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They could have sold-out the 25,000 soccer-specific-stadium ten times over tonight. We’re in the borough of Queens, New York City; it’s April 2012, and soccer is big news in the Big Apple once again. New York City FC are about to play their inaugural match.
David Beckham walks out on to the field. The crowd cheers. He’s wearing a suit — he retired at the end of last season — and he’s flanked by Posh and four other important men who along with Beckham have brought soccer to Queens. Next to him is his close associate pop impresario Simon Fuller, one of the most influential people in the world according to Time magazine, and on the other side is Fred Wilpon, an owner of baseball’s New York Mets and who has finally realised his dream of making soccer part of the redevelopment on the site of the now demolished Shea Stadium.
There’s a third Englishman there, too: David Dein, a former owner of Arsenal, is part of the investment group. And he’s helped bring over another former Arsenal man to kick things off: Thierry Henry is New York’s flagship star and captain, signed to MLS’ second largest ever contract, behind only Beckham’s own monstrous deal that finally expired the season before.
And in the background stands MLS Commissioner Don Garber, looking pleased as punch. In recent days we’ve looked at two of the candidates MLS is considering for the next expansion franchise, Miami and St Louis. New York City is one that seems to have been overlooked in the discussion, but it’s not because MLS doesn’t want it to happen, as we’ll explore.
Is that scenario wild fantasy? Perhaps. But New York City expansion is a puzzle MLS is desperate to put together, as these words from Don Garber in the New York Times last year make clear: “The league’s original plan always was to have two teams in New York”.
We all know about the history of the Cosmos, of Pele, of the size of the New York market and the importance to the sport here of having a team in its most globally visible city. The question isn’t whether there’ll be a new New York team, but when it’ll arrive, where they’ll play, and who’ll be behind it. Let’s look at the most realistic scenario, close to that outlined above.
Though Manhattan would be more glamorous and Brooklyn would have a strong appeal, it’s as part of the ongoing redevelopment of the site around Shea Stadium that MLS is most closely exploring.
SoccerTimes received some confirmation of this a few months ago:
SoccerTimes was told off-the-record by an MLS official that the top candidate would be New York City with a soccer-specific stadium built adjacent to Citi Field, the Mets’ new stadium, set to open next to Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, in 2009. The league envisions a bitter rivalry between this club and the New York Red Bulls, who are based in New Jersey. League sources admitted, however, getting this done would be hugely complicated and largely dependent on the development of Citi Field.
The mention of the Mets and their owner, Fred Wilpon, in that article is significant as he is known to be interested in MLS, and should have the means and the sway to get a soccer-specific-stadium built as part of the redevelopment underway. The details, as the article suggests, are where the devil lies though. We simply don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.
But as we can see in the image below, Citi Field has been developed immediately behind Shea Stadium, which could be demolished and replaced by a soccer stadium.
There seem to be plenty of people jonesing for a team inside the boroughs, with many expressing an antipathy to the New York Red Bull franchise located over in New Jersey. Several hundred people have signed a petition calling for MLS to expand to the boroughs, with the New York City FC blog a comprehensive advocate of the idea. The Borough Boys Supporters Club announces themselves as “the official supporters group of a second Major League Soccer team in the New York City Area.”
They even have scarves planned.
There’s an interesting interview with the Borough Boys on Soccer Source, in which they further emphasise their alienation from the Red Bulls:
Most supporters feel that the Red Bulls are not their team. This is probably based on the fact that they have always played in New Jersey. While the Jets and Giants both play in Jersey as well, they also once played games in New York. A lot of New Yorkers have a sense of pride when it comes to the New York, New Jersey dispute.
Also, I feel a large part of the soccer community in this area lives in the Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island area and it would be easier for them to access games on a weekend. While the Meadowlands might only be about 15 miles away, getting there on your average summer weekend for a 4PM or 7PM match can take about 2 hours – even longer if you are from Long Island.
Access and attention on the Red Bulls ought to improve when Red Bull park finally opens in Harrison, New Jersey in 2009, but the feeling is they still won’t become New York City’s team.
Adam Spangler of This Is American Soccer told Pitch Invasion that “Red Bull and the Metrostars before them have always felt distant from the city, both physically and figuratively. Maybe that will change. when Red Bull park opens, but it’s no secret that over the last decade there has been little to no connection with the NYC community, so that market is still largely untapped.”
Fred Wilpon is the person most associated with a potential NYC team, and Pitch Invasion has also heard that former Arsenal part-owner David Dein is interested in becoming an investor in it, a move that would make perfect sense given his global ambitions (he was once the head of the G-14) and connections to MLS already via Stan Kroenke, owner of the Colorado Rapids and an investor in Arsenal.
The news that David Beckham has an option to purchase the right to operate an MLS franchise is also of considerable interest. We know Beckham and his associates have a long-term vision of being at the heart of growing soccer in this country, and he certainly has the financial resources to be involved and the passion to do it. From MLS’ perspective, putting Beckham’s name all over the NYC expansion project (even if his actual involvement was minimal) would be a dream come true. Brand it like Beckham.
Let’s strip away the hyperbole with which the article began. Let’s forget Beckham’s involvement, perhaps the most tenuous connection made here. There is still an awful lot to do to get a stadium in place — I don’t think it would be hard to find the investors to back a team in New York City — which is why MLS has awarded two franchises elsewhere in the months since Garber confirmed to the NYT that he wanted a second NYC franchise ahead of other cities. It could still be a while before we see the likes of Thierry Henry in New York City FC colours.
In the coming weeks, Pitch Invasion plans to look more closely at the details of this possible expansion, so stay tuned. But in principle, would you welcome a new, New York team as the next addition to MLS?