New York City FC courts tough US crowd

Will committed New York soccer fans take an American team seriously?

A soccer game at Flushing Meadows, Queens, one possible location for the NYCFC's home field.
Michael Appleton/New York Times/Redux

NEW YORK — For as long as any of the players can remember, there has been a game of soccer in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn in the hours just before sunset. The field is the small patch of flattish ground on the park's southeast slope known to locals as the Dust Bowl, and on a fine day the game draws a decent number of spectators — moms and nannies resting on park benches with their strollers, lone dog walkers pausing for thought, students peering up from their books, elderly men shouting instructions to the players.

The pitch is cramped and rutted, and on a good day you can find 40 or more guys, ages anywhere from 14 to 50, charging around a field not much more than 30 meters long, with faded traffic cones forming narrow goals at each end. There are plenty of Spanish curses if you listen closely, but by far the most common is the Jamaican expletive "bumba claat!" which punctuates the game with every error or near miss. There's a wide array of replica shirts on display, a characteristic of informal football and pickup games wherever they're played in the world. On a recent summer evening, there were players wearing the jerseys of Manchester United, Barcelona, Hertha Berlin, the Belgian club Anderlecht, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, England, Mozambique, South Africa and Sweden.

Nobody wears the shirt of any of the Major League Soccer (MLS) teams or of the U. S. national side. But, perhaps, one day soon, they will.

New York City F.C, a soccer franchise courtesy of a cross-sports partnership forged between the Abu Dhabi–backed English club Manchester City and the New York Yankees, will be introduced to the city by 2015. The franchise was officially formed in May when the two parties agreed to jointly invest $100 million to purchase something called NY2 — the rights to a second MLS franchise in the New York area. Ferran Sorriano, the Catalan chief executive of Manchester City, an English team founded 133 years ago in order "to provide people with some wholesome outlet from the grimness of life" and now funded by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, flew across the Atlantic to shake hands on the deal with Yankees president Randy Levine.

As yet, little is known about NYCFC, the MLS's 20th franchise and a club with a website and a launch date but no players, badge or field. There have been conflicting reports over possible sites for a new stadium in Queens at Flushing Meadows as well as in the Bronx, while in early August leaked drawings suggested Pier 40 in Manhattan was under serious consideration. NYCFC's powerful owners have appointed former Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna as the public face of the project, and the team is likely to play in Manchester City's well-known sky-blue color, encouraging the idea of NYCFC as a transatlantic satellite of the English team. Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, described the launch of NYCFC as a "transformational development" for soccer in the United States and said he hoped an intense rivalry would form between the new franchise and the NY Red Bulls, New York's other soccer team.

Since its inception in 1993, the MLS has grown from its original 10 teams to 19, with five more franchises to be added by 2020. The U.S. men's national team has enjoyed an unbroken run of appearances at the last six World Cup finals and been crowned regional champions in four of the last seven Gold Cups. Attendance at domestic league matches has risen steadily, and two years ago a landmark TV-rights deal was signed, with NBC paying from $10 million to $12 million per season for three years.

Yet the view that elite male soccer hasn't reached the United States remains widely held. Last month, reporters asked José Mourinho, manager of the London-based team Chelsea and the sport's most famous coach, what he said to veteran midfielder Frank Lampard when he was considering a move to MLS, where the Englishman would have been a marquee signing. "Don't go to American soccer," Mourinho claims to have told him. "You are a player who needs to compete every week at the highest level. You are a player that needs to be in real competition."

America's soccer public is so infatuated with the English Premier League (EPL) that earlier this year NBC allegedly shelled out $250 million for the right to screen every match for the next three years. The fear for MLS is that even as the launch of NYCFC offers the possibility of channeling the American love affair with English soccer as a way of attracting new fans to the domestic game, budding interest in MLS may be drowned out by the flood of irresistibly glamorous and history-steeped EPL coverage.

Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, insists his new EPL package will dovetail with the existing MLS offering, increasing overall US interest in soccer and affording the possibility of "promoting MLS inside EPL." He says NBC is "very happy" with its relationship with MLS, and although he wouldn't speculate on possible figures for the next MLS rights deal, he confirmed that NBC was interested in extending beyond its current contract, which ends in 2014.

The most pressing issue for NYCFC is to ensure that when its players first step across the white line in 2015, they have fans rooting for them. The new franchise's website invites New Yorkers to post pictures on Twitter of their favorite locations for playing soccer in the city, with the hashtag #OurCityOurGame — a sign of the club's intent to connect with local fans of the game.

Back in Fort Greene Park, Patrick Dodd, a French artist who has played at the Dust Bowl virtually every day for the past six years, says that for him much will depend on where NYCFC ends up playing and how much tickets cost. "If there's a stadium that's easy to access, maybe I'd go, but I'm not going to be paying 100 bucks or anything like that."

Another of the Dust Bowl regulars, Javier Leon, is an architecture student who always wears a Manchester United shirt. He says he's open to supporting NYCFC, provided they play an attractive passing style and show they are serious about providing a stage for local talent.

"They'd have to get themselves a scoring machine," says Leon. "And for that, I'd like to see a new kind of player. I'd like to see that future star coming out of New York. Of course the talent is here."

"I hope NYCFC realize how much talent there is here," says Eric Beard, chief editor of the popular soccer site A Football Report, which has amassed 275,000 devotees on Tumblr in just four years. "Just from Queens alone, if you really coached the young players properly, you could have a world class team in a few years."

Beard wants to see NYCFC focus seriously on local youth development rather than buy big names. This might not be a choice, since NYCFC will have to navigate MLS's tight controls on wages and transfer fees. Wages in the English league remain almost entirely unregulated, despite recent attempts by European soccer's governing body, UEFA, to implement effective new rules for ensuring "financial fair play." This summer alone, Manchester City has spent on just four players more than the $100 million it took to purchase NYCFC. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the team's owner, acquired the club in 2008 and has since spent more than $1.5 billion on a series of high-profile players.

Matt Pape is a novelist and a junior-varsity soccer coach from rural Wisconsin. While Beard points to a whole generation that has grown up with MLS, Pape remains skeptical that domestic soccer can compete with the European game anytime soon.

"Plenty of the kids I coach would struggle to name an MLS player," he says. "They know Lionel Messi and the European Champions League. They're not going to watch the Red Bulls. Soccer here in America is really all about playing the game."

Pape has been an ardent Manchester City supporter since he spent a year living in England in the 1990s, long before the days of the new free-spending team. He's a regular at the Mad Hatter bar on Third Avenue in Manhattan, where Manchester City fans gather on match days. He plays every chance he gets at the plush field at Bushwick Inlet Park in Brooklyn. On weekends there's a gourmet-food market near the pitch, which has a fancy landscaped dog run behind one of the goals. At the other end, the Empire State Building rises from across the East River. Most of the players have trendy haircuts and sculpted pectorals and, just as in Fort Greene Park, none of them wear MLS jerseys.

A burly man in gray Manchester City shorts and well-worn boots, Pape has lived through an extraordinary rise in the prominence of soccer in American culture. He recalls the days of watching "Soccer Made in Germany," a Sunday night show on PBS that ran from 1976 to 1988 that showed weeks-old highlights of West German teams in the Bundesliga. Later, he watched old tapes of the great Ajax team of the 1970s at a soccer camp in Wisconsin run by Bob Gansler, the Hungarian-born coach of the U.S. men's team at the 1990 World Cup.

The dilemma for Pape is that while he roots for Manchester City in soccer, in baseball he's a Mets fan and, like every Mets fan, he hates the Yankees. Similarly, he points out that no Manchester United fan is likely to take up with NYCFC. Eric Beard, who grew up in Boston, said there was no way he could root for any outfit associated with the Yankees — "I could never do that" — adding that he had spoken with Mets fans who intend to become committed supporters of the Red Bulls.

For now, Pape doesn't know if he'll become as ardent a supporter of NYCFC as he is of their Manchester parent club. "I'll go to the first game and see how it evolves naturally. We'll see how it turns out."

As for the New York club adopting the Manchester team's 133-year-old fan culture, Pape believes this will take time. Throughout Manchester City's barren years in English soccer's lower divisions during the 1980s and '90s, its fans would always sing a song of pure grim-faced devotion to their team: "I'm City till I die! I'm City till I die! I know I am. I'm sure I am. I'm City till I die!"

Pape doesn't think that kind of support for the MLS's 20th franchise will happen overnight. "Who's going to be that guy yelling 'NYCFC till I die' all of a sudden? It's going to be slow going."

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