New York City FC is the newborn MLS love child of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. They are the offspring of co-owners who are perhaps the two sporting entities on this planet most synonymous with unabashed wealth and plutocratic might. While Man City and the Yanks have trodden very distinct and, in some ways, diametric roads to financial preeminence and competitive success, they stand as totemic icons of 21st century athletic extravagance and the spoils of free-spending ownership.
That makes their union to found a football club in The Big Apple an intriguing experiment, to say the least. Ostensibly, the discussions were rather simple: A couple of bazillionaires purchase a franchise in the fastest-growing sports league in America, to play in one of the most populous, prosperous, and, as a result, paradisiacal urban centers in the entire world. On paper, that's pretty hard for MLS — an emerging league that's high on potential, but still middling in terms of quality — to pass up. So, they didn't.
It always seemed an oddly perfect marriage: A duo of deep-pocketed owners, familiar with both elite European football and the American sporting imagination, entering a relatively vacant marketplace (with respect to the New York Red Bulls, who actually play in New Jersey, and the New York Cosmos, a club stuck in the second-division North American Soccer League and playing on Long Island). What could possibly go wrong?
Well, while they’re only in their first season, it’s difficult to consider much of what NYCFC’s done behind the scenes a rousing success. Before even kicking a ball, the team had high-profile foibles related to everything from its uniforms (which the fans felt had too stark a resemblance to Man City’s kits), to its home ground (a cavernous baseball stadium), to the bizarre absence of Frank Lampard (their marquee player, who spent the year in Manchester under dubious and duplicitous contract terms). Yet, for all the speculation that the club would be either a high-profile disaster or an unprecedented American soccer behemoth, the reality has fallen somewhere in the very, very large space between.
One night at Yankee Stadium offers an intriguing glimpse into this stumbling giant, a club of paradox and contradiction. The seeds of promise are evident in the lively fan support, bustling concourses and a roster that features the star-power of David Villa and Mix Diskerud. Equally, though, one can easily see the organizational harbingers that portend an enduring, cacophonic identity crisis — a franchise that seems primed for ‘superclub’ potential, but still very clearly doesn’t know what it is yet, what it wants to be, and how to get there.
This sinks in at the very beginning of any matchday, in which one is greeted by a state-of-the-art athletic facility, but a structure nevertheless quite obviously meant only for baseball. It offers a unique setting, but a dreadful pitch, horrible sightlines, and abandoned tiers of seating in the upper half of the stadium. The supporters section is dwarfed by these villages of empty chairs, which devour the atmosphere; the loud roars from the boisterous fan group perched above an outfield field wall barely manage to hit the crowd on the opposite side of the ground, who sit just behind a vacant dugout.
In all likelihood, NYCFC will soon have a new, purpose-built stadium to call their own; but, for now, a large sign towers over the field of play, reading “YANKEE STADIUM” or, in plain English: “THIS IS NOT YOUR HOME.”
The fans, however, do their bit to make it a proper tenancy. For all the club’s failures of branding, marketing and identity construction — at times, this can all feel like an ersatz Manchester City pet project forced to live in the cupboard under the Yankee Stadium stairs — NYCFC supporters still manage to engineer an impressive atmosphere. Though ridiculed in papers, home and abroad, for their (admittedly embarrassing) song sheets, fan groups like The Third Rail have actively appealed to a wide and diverse swath of the New York metropolitan area, uniting people of different backgrounds and walks of life through a shared love of football. Perhaps those song sheets, silly as they may appear, speak rather pointedly to the inclusivity of the group. Unlike the gated, patrician atmosphere associated with the stadium that they call home, a conscious spirit of common salutation and community building is easily detectable among the ranks of NYCFC supporters.
In this respect, though New York’s character is impossible to define in a smattering of glittery buzzwords about city life, the Big Apple’s unique metropolitan cocktail of diversity, hustle, glamour, and urban verve does, in many ways, come together rather loudly on a matchday. More than anything else, New York’s spirit of unity is here — and it emanates not from a trite announcement over the public address system, or from a programme cover, but from fans clad in sky blue.
In this sense, now that NYCFC has begun playing matches and largely escaped the harsh spotlight that shines on expansion front office politics, the club, as its name suggests, is starting to become a lightning rod of sorts for football culture in the city. How much of that is down to the team’s own actions is questionable, but the momentum and buzz surrounding them is not.
After a 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers last month, NYCFC supporters congregated beneath a large rail overpass on River Avenue, adjacent to Yankee Stadium. The fans sung songs in English and Spanish for players they’d just learned to call their own, among friends they’d just learned to call their own, maybe in that very moment. The result didn’t matter at this point. As drum beats rattled off the underside of the metal bridge above, Wall Street bankers, college kids, immigrant families, and locals from the Bronx all jumped and chanted together, waving scarves and taking videos on their iPhones. As they sang for their city, it became apparent that a club that had failed on every level of planning to achieve a unique New Yorkian identity is in many ways finding that personality growing organically through the cracks.
Minutes later, many of these fans shuffled southwesterly, where they met their new MLS peers from the Pacific Northwest at the front entrance of the stadium. There, they chatted, exchanged views on the match, and danced along to a marching band playing in the street. Over half an hour after the stadium had shut, both sets of fans remained outside, celebrating less a result and more their existence, unwrapping the present of presence as American soccer supporters in 2015.
While to many skeptics this may be an affirmation of the dearth of passionate rivalry or competitive spice seasoning modern-day American soccer — a criticism that is perhaps accurate and carries with it its own consequences — it’s hard not to reflect upon how rare, how special, this is in football.
In a world where fan segregation at the game’s pinnacle is not just a shrewd safety measure, but a complete and total necessity, the laughter and songs shared between opposing supporters on nights like these seem like important reminders of the game’s potential for friendship, rather than intimidation, across lines drawn in the sand.
With the world watching on as visiting players were tear-gassed in Argentina just last week, it makes one wonder if we’re thankful enough for what we already have in American soccer.
While the game in the U.S. may be lagging behind top leagues in myriad ways, and institutional and cultural wrinkles exist that require substantial ironing, there are some things that are perfectly fine to enjoy how they are.
On this night in the Bronx, a group of supporters proved that they’re at the center of that, helping to create a football culture that unites diverse cities, celebrates the game responsibly, and uses football to find common ground instead of enmity among strangers.
And they’re not alone on these shores.