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How the Other Sides Live: A Soccer Doubleheader in NYC

A double dose of soccer, NYC style

Scott Mathews
Scott Mathews

Even as I sit at my dinner table in Brooklyn, trying to write about soccer in New York City, I still cannot escape baseball. Outside my window, I see Ebbets Field Apartments, sticking out the earth like a gravestone, but now home to thousands. In my inbox, an invitation to the upcoming Jackie Robinson exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society, celebrating the achievement of a man who, 70 years ago, transcended the pastime and his era. On social media, post after post relishing baseball’s opening weekend, signaling the time of year when U.S. sports fanatics wake up from hibernation and once again celebrate outdoor athletic achievement. From Mayor de Blasio proudly wearing a Mets t-shirt on opening day to water-cooler conversations lamenting the Yankees’ diminished spending power: from 1st to 3rd in gross spending (and with very little mention of the lottery-bound Knicks and Nets). It does not take much to remember that New York City, in its romance and infrastructure, is inextricably connected to baseball.

New York City’s hard-wired loyalty to baseball was truly brought home to me on Saturday, April 1, when I watched two New York City professional soccer teams, NYCFC and the New York Cosmos, play on re-purposed baseball fields.

From barely-covered basepaths to sight-lines blocked by foul-ball netting, it was impossible to escape baseball’s presence. However, when looking to the stands at the dedicated cadres of supporters, there were signs that soccer in New York City is much more deeply rooted than conventional wisdom or inadequate stadia might suggest.

New York City FC 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes, @ Yankee Stadium

Scott Mathews

Into its third year at Yankee Stadium, NYCFC has truly settled in to its home. As have its fans.

Despite the continuing hopes of fans and ownership alike, there does not appear to be any clear path to building a soccer-specific stadium within the five boroughs. This surely is devastating to ownership’s goal of quickly cementing NYCFC as New York’s City’s soccer team. Still, it is clear that a dedicated fanbase is taking root.

In its short history, NYCFC has put a great deal of effort into attracting the three tiers of game attendees essential for any viable New York City sports franchise: tourists, who identify NYCFC matches as a “thing to do”; casual fans, who are happy to cheer for a winning side with big names; and die-hard supporters, who see the club as embodying New York City’s distinct character of authentic urbanity and seemingly preordained dominance.

The shine that marketing, the new-team smell and big names brought to NYCFC’s bombastic introduction to the City is beginning to wear off. The organization is entering a second phase, one where it must prove it can endure without a dedicated home—and, until it starts to deliver trophies, without proven history of success.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing second in the Eastern Conference in 2016 and with a talented set of players and coaches, those who are still paying attention should be very optimistic.

On a cold, windy, early April afternoon game against a generic Western Conference opponent, there were very few signs of “plastic” NYCFC fans in the stands at Yankee Stadium. In fact, what seemed to remain in this scantly-populated stadium were knowledgeable and dedicated supporters who, over time, will become the organization’s backbone.

These fans established pet names for favorite players, including relatively obscure substitutes. While grateful for his play, many in the crowd were openly relieved when the marketable Andrea Pirlo was substituted for the more dynamic, anonymous-by-comparison, Tommy McNamara. The Third Rail, NYCFC’s primary supporters group, had a well-oiled repertoire of chants with which the entire stadium was prepared to sing.

In contrast to previous seasons, especially in the summer months, there were no European jerseys or obvious tourists to be seen. From a business perspective, this kind of outing may not be what owners want to see, but from a supporter’s standpoint, seeing the cultivation of these die-hards is terrific news for New York soccer’s evolving character.

In its own way, Yankee Stadium is literally and figuratively shaping the organic supporter culture developing around NYCFC. Field obstructions and sub-optimal sight-lines are a natural and inevitable part of watching soccer planted awkwardly in the outfield of a venue designed to watch an entirely different sport. Absent the casuals and tourists, the half-empty stadium reveals how those in the know adapt to the space: fans cluster in idiosyncratic spaces around the stands.

Pockets of supporters are distanced from each other by dead zones where no sensible soccer fans will sit due to the abysmal views. Ushers, used to baseball’s frequent stoppages, seem happy to walk in front of sight-lines to remind fans of their existence. It adds up to an unusual stadium experience: scattered groups reacting to events independently from each other, like they are watching the same game only by coincidence.

Scott Mathews

For someone who seldom attends NYCFC home games, I cannot let go of the fact that there is little here that is overtly welcoming to soccer fans (aside from the cash registers). And yet, for those who have fallen in love with NYCFC, Yankee Stadium is home. They have adapted to their surroundings and the distance between groups of supporters nurtures subcultures in the stands. The divisions created by tracts of seats from which the game is unwatchable give rise to independent chanting routines and quasi-supporters groups like the charming Chicken Bucket FC. The sight-lines might be a problem for those new to soccer at Yankee Stadium, but the space between the faithful protects small, strong, autonomous congregations: sects of the broad church of NYCFC, worshiping the same divinity in different ways.

While any individual group’s chants are dulled by the vast stadium spaces, when the whole crowd does get behind one song, it is quite moving.

Along with conforming to their physical surroundings, NYCFC supporters - at least on this day in April - seem also to have assimilated to the personality of their borrowed home. Despite their club’s short existence, fans in the stands engage with the game in much the way Yankees crowds do. Only the ref (that “bum”) can steal away victory from the team, the opponent is merely a necessary prop for the club’s manifest destiny: success is preordained, failure an aberration. These are the attitudes of many fans of successful franchises used to winning year after year, less commonly found among those following a team gently feeling its way into its third year of playing any competitions at all. It is almost as if you could remove NYCFC, insert the Yankees, and not much would change in terms of the attitude of the crowd; as though just sitting in the seats of Yankee Stadium makes a fan expect to be backing a winner. It is doubtful that this same expectation could have developed so quickly at Citi Field. If fan culture is any indication, NYCFC has certainly succeeded in deeply connecting itself to New York City’s other truly global sporting brand.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Three years into its existence, NYCFC has a long way to go in solidifying its identity, both as an organization and as a fan base. The beginning of the 2017 season has brought a stark decline in attendance, accompanied by the perception the franchise is settling into the background of the New York City sports scene.

At the same time, it is attracting fans for whom the team is not a fad but a seasonal part of life. Some may have lost interest, but there remains an engaged crowd that continues to bond with the club, happy to spend a cold day outside watching their team while fair-weather fans are more wary of the spectacle (though they will surely be happy to jump back on the bandwagon come playoff time). In 30 years, one imagines home games at Yankee Stadium will be a distant memory. But one also suspects the club, and the culture of the fans cheering it on, will still show characteristics defined by this special formative period.

NY Cosmos 0, Miami FC 3 @ MCU Park

Scott Mathews

While NYCFC spends money to compensate for a lack of history, the Cosmos use history to compensate for a lack of spend.

The perennial NASL Championship contenders averaged 3,500 in attendance last year, while its retro Pele jerseys displayed in trendy Venetian soccer shop windows. The paradoxical organization once proposed a 25,000-seat stadium in Belmont, but then reported over $30 million in losses within five years. One ambitious owner after another buys the club with quixotic zeal, speaking out against the state of modern U.S. professional soccer, willing to challenge the existing order, brandishing the Cosmos logo as a weapon, ready to tilt at the windmills aligned against it. NYCFC’s business plan is very straightforward; the New York Cosmos’ operations are perplexing to all but the true insiders.

New owner Rocco Commisso is the latest to bring hope and fresh energy to New York soccer’s biggest brand. Unlike recent ownership, Commisso has established local business connections that perhaps give the Cosmos the opportunity for a stronger regional media presence and increased advertising revenue. That said, these commercial relationships will only endure over the long term if the Cosmos prove viable in the already-saturated regional sports market. Given these uncertainties, it is still unclear if Commisso’s purchase is an ambitious maneuver to challenge the domestic soccer establishment or a low-risk lark by a media mogul who came of age in the era of Pele and feels a duty to New York City soccer.

Scott Mathews

At the moment, the only tangible statement of purpose for outsiders is the Cosmos’ opening night at MCU Park, the Coney Island minor-league baseball stadium. This is fundamentally a club that was mere days from ceasing operations, so “Cosmos 3.0” made great efforts to simultaneously reinforce a nostalgic place as the City’s original soccer superclub, while rebranding the game-day identity for new beginnings in Brooklyn.

With little time to prepare in an off-season that mostly suggested it would be prudent to prepare for the worst, the revitalized organization would seem to have used the occasion of its almost-never-happened 2017 home opener to throw everything it had against the wall to see what would stick. This resulted in an aggressive citywide marketing campaign, a tie-in concert, free scarves and hats for season ticket holders, commemorative flags and cross-promotions with other local clubs. Strangely, at least for one night, most of it appeared to stick (that is, except for the on-field play).

Unlike Yankee Stadium, MCU Park is quaint and welcoming. If one did not look too closely at the nearby empty storefronts or nonexistent off-season foot traffic, the stadium’s background of the Atlantic Ocean and Luna Park created a disarmingly pleasant backdrop for soccer.

Coney Island's Luna Park Opens For The Season Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Like Yankee Stadium, the sight-lines are designed for baseball and not ideal for soccer, but fans can at least sit level with the field. Foul-ball netting and television advertising blocked part of the field from view, but the Cosmos had applied turf to cover the infield, making their new home seem a little less borrowed than NYCFC’s Bronx rental. MCU Park’s generically-lit scoreboard conspicuously displays the terms of the nation’s other football, such as “down to go” and “ball on the”. Ushers proudly wore Brooklyn Cyclone baseball caps and were quick to make light of soccer, but they too seemed to not mind the unconventional nature of the proceedings. Even the Parachute Jump seemed to open its arms, flashing “Cosmos” in giant lights with a retro charm well-matched to a club still living in the shadow of its 1970s heyday.

Aside from the pleasant surroundings, the Cosmos clearly made great efforts to attract a broad group of New Yorkers and Long Islanders to opening night, hoping to create new fans in the process. An aggressive advertising campaign, including subway cars and billboards along the Manhattan Bridge, sought to bring fresh faces to the Cosmos’ fold. Reggaeton musician Farruko sang before the game and during halftime; for many, this seemed to create as much excitement as the game itself. NYCFC was devoid of casual fans, but Juventus, Napoli, Real Madrid, New York Red Bulls and even NYCFC gear could be seen at MCU Park. An entire section of the stadium included families in NPSL/youth soccer club Brooklyn Italians gear. (A Brooklyn Italians advertisement along the field suggests that this is part of a season-long partnership.)

The near-sellout on a cold evening must have been considered a success. The question is how many of these attendees—aside from the loyal supporters groups displaying “Thank You Rocco" banners and conspicuously green-clad season ticketholders—will regularly return.

The Cosmos’ first game at MCU Park felt staged and temporary, much like a traveling circus. Aside from Cosmos merchandise in the stadium store, there were no signs of permanence, no sense the team or its fans were settling in for the long haul. The club proudly touts more championships than any other area soccer team, but there was no pregame ceremony for winning the 2016 Soccer Bowl or banners commemorating their seven other NASL championships.

That said, for a club on the verge of dissolution just four months ago, surviving to opening day is cause for celebration. The Cosmos will be followed by their illustrious past whether they choose to promote it or not. And that same past means any team called New York Cosmos in 2017 is necessarily trailed by questions about its sustainability and longevity. So perhaps the home opener was not a time to indulge nostalgia or make grand statements of ambition; it was the time to celebrate the now: the simple, thrilling pleasure of being a soccer team playing soccer after flirting with returning to its prior status as a dearly beloved memory.

There will be a point when the club will need to provide casual and hardcore supporters with a concrete vision of its future. But that point is not the home opener of a season that almost never happened for the Cosmos and NASL in general. Let the league focus on troubling existential questions for now, while the Cosmos emphasize simple stability: playing soccer with healthy attendance sustained throughout the season and solid local advertising, under the (provisional) banner of US soccer’s second division.

For both NYCFC and the Cosmos, the future is as unpredictable as the route between their respective home fields during modified weekend subway service. This is in no small part due to the lack of any large or mid-sized stadium within New York City that is truly suitable for soccer. Without this stabilizing infrastructure, both sides will have a difficult time cementing a fanbase or identity that will survive any drastic changes in circumstance.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-New York Cosmos at New York City FC Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

NYCFC seems to be preparing for any such change, pivoting its distinctly New York City brand toward the northern boroughs, Connecticut and Westchester County. If the day comes when its physical home must be away from its spiritual home, maybe its fans are already able to cope with that. In contrast, one wonders if the Cosmos would even survive a transplant away from the NYC-Long Island border (though a move to Columbia’s Rocco B. Commisso Stadium seems almost too fitting).

At the moment, it is clear that these clubs – and the New York City soccer culture as a whole – have to play by municipal rules that clearly bow to baseball’s historical primacy. The New York Red Bulls learned that lesson long ago and made a home on the banks of the Passaic. But these two April 1 matches show staging soccer in the City is not a fool’s errand. Despite a dearth of infrastructural support, there is a growing market for live soccer in New York City. A market that grows in the spaces allowed by NYC’s preferred pastime, and one that might expand dramatically if and when local leadership is willing to embrace the need for soccer to find a true home within Gotham.

Scott Mathews