By Peter Schwartz
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Born as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1996, the New York Red Bulls franchise has not enjoyed a whole lot of success in Major League Soccer over the years.  From sparse crowds at Giants Stadium to playoff failures, the club has not been much of a factor in the local sports scene.

Aside from one trip to the MLS Cup in 2008 and last year’s Supporters’ Shield as the best team in the regular season, the Red Bulls were almost always a constant disappointment to their fan base.

Until now, that is.

As the team prepares for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final against the New England Revolution this Sunday at Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls have turned themselves from a laughingstock into one of the model sports franchises in our area.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” said the club’s general manager, Marc de Grandpre. “We’ve made a lot of changes internally.  We hit the reset button in terms of focus and what we’re going to do moving forward.  There’s plenty of work to do and we’re nowhere near being where we want to be.”

Marc de Grandpre (Credit: Steinlight Media)

Marc de Grandpre (Credit: Steinlight Media)

For many years, the franchise wanted to be in a soccer-specific stadium.   From 1996 to 2009, the club called Giants Stadium their home.  Even with a downsized seating capacity, the MetroStars/Red Bulls never came close to duplicating the same type of buzz that the Cosmos created there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The landscape of soccer in the United States had changed since the days of Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia.  Today, a successful soccer franchise in America needs to play in an appropriate venue, and it took the Red Bulls a long time to have one of their own.

In 2010, the Red Bulls achieved their dream when they moved into Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. It’s appropriate that head coach Mike Petke has used the phrase “As long as we’re still breathing” as the rallying cry this season, because the 25,000 seat state-of-the-art palace has breathed life into a franchise that had always seemed to be on life support.

Red Bull Arena (Credit: Steinlight Media)

Red Bull Arena (Credit: Steinlight Media)

“We built this beautiful soccer-specific stadium,” said de Grandpre.  “The atmosphere is amazing. Anyone who comes in here leaves saying, ‘Oh wow.’ We know that as we get more fans in the building on an annual basis, they’re going to keep coming back and coming back in droves.”

The fans have already been flocking to what many people feel is the best soccer facility in the United States.  The Red Bulls have seen their attendance and season-ticket base increase every year, which is something that was not commonplace when the team played in the Meadowlands.

A big reason for the spike in fan support can be attributed to the team’s improvement on the pitch, with star players like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied an MLS record by scoring 27 goals during the regular season.

But Red Bull Arena has also been a factor.

There have been a number of new sports facilities built in the area in recent years — including MetLife Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field — but nothing can match the excitement and atmosphere that you will feel at a Red Bulls game.

The fans’ experience begins even before they enter the stadium, with “The BULLevard.”

Starting three hours before each game, fans of all ages can take part in fun activities, including interactive games and photo opportunities. There is also an area with foosball, food and drinks.  The FanFest closes 30 minutes before kickoff.

“It’s really about the experience in the stadium,” said de Grandpre. “It’s really been designed for the fans, for the sport itself, and no one can replicate what we have across the country.”

And that includes New York City FC, an MLS expansion team that will begin play in 2015. New York City FC will call Yankee Stadium home until it builds a soccer-specific stadium of its own.

After 19 seasons of having the market to themselves, the Red Bulls will celebrate their 20th season with some competition both on and off the field. NYCFC has been very aggressive in its marketing, and its signed star players David Villa and Frank Lampard. But the Red Bulls think that having a rival is good for the bottom line.

“I think it’s great for the league and the market,” said de Grandpre.  “It raises the awareness that there is soccer in the area.  We’re going to hopefully generate, over time, a natural derby or cross-river rivalry here.”

But the Red Bulls will have a big advantage over the new kids in town.  The Red Bulls have a soccer stadium, while NYCFC is going to play in a downsized Yankee Stadium with the pitch squeezed onto a baseball field.

It’s very possible that NYCFC will go through similar challenges that the Red Bulls experienced before Red Bull Arena was built.

“We know that we have the best building, we have the best fans and we’ve been around for a while, so our experience will be unique to soccer,” said de Grandpre.  “We know that when fans come here, they’re going to have a much better experience and they’re going to walk out of the building knowing that this is how a soccer game should be experienced.”

Red Bulls logo (Credit: Steinlight Media)

Red Bulls logo (Credit: Steinlight Media)

What the Red Bulls could also pound their chests about next year is a championship.  They continue that quest on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. against New England at Red Bull Arena.  It’s a two-leg aggregate goals series with the Revolution, a team that the Red Bulls beat twice during the regular season.

“We’re optimistic,” said de Grandpre.  “It’s going to be really tough.  New England is a great club. They’ve been playing well as of late.  It’s going to be a hard-fought battle and I think our players are going to put on a great show.  We’re looking to sell out the building.”

Whether you’ve been to Red Bull Arena or not, this Sunday’s match is intriguing in a number of ways. There’s the natural New York/Boston rivalry and a trip to the MLS Cup on the line. The game could also mark the final home contest for Henry, who might retire at the end of the season.

Throw in a remarkable, fan-friendly sports experience at a state-of-the-art stadium that is easy on the wallet.

It’s taken the Red Bulls a long time and a lot of struggles to get to this point.  After many years of being the butt of many jokes, they have turned into winners both on and off the field.

And that’s no bull!

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan.  You can also follow the Red Bulls @NewYorkRedBulls.

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