This week started out so well for Red Bulls fans. You know what – it may still be a great week. I realize at this point I’m just re-reading the last minutes of the Gomorrah Weed Control Commission, but the big controversy Sunday afternoon was, how dare those ne’er-win-wells in Harrison call Landon Effing Donovan “U.S. reject”?
In the words of Aristotle, all this has happened before, and all this will happen again. I myself, in the spirit of full disclosure, said the same thing to Brian Ching, also from the safety of a crowd.
Which, now that I think about it, was worse. Ching had just been dropped from his last chance to play in a World Cup. Donovan at least has his memories.
But here’s the thing. Landon wasn’t accepting a Hall of Fame induction, or thanking his fans for years of support. He wasn’t representing the US national team. He wasn’t retired. He was on duty for his club. He stepped out onto the Red Bull Arena field in his professional capacity. He intended nothing but ill for the New York Red Bulls.
Once you accept the premise that spectators can voice negative opinions on the opposition team, and that fan support can have even a minor effect on the game, the question is completely settled. Red Bulls fans didn’t merely have the right to mock Landon. They had a duty to. They had an obligation to.
If there was a potential downside, it’s that Donovan is one of the sport’s leading gloaters, and it would have been easy to picture him scoring and taunting the fans into soul-death. But it was the fans who got to gloat. All was right with the world, at least for one afternoon.
And then, as if timed to harsh Red Bull fans’ collective mellow, came the NYCFC announcement.
I suppose I could actually do the research to see how that would look in 1970’s dollars, but NASL comparisons have long since been dwarfed. The Cosmos rented out a football stadium in a suburb, NYCFC intends to build one in Queens.
(Actually, if Red Bulls fans want to feel better, at least they didn’t invest any time, money or emotion in the new version of the Cosmos. Are they even going to bother to take the field now?)
I’m going to assume that the financials and the stadium problems and such all work out, and a team owned by the Yankees and Manchester City takes the field in 2015. And a lot can go wrong – the New York Jets couldn’t get a stadium built in New York City, for crying out loud. Don Garber’s record in getting stadiums built is dazzling, marred only by the awkwardness in San Jose and the tension in Washington. MLS is now something that you can almost, but not quite, think about spending half a billion bucks on. Those of us who have been watching for the past decade might be forgiven for a little future shock.
Most of the analysis so far has taken the stadium for granted, and focused on the ownership group, the marketing, and what it will mean for other teams (specifically Red Bull). I’ll get with the program, then. No more jokes about Money Laundering Soccer. Now it’s … well, I’ve got Now You’re Collecting F……. CASH, but I can’t think of anything that starts with F to complete the acronym. I’ll work on it.
Was it a good idea to give New York a team when Florida and Minnesota were waiting more or less patiently? I suppose it must be. If I had the kind of insane dollars we’re bandying about here, I’d have forgotten Queens and tried out Minneapolis/St. Paul, whose soccer support over the years has been all out of proportion to the stability of clubs and leagues. People whose actual careers depend on making this kind of decision, though, have concluded that New York is a better and more profitable option. If they thought Sioux Falls would make them money, they would put a team in Sioux Falls. It’s not personal.
Even then, I look at the success of other small markets, and am baffled that the league isn’t seeing the opportunity in Minnesota, San Antonio, Arizona, Florida, et multiple cetera, that I do. Which is why I’m not in the 1%, I guess.
But what about the brand associations? Won’t this simply be Chivas New York, only with ManchesterCity?
No, for lots of reasons. I’ve spent a good deal of time explaining why Chivas USA was unsatisfactory to Guadalajara fans, and surprisingly few of those apply to ManchesterCity. Chivas is wrapped up in a Mexican identity - whose authenticity probably varies a lot depending on how much of a Pumas or Club America fan you are – that was and is an anachronism in today’s world soccer. I think only Athletic Bilbao qualifies in that category, since Glasgow Rangers is officially multifaith and Zenit hasn’t officially said they would only sign white players. Cheering for non-Mexican players does not come naturally to Chivas fans, even Chivas fans removed from Guadalajara.
Seen in that light, ManchesterCity – like most teams in the world – is a more nebulous proposition. There isn’t anything like the nationalist appeal of Chivas, but there isn’t anything preventing one from being a ManchesterCity fan, either.
Yes, sir, I’m sure you with the season tickets dating back to Maine Road and the children named Colin and Belle, could tell us all about what makes Manchester City unique and special. But it isn’t for citizens of Manchester only, and said spiel might fall on willing ears, unlike the way most of the world would react to Chivas or Bilbao.
Chivas USA also had little or no wiggle room as far as branding. That stylized goat logo you see floating around occasionally would have helped differentiate the clubs, and was a pretty spiffy little badge – but differentiating the brand was the precise opposite of what Chivas USA wanted, so the Guadalajara city badge was the only option.
NYCFC doesn’t have that problem. The Yankees are aboard, for one thing, and their relevance to shipbuilding and ugly eagles is tenuous. The Yankees connection gives ManchesterCity an excuse to build a more inclusive brand, but I think they would have done so anyway. The Manchester City badge is hardly sacred, having been updated far more often than - well, the New York Yankees, to pick one. Claudio Reyna has already said that the NYCFC badge won't be a City clone, which should put most of the Chivas NY worries to rest. There’s much more danger that the team will fall back on the interlocking NY of the baseball team.
If that is a danger. Baseball purists aren’t going to be this team’s target audience. The Yankee connection intrigues me in lots of ways, not least is that folks of my generation regarded soccer and baseball as deadly enemies. There might be crossover in loyalties between NYC and NYY, but fans of both will have finite ways to spend a sports dollar. MLS might simply be the Yankees’ way of making sure they get some of that money either way - but that idea of itself would have been heretical and revolutionary in 1996, let alone 1976.
I think there’s an even more common sense math at work here. The target fan here is a frontrunning jerk – sorry, typical New York sports fan. That's a big group of people. The theory, we're told, is that the ownership group will alienate Manchester United and New York Mets fans.
That's two groups of people, so let's take them separately. There are Manchester United fans who don't live anywhere near Queens and wouldn't have bought tickets anyway. There are Manchester United fans that are so snobbish they wouldn't truck with MLS even if the Glazers were in the ownership group. (In fact, that might have alienated United fans even more.) And then there are Manchester United fans who realize that NYCFC will not actually be competing against United until, conceivably, the World Club Cup, and they can therefore safely support their local.
That's assuming there are droves of Manchester United fans in the United States, and I've always found claims of a silent majority of EPL fans in every corner of America highly fanciful.
As for alienating Mets fans? Hm. I guess we need to find an example of multiple ownership potentially alienating New York fan bases. But where to find such an example? Well, from Flushing, I would have to get on two entirely different subway trains before I got to Madison Square Garden, home (and owner) of the basketball Knickerbockers and the hockey Rangers. Amusingly enough, you rarely hear of Islanders fans denouncing the Knicks (except for the odd decade or so of terrible basketball), and while there used to be more of a popular front of Nets and Devils fans, that has now changed for fairly obvious reasons. Brooklyn Nets fans have no particular beef against the Rangers.
As why should they...the teams play different sports. Dyed-in-the-wool Mets fans are going to spending the MLS season focusing on the Mets...the poor, sad, deluded fools. Casual Mets fans aren't going to be as enraged by the idea of pinstripes. Wait, don't the Mets wear pinstripes? In any case, the team won't be called the Soccer Yankees, so whatever concerns we have about a subset of a subset of non-soccer fans should be minimal.
Heck, NYCFC might try to imitate the Yankees and use an Uncle Sam hat on a soccer ball for the logo, but by God they'll have to go through Sam's Army(TM) first.
So, there are really no ownership reasons to worry about NYCFC...oh, right. Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Deputy prime minister of a nation that - well, you know what, not every part of the United States would stand up to scrutiny of the law books, either. You may of course read for yourself. Someone really, really, really trying to avoid a fight would latch onto "There were no prosecutions for homosexual activity during the year " as a freaking lifeline, and I confidently expect MLS and the Yankees to do so.
While this is uncharted territory for American fans - although we're no strangers to scummy owners - there's a Yankees reference I can make here if I could only summon up the effort - it of course isn't for English fans.
Good news - Manchester City joined a diversity initiative with Stonewall UK! Bad news - it was two years before Mansour's conglomerate bought into the team. Google has been unhelpful so far in charting the aftermath; I've written Stonewall UK to ask how that all turned out. (They might be too busy with their actual mission statement to answer random soccer questions from Americans, though.) If any City fans would like to enlighten me, please do so.
Because - well, it's going to take a lot of blinkerage to ignore this. I disagree with my close, personal friend Phil Anschutz on a number of issues, but the main reason I support his team in MLS is because I'm able to tell myself that by concentrating his energies on soccer, he has less time and effort for his political affairs. The Galaxy has only recently started to make money, and even then it hasn't been enough for anything like ballot initiatives. NYCFC - well, again, New York Yankees fans have lots of practice separating team from owner, but this is going to be particularly difficult, and I don't envy them their worries. It's going to take a good deal of community outreach to balance this out.
Fortunately, fans who find NYCFC difficult to tolerate will have an in-region alternative. Yes, Red Bull New York are a corporate sandwich board, and can be difficult to love even in best of times. But I think people will go see the Red Bulls if they win, and now they have a fire lit under them. The Galaxy answered the challenge of a local rival, and this version of the Red Bulls seems better equipped to deal with NYCFC than - well, literally any iteration of the team before this. Mike Petke seems to have struck the perfect chord for Red Bull partisans, and I think that, unlike in Los Angeles, the New York rivalry will end up being mutually beneficial.
Which answers the other frequent criticism I've read this week - that NYCFC is somehow an affront to the league's "soul."
Yes, the league that trotted out a fourteen year old boy in front of every gawking camera in the hemisphere in order to squeeze every drop of blood from the golden goose is in danger of losing its soul. The league that cheerfully pioneered uniform advertising in major American sports, and with fly-by-night crooks like Herbalife, Amway and Xango to boot, is at a moral crossroads. The league that introduced itself with a sensibility and respect for the sport's traditions that would have made Poochie the Rockin' Dog roll his eyes now must ponder its philosophical direction. The league that went from naming its teams "Mutiny" and "Wiz" to not naming its damn teams at all except to sell the idea that soccer begins with an "f" is not being true to its identity. The league that spent five years going "Beckham Beckham Beckham Beckham" is risking the tinge of inauthenticity. The league that has glommed onto the Cascadia bandwagon like a hipster remora with a handlebar mustache must defend itself against accusations of pretension. Heaven. Effing. Forfend. Let's get a telethon going.
The soul of a team comes from the fans. Not from the owners, not from the league office, not from the announcers, not from the media. It's you, cheering on the players, living and dying for the team. And if you die one Saturday, you come back to life in time for next week's game. It's you seeing your favorites do things we can only dream of, and doing it to those miserable bastards from the next town/state/country over.
Yesterday, we were stuck watching the NFL and baseball and basketball, when they decided they weren't going to strike or move their teams or charge us for stadiums we couldn't afford tickets to. Today, we have souls. Tomorrow, who knows - we may even give a soul to the New York Yankees.
Well, okay, no, but, relax - we'll be fine.