Fever pitch Red Bull Photofiles

After being starved of competitive action since last November, New York Red Bulls fans decided to take matters into their own hands. In an effort to fill the gap before the Red Bulls' 2011 MLS opener against the Seattle Sounders, fans came together for the Soccer Stop South Ward Football Challenge.

This unique fan-led initiative brought together the hardcore elements of the New York Red Bulls' supporter base as well as club employees for a day-long tough tackling tournament.

Anyone who has tasted the Red Bull Arena on matchday will have witnessed the South Ward, home of the loudest and proudest fans in the MLS. A closer inspection of the ruckus reveals three distinctive supporters’ groups all brought together by their love of the team.

Fans on the Field

It was these fan groups - the Empire Supporters Club, the Viking Army and the Garden State Supporters - along with a team from Red Bull New York’s front office that took to the pitch to contest the Spanish Pavillion Cup.

Hot favorites going into the competition were the team from the front office, which boasted two former U.S. national team players. However, as is often the way in cup soccer, the formbook was ripped to pieces.

Benny Lopez from the Viking Army explains how his team pulled down the pants of the front office boys. “The highlight of the day on the pitch has to be the opportunity to play against Mike Petke (pictured below) and Richie Williams.

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“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share the pitch with two legendary local players. They were playing to win, the only way they know how, and the Viking Army still crushed them 4-1. It’s a story to tell your grandchildren about.”

The front office eventually walked away with third place at the tournament after beating the Garden State Supporters in the wooden spoon match. Meanwhile, for Benny and the Viking Army it was onto the cup final against the Empire Supporters Club.

Led by their talisman Kenneth Hernandez, it was the Empire Supporters Club who eventually sunk the Viking Army’s longboat to get their hands on the first ever South Ward Supporters’ Cup.

The Viking Army were gracious in defeat and Benny had to admire the performance of Hernandez in particular. “Kenneth Hernandez of the ESC played a great tournament and deserved to take home the Kevin Brown MVP trophy. His goal in the final was a screamer into the far corner and that was the difference in the game.”

"The South Ward will continue to be the place that away teams dread to visit." -Benny Lopez

Don’t expect these fans to take any defeats in the upcoming MLS quite so easily, as the spirit of the Soccer Stop South Ward Football Challenge was far more concerned with unity than rivalry.

All three supporters’ clubs have their own ideas about how to best get behind the New York Red Bulls, but this tournament saw some common ground found between the trio. Benny explains the efforts being made by the supporters’ clubs to pull together to help the lads on the pitch get the right result.

“We want to keep our identity but also work together. At the end of the day we are all in the stands supporting the same team. The South Ward will continue to be the place that away teams dread to visit. I believe more passionate supporters are being created as a result of all the hard work and dedication of the supporters’ clubs.”

“It was great to see the off-field camaraderie of the three clubs at the local pub after the tournament. We were all singing songs together, sharing a few drinks and having a good time. Even a few of the Red Bull employees stuck around.”

Good Times for a Good Cause

Aside from the fun and games there was also a fundraising operation in place at the tournament. Football gear as well as cash was collected and sent to Afghanistan by Balls Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization. Money was also raised by the Viking Army for Kick ALS, a group raising awareness of the Motor Neurone Disease.

Benny Lopez tells us why those two particular charitable foundations were picked out. “It’s the goal of Balls Without Borders to use soccer to serve as a distraction for children affected by armed conflict and natural or man-made disasters. Kick ALS is extra special to the Viking Army because one of our member’s wives suffers from the ailment. We seek to create awareness about the disease and raise a little money for research along the way.”

With so many winners at the Soccer Stop South Ward Football Challenge it remains to be seen if Red Bull New York can match the performance of their fans in the 2011 MLS season. Hans Backe and the boys should be aware by now of what Benny and the rest of the South Ward stronghold expect.

“This season for Red Bull it’s MLS Cup or bust. No more excuses, all the players are here and we have Backe to lead us. MLS Cup all the way! There is no other option.”

The New York Red Bulls kick off their 2011 MLS campaign at Red Bull Arena against the Seattle Sounders on March 19.

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