Two days ago, the New York Yankees, Manchester City, and Major League Soccer told us that New York was getting its own soccer team. They’ll be called New York City Football Club (NYCFC), which makes their intentions—note the “city”—clear, and the team will be majority-owned by Manchester City, with the Yankees as minority owners. Either way, it’s two of the world’s wealthiest sporting entities teaming up.
It’s exciting because everything in New York City ends up being exciting, and it’s exciting because it brings MLS to 20 teams; after 17 years of measured growth, it will be as large as all the major European leagues. And it’s exciting because New York doesn’t have a soccer team. (The New York Red Bulls play in New Jersey. More on them later.) Soccer continues to grow, and the Big Apple has it’s own team. It all seems good.
But it’s also kind of weird, isn’t it, when you step back? New York doesn’t have a soccer team. There are currently 19 top-tier soccer teams in America and none of them are in New York. That doesn’t seem like something you should be able to say.
So, a question: Will anyone actually care about NYCFC?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF the New York Red Bulls: they’re the least successful original franchise in MLS, making it past the quarterfinals in two of 17 seasons, still yet to win a trophy of any kind. The team started off named the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. (This was back when the league was really weird: the clock counted down, every tie game ended in a hockey-style shootout, the uniforms were ridiculously neon and unsymmetrical, and teams called “Wiz” and “Burn” existed. But it was soccer! In the U.S.! So no one cared.) They played on AstroTurf at Giants stadium, a football stadium in New Jersey. After a few years, the name was changed to just “Metrostars.” Then energy drink company Red Bull bought the team. (They own multiple soccer teams across the world. And no, that doesn’t make it any less bizarre.) They were re-named “New York Red Bulls” and given uniforms with two red bulls clashing heads on the front. They then built a soccer-only stadium, and it is gorgeous, intimate, and super-clean. It’s a totally modern joint, and perfect for what MLS (and presumably the Red Bulls) wants to be. Except, it’s in Harrison, New Jersey, a 45-minute train ride from the city.
The Red Bulls, then, are basically the manifestation of the energy drink the team is named after: flashy, expensive, initially exciting, but ultimately empty, unfulfilling, and probably not good for your health.
The team and the league will get more out of the city than they’ll be able to give back. New York is still New York without NYCFC.
There is a passionate group of people who care about the Red Bulls—and God bless them. Though the team’s attendance numbers are fine—around 18,000 per game (in a 25,000-seat stadium) for the past two years—they’ve been unable to drum up any real excitement in New York, despite employing Thierry Henry, who, though past his heyday, is one of the league’s best players and one of the best soccer players ever. That's due in no small part to the stadium being so removed from the beating city and the fact that a lot of reasonable people can’t bring themselves to feel any connection with a team named after an energy drink.
The promise of another New York team was always more exciting than the team the city supposedly had.
NOW THE CITY HAS that team, and there are many reasons why it will be a hit. Soccer is as popular in New York City as anywhere else in the country. Pubs across Manhattan and Brooklyn are filled with fans up early to watch their favorite European teams play. Go to any park, and you’ll find a group of people kicking a ball around. And off-season friendly matches between European teams have done big attendance numbers, too. “Will Soccer Ever Make It in America?” was always a dumb question—and it’s not even a question anymore, especially in Manhattan.
Beyond the appetite for the sport, the new location, the wealthy (and seemingly well-intentioned) owners, and just the sheer size of New York—get a mini-fraction of New Yorkers to support NYCFC, and the stands will be close-to-full wherever they build the place—all seem reasons for optimism.
(Patrick Shields laid out plans for a stadium to be built on Pier 40 on the city’s west side, right on the Hudson. It’s beautiful and would be in the city: both impossible to ignore and easy to get to. However, it seems more likely that something gets built at Corona Park in Queens, which is a train ride outside the city proper, right around where the Mets play, and a slightly more-accessible mid-point for commuters from Long Island.)
These are all things you need for a franchise to be successful. We'll define "immediate success" for a new franchise, which is what every MLS team is, as a reasonably successful on-field product and one that garners consistent and sizable fan support. The first part of this comes down to ownership and who they put in place. (There is a flexible salary cap in MLS, so things beyond having money are important.) And a winning team, presumably, engenders the second—and more important—part of this. People care about soccer in New York—but will they finally care about New York’s soccer team?
Although, the New York/New Jersey Metrostars/Red Bulls seemingly did everything possible not to catch on in New York City, it’s still there, looming like a neon warning sign. If fans wanted a soccer team to form around, they could’ve had one—but they didn’t, for a number of reasons.
THE BIGGEST AMERICAN SUCCESSES in MLS are Portland and Seattle. Neither team has won a title, and they’ve each been around for less than five years, but the Sounders average over 40,000 fans per game, while the Timbers averaged a sell-out for their first two years in the league. The teams tapped into already-existing and concentrated soccer cultures—both the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have existed, on and off, in various leagues in various capacities since 1975—in devoted populations. Portland sold out games back then, and while the team didn’t actually play in MLS until 2011 (they were in a lower-level league before then), all those games still sold out. Their fan traditions—a lumberjack cuts a slab of wood off of a log every time they score a goal—extend back to the franchise's beginning, and you’ll find references to Portland as “Soccer City USA” around that time, too. So, today, a Timbers game or a Sounders game is an event in those cities, and it’s possible specifically because of those cities. They give something to each other.
That’s not going to happen in New York. The team and the league will get more out of the city than they’ll be able to give back. New York is still New York without NYCFC.
All the sports franchises in New York are worth a ton of money—but that’s mainly because they’re in New York, and they’ve all been there forever, just like Portland. They’re not, really, roaring successes—and definitely not models for anything new. The Yankees are a monstrous empire—but the Knicks, Giants, Mets, and Jets are all legacy brands more than anything. The Giants, Rangers, Mets, Jets, and Islanders mean something to so many of their fans—and they’re important pieces of the American sporting landscape—because they’ve been around, and been around in New York, for so many years. And still, attendance is hit-or-miss on a game-to-game basis for most of the teams. Yet the larger fan base exists for all of them but only because you suck in so many fans when you’re around for as long as these teams have been.
That’s all impossible for a team that won’t start playing until 2015. There’s that vague-but-real soccer culture to tap into, but that’s as disparate and varied as the city itself. (The metropolitan area rarely, if ever, produces nationally relevant youth teams.) There’s a history of soccer clubs in the area—most notably the New York Cosmos, who have been revived and will play in a lower-level league this year—but that’s scattered and dotted with so many different names, too. (The Brooklyn Nets might be the best example for NYCFC, as they aligned themselves with something cool—Jay-Z, even though he’s gone—tapped into an already-there basketball culture, and turned disillusioned Knicks fans. Plus, they became a cultural thing before a game was ever played; NYCFC has two years and a ton of money to try to make that happen.)
And that’s maybe the biggest hurdle. MLS isn’t the highest level of soccer just yet—European leagues still have all the best players—so there seemingly needs to be some deeper devotion to the cause (supporting your city, supporting the sport, etc.) in order for the fans to turn out. New York cares about soccer in the general sense—it’s a cool, still very urban thing to be concerned with—but is it too difficult to bring all of that together into the support of just one team?
NYCFC doesn’t need to be the Sounders or the Timbers or any of the franchises it’ll be brushing shoulders with once the team gets up and running—because that’s impossible. The club just needs to create something for all these soccer people and all these New York people to rally around. Whether or not they will—even if it’s there, winning, not-in-New-Jersey, and impossible to ignore—that’s still a question without an answer.