Rugby New York will host the Major League Rugby Championship game on Saturday at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Whatever the outcome, the city of Seattle, nearly 3,000 miles away, will be celebrating.
Mayor Bruce A Harrell joined other local leaders in to declare June 25 Seattle Seawolves Community Pride Day, in recognition of the two-time champions reaching a third MLR final in five seasons. (Four completed, 2020 having been lost due to Covid.)
An official proclamation recognized “deep ties to our community” and “strong and positive role models for young people in Seattle.” The mayor also hailed “one of the most passionate and vibrant fanbases in the league and beyond”.
The Red Bull, a Major League Soccer stadium, can accommodate 25,000 fans of all levels of passion. New York sold JFK Stadium in Hoboken this year, but it only contains 1,500. After beating the New England Free Jacks in the Eastern Championship game, they had less than a week to sell tickets for the final. The game will air on Fox Sports 1 in the US and online worldwide. MLR crowds are growing but are small; a nice centerpiece would come in handy.
George Killebrew, the MLR commissioner, told the Guardian: “Having your finals in Los Angeles or New York is the biggest stage you can be on. So we had the final at LA Coliseum last year and then the final at Red Bull Arena this year. You want to be big on the ribs.
“We put about 9,000 in the Colosseum [to see LA beat Atlanta]. There is a much shorter window here in New York. So I think… 5,000 would be great. The way they set up the stadium, they focus on the camera viewable sections. If we can fill them in a bit, I think we’ll have a good day.
MLR is still in the showcase, looking to prove itself to American sports fans, rugby fans around the world and now World Rugby itself. In May, the governing body made a major gamble by announcing the USA World Cups in 2031 and 1933.
It was seen as a major boost for MLR, but it hasn’t all gone smoothly since. Just before the playoffs, the league announced the disqualification of the Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis, two teams owned by an Australian entrepreneur, Adam Gilchrist, and named for cocktails that bear his name.
LA was champion last year, Austin leading the west this time. Fans have been frustrated by MLR’s silence on why teams were disqualified. Finally a statement said Austin failed to cooperate with a salary cap investigation and that LA pursued “conduct deemed detrimental to the league.” Since then, no one has said much.
Killebrew said: “I can’t say anything on the record, for obvious reasons. One day, when we get the chance to tell the story, it will be a good story. But for now, we can’t really say much.
“I hate it, by the way, because the fans deserve more. They deserve clarity and they need to know if they’re going to follow this league.
“We watched social media and everything and there were a few grumps, but for the most part people just moved on and now we’re in the final with two other teams.”
New York finished the regular season 11&5, behind the Free Jacks and Rugby ATL Atlanta. Then they beat them both away from home. Seattle went 9&7 while Austin was 12&4 and LA 11&5 but the disqualifications happened and the Seawolves saw off the Houston SaberCats, coached by once South Africa’s Heyneke Meyer, to make the championship game.
At Red Bull, a 12 p.m. ET kickoff will present challenges. For one thing, on the ground in Harrison, NJ, the heat will be north of 85F or 30C. But the early kickoff will also give European viewers a chance to watch at tea time.
Now that MLR is five years old, Killebrew said, “they’re going to see better quality of play, better quality of officiating, better quality of coaching. It’s kind of been the theme of the last few years. We are not where we want to be, but we are on the right track.
He also said long-rumored expansion teams Chicago and St Louis were “close but I’m not sure they get to the finish line for 23”, despite in Chicago’s case, an MLS-level venue, SeatGeek Stadium, stood vacant after the fire. moved on to Soldier Field.
The fate of an expansion team is never easy. This year, the Dallas Jackals went winless. Killebrew said: “The team hotel caught fire and the bus broke down and everything that could possibly go wrong happened.
“Dallas was a bit of a snake, but it’s in our best interests that no one does 0&16 and no one does 16&0. We want everyone to win. If everyone was 8&8, I’d be happy. Right? So we understand We have to work with Dallas to improve.
Killebrew said future seasons could see a championship venue named earlier, giving time to sell tickets and travel, DC, LA and Boston among potential host cities.
For now, Ric Salizzo, managing director of Rugby New York, and his team are working to organize rugby at Red Bull. Saracens and London Irish played an English Premiership match there. The United States played against Ireland. This week, Salizzo and others went to see a New York derby during soccer’s US Open Cup.
The CEO received support from his home in New Zealand. He said: “I’m inundated with messages from all kinds of people. For example, right after our game [in New England]I got a message from Wayne Smith [a former All Black and All Blacks coach] say that we had a great match. And Razor Robertson [Scott, coach of the Super Rugby champion Crusaders]. ‘I really enjoyed the game. The boys are doing well.
It helps that New York can field Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, 2015 World Cup-winning All Black fullbacks, as well as Andy Ellis, scrum half for the 2011 All Black champions. skills from the southern hemisphere, Samoan winger Ed Fidow also stands out.
Seattle also has talent from the Southern Hemisphere, led by their dangerous Samoan opener, AJ Alatimu. But there will also be promising North American players in the Finals, including New York’s dynamic back-five Ben Bonasso, baseball and football hooker Kaleb Geiger, and lightning Canadian winger Andrew Coe. Seattle has the mighty Samu Manoa, once a five-star fullback at Northampton and Toulon.
Next month, the US Eagles will face Chile twice, for a place at the World Cup in France next year. For the American internationals in Seattle and New York, the MLR final will be something of a trial.
Salizzo said: “There is real growing interest. I think the rugby world is fascinated to see what America is doing with the game.”