What We Saw at Arsenal’s Grand Central Takeover
Seemingly every square foot of space on both floors was occupied by clumps of eager visitors. Cameras shuttered urgently, almost blinding spectators. Any New York commuter has come to expect this, but the scene was a bit much, even for Grand Central Station standards.
Between the 2014 World Cup and transfers of Frank Lampard and David Villa to NYCFC, soccer has undeniably built momentum in the United States over the past few months. Trite as that sounds, it was on full display Friday, when PUMA hosted a promotional kickoff for Arsenal’s friendly with the New York Red Bulls of MLS, including showing off the squad's new kits. Premiere League stars Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Tomáš Rosický were on hand, as was former Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, who now plays for the Red Bulls after becoming the Gunners’ all-time leading scorer over eight prolific seasons in England.
The players were swarmed by not only the expected waves of red-clad supporters, but also by curious passersby. People were cutting out of work early to see this; skipping trains to catch five soccer players pose beside a replica cannon.
“It’s especially great for the kids,” Henry told ANTENNA after officiating a scrimmage between Arsenal’s players and a local youth team. “The guys they see and love on TV are finally in their hometown. That isn’t able to happen without something like this.”
The defending FA Cup winners weren’t overshadowed by Henry — it was hard to maneuver around the miniature turf pitch without hearing a kid shout for Ramsey, Arsenal’s player of the year for 2013-14. Henry noted how soccer “is everywhere in New York City now,” and Friday’s attendees weren’t just opportunistic MLS fans or USMNT supporters looking for a new fix. The obligatory “Arsenal ‘Til I Die” chant was heard far more often than “Seven Nation Army.”
The match itself lived up to the hype. The Red Bulls became the first MLS squad to knock off a Premiere League challenger, and did so in front of a sold-out crowd. Henry was honored with a celebratory banner that read “Gunner. Red Bull. Legend.” He set up the match’s only goal with a hooking corner to the right post, which was headed on by Red Bulls defender Jamison Olave and then tapped in by forward Bradley Wright-Phillips.
“This is the fourth time I’m going to play Arsenal,” Henry said Friday. “I’ve been through the emotions, and it certainly feels different, but at the end of the day it’s a friendly game. We’ve got to prepare for a match with Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.”
Arsenal has some preparing to do, too. Its Premiere League season begins August 16 against Crystal Palace, and if this weekend was any indication, Manhattan Gunners bars The Blind Pig and O’Hanlon’s will be full all fall.