: Injuries, individual performances, and the Tati-sized hole in NYCFC’s attack all shaped the team’s performances on the field. But venues and scheduling play important roles even if the impact they have is hard to quantify.

Under Deila, NYCFC stumbled on the road but regained their composure in a series of games played in the comfort of Yankee Stadium. Under Cushing, NYCFC struggled on the road and regained their composure in a series of games played in the comfort of Yankee Stadium. It was unfortunate for Cushing, the club, and their fans that those Yankee Stadium games were so scarce, and scheduled so far away.

Back to Red Bull Arena

But Red Bull Arena isn't in the rearview mirror. This coming Sunday, NYCFC will host Orlando City in what is certainly the nicest soccer-specific stadium in all of Hudson County, NJ.

Anything this side of a 10-goal loss will guarantee that NYCFC make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, but there’s more at stake than simply getting into the postseason. A New York City win will go a long way to lock in home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Will Cushing guide NYCFC to a win at Red Bull Arena? He did it in July, when New York City defeated the Red Bulls in New Jersey for just the second time in club history. Plus, momentum is on his side after the moral-boosting win over Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup, and the immensely gratifying win over the Red Bulls earlier this month.

It bodes well that Cushing has a record of pulling off difficult wins. FC Dallas in July, Red Bulls in New Jersey, Red Bulls at home: He’s at his best when faced with a challenge. And make no mistake, winning at Red Bull Arena on Sunday will be a challenge.

Should the team succeed, it might bring around a second unintended challenge: If New York City secures home-field advantage in the playoffs, that “home” game might be played at Red Bull Arena.

Both the Yankees and the Mets are in the playoffs, which means that both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are booked deep into October. While the NYCFC front office haven’t to date made any statements regarding where that first-round playoff game will be played, we’ll go ahead and speculate that Red Bull Arena is in the picture. That could mean yet another “home” game at a stadium that feels nothing like home.