It’s not unusual to see people walking around New York City in replica jerseys of English soccer teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. On Saturday mornings in the city, many Irish pubs fill with fans gathered to watch their favorite Premier League teams, and perhaps lift a pint or two for breakfast. By the same token, I’ve seen New York Yankee hats worn by Brits in stadiums in London.
So it doesn’t seem odd that the Yankees would partner with a top flight English team, Manchester City, to establish a new Major League Soccer franchise in the five boroughs. New York City FC will be the league’s 20th franchise, and the fee that the Yankees and Man City are reportedly paying, $100 million, is a new standard for MLS. “This is a transformational development that will elevate the league to new heights in this country,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber.
NYC FC will be majority owned by Man City, which is owned by Abu Dhabi United Group, which is led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan,whose brother rules Abu Dhabi, the biggest of the United Arab Emirates. This is oil money and then some. Mansour, who is worth about $5 billion, spent $315 million five years ago to buy control of Man City and has since plunked more than twice that buying players for City. The spending culminated in a league championship last year. Buying players to win championships. Does that sound familiar, Yankee fans?
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New York City FC will take the field in 2015, although where that field will be is subject to debate in the always dicey politics of New York real estate development. MLS wants to build a new stadium in a rundown part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a soccer hotbed in Flushing, Queens. But there has been local resistance to giving up precious park space—New Yorkers love their parks — although not from the thousands of soccer players who descend on Flushing Meadows every weekend.
In the Yankees, Man City has a local partner with a big bat who knows how to play zoning board hardball. The new $1 billion Yankee Stadium, constructed across the street from the original on 161 St. in the Bronx (which was built in 1922-23 for $2.5 million by Yankee owners Tillinghast l’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert), required an arduous process of negotiation, threat, and neighborhood arm twisting before it was completed. Ultimately the Yankees won—the Yankees always win, don’t they?—as the city surrendered park land and helped to finance the project. Ironically enough, the Yankees built a very nice soccer field across the street from their new home as part of the Macombs Dam Park redevelopment.
Man City has plans to be a global brand on the order of its bitter rival Manchester United, and planting a flag in New York is a good way to start. Each year, national teams stage friendly matches and big European teams including Barcelona, Chelsea, and Real Madrid tour regularly in the off season. “New York is a legendary sports town, as well as a thriving global city with a rapidly expanding soccer fan-base,” said Ferran Soriano, Man City’s CEO. Soriano selected a local lad to manage the team. Claudio Reyna was named NYC FC’s director of football and its first employee. Reyna grew up in New Jersey, where he became a high school legend. A stylish midfielder, he was a highly respected professional in Germany, Scotland and England, including a couple of years with Man City. He was a fixture on the U.S. National Team for years.
In listening to Soriano and Yankee executives discuss the new franchise, you get the sense that New York is just becoming a soccer town. Which is not true. New York was always a soccer town, just not at the glamour level. I have played and coached for many years in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League, which began life in 1923 as the German-American league. Its most famous field, Metropolitan Oval, in the Queens neighborhood of Maspeth, is still going strong.
Today, there are 100 teams in the CSL alone, and we’re just one of a number of leagues in greater New York. There are Hispanic leagues, Asian leagues, co-ed leagues, women’s leagues and urban professional leagues. There are leagues in every age group. Many of the CSL’s games are played at the Randalls Island sports complex, which has 31 soccer fields. Try booking one. Like the city itself, many of our teams are representative of the immigrant groups that have made New York so dynamic: Italians, Greeks, Irish, Poles, Russians, Turks, Albanians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Japanese, plus teams from the police and the fire departments and American teams composed mainly of former college players. National and ethnic rivalries never fade—they merely relocate to the five boroughs.
What’s different now from when I first started playing here a couple of decades ago is how much the global game is part of city’s sports conversation. Television networks such as ESPN, Fox Soccer, and beIn Sport show top matches from Europe and South America as well as the World and European Cups. (Think about this: NBC, which just bought the television rights to the Premiership, will show more English football than American football next season.) Guys talk about Chelsea’s need for a striker or Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger in the same manner that they discuss the Yankees’ injury woes or the Knicks’ playoff failure. And these aren’t necessarily people who have played the game.
Part of it is Wall Street. Over the last 10-to-15 years, the London-New York financial nexus, NYLON, was exposing many American investment types to the Premier League as it was cementing its reputation as the world’s best football competition. Trips to Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane or the Emirates became as coveted as box seats at Yankee Stadium. When soccer becomes fashionable, New Yorkers naturally want in.
The New York Yankees are the city’s favorite baseball team—sorry Mets fans, your team is a wreck. But Manchester City is the second most popular Manchester team in New York. The famed Red Devils of Man United beat Man City to the global punch—they even had a marketing deal with the Yankee cable network at one point. It will be interesting to see if City can use NYC FC to convert fans in the Big Apple to the Sky Blue. Maybe they should apply some Yankee pinstripes.