Jewel Samad/AFP

Fans in uproar as soccer clubs in New York score own goals

Red Bulls fire popular coach as player crisis engulfs New York City FC, leaving supporters angry

Making a soccer team successful in New York looks tough for the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. Not only must each club compete with a host of established major league teams in more established sports but also with a local rival for the city’s core of soccer fans.

So how have New York’s pair of soccer teams set about this difficult task? The apparent answer, as the March opening of this crucial season approaches: not well. The Red Bulls and New York City FC have found themselves dealing with self-inflicted PR disasters that have put them at odds with their fans — a situation neither can likely afford.

For the Red Bulls, it has been the sudden sacking of a popular head coach and former player. For New York City FC, it has been the handling of a superstar’s arrival — or, more precisely, nonarrival — for the team’s debut season. Both scenarios have had something in common: a misunderstanding and subsequent alienation of core fan groups that should be their most natural constituency.

“I was blown away that they’d done something so monumentally stupid to the fan base,” said Mark Fishkin, a longtime New York Red Bulls fan and a host of the popular independent team podcast “Seeing Red,” describing his reaction to the news that the team had sacked Head Coach Mike Petke just days before preseason training started.

“It’s almost as if they sat around over the holidays and said, ‘What’s the one thing we could do that would totally take all this good will and flush it down the toilet?’ and it was to blow out the team’s folk hero of a coach who’d delivered them their only title in 18 years and led them to within one game of a final … It was baffling …disbelief.”

Fishkin has not been the only one shaking his head over the decision to fire Petke, a former player for the team, who in his first year as head coach won the team the only trophy in its history, the 2013 MLS Supporters Shield, and who last year guided the Red Bulls past Sporting Kansas City and rivals DC United in the playoffs, only to fall a goal short of making MLS Cup.

The timing of the decision seems especially alarming, since the Red Bulls were already entering a challenging new era with the arrival of New York City FC, a new MLS team owned by the City Football Group (CFG, whose primary holding is the English champion Manchester City). New York City FC has been aggressively marketing its debut season in the five boroughs for the past year, eating into catchment areas that the New Jersey–based Red Bulls have historically targeted.

Any schadenfreude NYCFC might have been feeling in watching the Red Bulls’ struggles has recently been tempered however by its own crisis. Frank Lampard, a player who was a cornerstone of the club’s first marketing push, has been the subject of a battle for resources that has illustrated what critics see as a core structural flaw in the City project.

‘It was to blow out the [Red Bulls’] folk hero of a coach, who’d delivered them their only title in 18 years and led them to within one game of a final … It was baffling.’

Mark Fishkin

host, “Seeing Red” podcast

Lampard, 36, along with the Spanish international David Villa, is one of two designated players (marquee players whose wages exceed the salary cap) signed for NYCFC’s first season at the height of last summer’s World Cup–driven peak of interest in the game. At the time, the deal was described as a two-year deal starting on Aug. 1, but with the team not yet in play and its first MLS preseason not starting until this month, Lampard needed to keep fit in the interim.

At that point the developing ecosystem of clubs that CFG owns looked to be a nominal advantage, as Lampard joined up with Manchester City until Jan. 1 and Villa went on loan to CFG’s Australian A League team, Melbourne City.

But when Lampard began to play an influential part in Manchester City’s Premier League campaign, the first rumblings began for his deal to be extended. It seemed that the sporting priorities of the CFG, namely the Manchester team, were on a collision course with the more holistic ideals of the global project outlined by CFG chairman and onetime Barcelona President Ferran Soriano — who envisioned a network of independent international local clubs able to draw on a central set of resources, both financial and technical.

Early supporters of the New York team were therefore dismayed, though not surprised, when Lampard agreed to an extension with Manchester City to the end of the English season in May. But as the story unraveled, it was revealed that Lampard had agreed to only a non-binding commitment with NYCFC to join the MLS side in January and that the deal he signed in 2014 was with the CFG.

The fallout was swift and left NYCFC scrambling. Sporting Director Claudio Reyna and Head Coach Jason Kreis — widely seen as two very astute signings for the new project and very much their own men — were forced to spin Lampard’s absence as demonstrative of what an asset the team would land when he did make his way to New York.

Fans were less sanguine. As Alexander Schaeffer, a member of the first independent supporters group for the new team, the Third Rail, put it, “The playing out of this has been one of the situations we were scared about when the team was announced — that Manchester City would be calling our shots … It not only made NYCFC look foolish. It made the fans look foolish.”

He added, “Personally, I was never supportive of the Lampard move. For me, it represents an older model of MLS — older international stars. But there are a lot of fans that watch BPL [Barclays Premier League], and for them, Lampard’s a big deal in legitimizing the club, and I could see them being frustrated.”

Certainly some fans who had bought season tickets on the strength of the Lampard deal called bait and switch when his Manchester stay was extended, and the 1,600-strong Third Rail issued a statement condemning the mechanisms of the deal.

“We came out very strongly against the secrecy of the deal and the lack of transparency, the misrepresentation,” Third Rail President Chance Michaels said. “We have long said that we want to be the voice of the fans in New York City, and that usually aligns with the interests of the club and with City Football Group’s, but we can’t just rubber-stamp everything that they do.”

While the club looked to calm things by arranging for Lampard to sign a contract to start play with the MLS side on July 1 this year and then moving to sign promising young U.S. international Mix Diskerud to re-emphasize the club’s early strong impression on the recruitment side, the first divergence of fan priorities and club priorities arrived earlier in the team’s history than anyone could have expected.

‘We have long said that we want to be the voice of the fans in New York City, and that usually aligns with the interests of the club and with City Football Group’s, but we can’t just rubber-stamp everything that they do.’

Chance Michaels

president, Third Rail

The Lampard affair has offered a weak spot for opposition fans to gleefully exploit. At the MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia on Jan. 15, the first official event of the 2015 MLS season, Third Rail members were doing their best to enjoy their first public appearance amid inevitable taunts from other fans asking “Where’s Lampard?”

“It’s tough for a starting group to go through that. It’s forced us to grow up quicker … Maybe that does help us find a voice,” said Schaeffer.

As he spoke, in a huge auditorium at the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the draft was taking place, his words were almost drowned out by a loud chant of “Red Bull out” behind him. However, the chant wasn’t coming from Third Rail members taunting rivals but from the Red Bulls’ own long-suffering fans, irate over the sacking of Petke and laying the blame at the feet of the team’s Austrian ownership.

Red Bull acquired the then–New York/New Jersey MetroStars team in 2006 and controversially rebranded it with the energy drink’s global identity. For Red Bulls fans — or Metro fans, as many still insist on referring to themselves — the Petke decision was not just a sporting decision but a cultural one, indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of a folk history that had accrued among fans independent of and often despite ownership decisions over the previous two decades and certainly since the Red Bull takeover.

What arguably made it worse was that toward the end of last year, Red Bull showed signs of understanding that history and even celebrating its value. Banners bearing the Metro colors of red and black and containing a line from a popular fan chant, “As long as we’re breathing,” were hung in the corners of the stadium, and franchise heroes who predated the Red Bulls ownership were paraded before a crucial playoff game. Club captain Thierry Henry grasped the history dynamic even earlier and insisted on wearing a captain’s armband decorated in Metro colors.

And of course, there was Petke and his long-standing and unquestioned connection with the long-term fans — or at least there was until his sudden dismissal.

Not that his firing was atypical of the team’s history of turnover for turnover’s sake. As Fishkin put it, “To have 15 coaches in 20 years is just baffling. I think the guys in Austria just view it as ‘What are we doing with the team this year?’ And when you run the team on a year-to-year basis, all it does is irritate the fan base. I honestly believe that with this move, they’ve lost a significant slice of their hard-core fans, who probably won’t return, and they only have to look at themselves in the mirror to figure out why that is.”

The decision to fire Petke has been publicly owned by incoming Sporting Director Ali Curtis, though already it looks more and more like a decision that could end up owning him. Within hours of the announcement of Petke’s firing and the appointment of former Montreal coach and U.S. national team assistant Jesse Marsch as his replacement, popular sentiment among the fan base had tilted into outright mutiny against Curtis and the team’s owner.

By the time of a fractious town hall meeting between 300 season ticket holders and Red Bull technical staff Jan. 16, an electronic billboard paid for by disgruntled fans had greeted that day’s Lincoln Tunnel commuters with the message “Thank you, Mike Petke — Red Bull out.” That came on top of the previous day’s vocal revolt at the SuperDraft.

Fishkin, who was at the town hall meeting, described it as “an uncomfortable evening for everybody” and remains puzzled why Curtis has staked so much of his reputation on the Petke move right now. “Curtis’ plan, from what we’ve seen to date of his 300 page plan, is all positives. There’s very little to argue with. And it may be that finally we get the reserve team and link the vaunted academy through to the first team. These are all really nice things, and if they’d just decided to keep Petke for a year, the entire fan base would have been energized,” said Fishkin. “[Now] we could go on and win four straight MLS Cups, and none of it will be credited to Ali Curtis, because I don’t think this guy can do anything at this point to bring the fans back.”

Among those fans, weary of successive regime changes and five-year plans that tend to stall at the 18-month mark, there’s a sense of their two-decade history as fans once again becoming alienated from the official project, having seemed as closely aligned as it had ever been in the brief Petke era.

But as a new era dawns for both New York teams, an optimistic version of events might cast both sets of fans’ sense of unease about their stake as emblematic of a certain type of success: If the alternative is indifference, the teams might accept hostility. As Marsch put it, when heckled with an angry shout of “You’ve got a year” at the Red Bulls town hall meeting, “I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever I can get.”

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