Major League Soccer is putting a team in New York City in 2015. People will hate this team. And that’s great.
MLS does claim that New York City FC is their second NYC team after the Red Bulls, but walking around New York, you’re less likely to see Red Bulls gear than that of any number of European clubs. And the Red Bulls play in Harrison, New Jersey, which, though a soccer haven in and of itself, is noticeably outside of the city’s bounds. Actually having a New York team in New York will be a boon for MLS both inside the city, where it will harness New Yorkers’ famous narcissism and sense of superiority, and outside, where it will harness Americans’ famous loathing of New Yorkers’ narcissism and sense of superiority.
One of Major League Soccer’s biggest problems, obviously, is that that a better version of its sport can be found elsewhere. It’s a problem that the NFL, MLB, and NBA do not face, but it’s one that’s shared by college basketball and football, and what those sports lack in quality of play and name recognition, they more than make up for in tribal/regional/school spirit. Two of the most successful existing MLS franchises have taken advantage of this kind of local pride — the Seattle Sounders are a mega-attended local phenomenon that draws 40,000 maniac fans to every game, and the Portland Timbers are the Sounders’ foil and a locally beloved team in their own right. Soccer in America is thought of as an activity for healthy, active, culturally upstanding people, so it makes sense that the cosmopolitan coffee-drinkers of the Pacific Northwest would get behind the sport. And a Portland-Seattle rivalry is a natural fit.
Meanwhile, one of the few givens in an increasingly fractured American culture is that you have an opinion about New York City — you love it, you hate it, you want to live there, you’d never live there — and one of the few givens in American sport is that you feel a certain way regarding the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, or Knicks. Specifically, you probably have an opinion about the Yankees. And look who happens to be a part-owner in New York City FC: the Yankees. With NYC FC, the league will finally have a Yankees, a Duke, the team that can be put on prime time without any concern for who its playing because the assumption can be made that viewers will see “NYC FC” and feel something. (In January and February ESPN basically becomes the Duke channel. They know what sells.)
While the club still needs a stadium, players, uniforms, colors, and every other detail that makes a team a team — and so could still be terribly uninteresting, a badly mismanaged soccer version of the charmless 2013 Brooklyn Nets — its majority owner, English Premier League club Manchester City FC, is one of the biggest soccer brands in the world, and it has some experience in creating a massive presence in a short amount of time. After the infusion of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s money in 2008, Man City became one of England’s major teams, winning the EPL outright in 2012. (One important caveat — MLS has a salary cap and the EPL doesn’t.) Sheikh Mansour also gives NYC FC some lightning-rod qualities, like an autocratic Mikhail Prokhorov: as the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Mansour has two wives and presides over a repressive regime.
If you’re a Red Bulls fan aggrieved or confused or enraged about why I continue to insist they’re not a “New York” team, don’t worry: NYC FC could change that too. Few things create worthwhile characters more effectively than a rivalry; just look west to the Timbers and the Sounders. And all of a sudden, the Red Bulls are going to have a bitter rival, one that will be sexier, an underdog and a villain at the same time, truly occupying the nearby city that the Red Bulls pretend to. Meanwhile, people around the country curious about American professional soccer can watch two New York-area teams beat the shit out of each other along clearly defined Jets/Giants Mets/Yankees rooting lines rather than trying to decide why they would care about either Portland or Seattle. (Love you, Pacific Northwest: you just don’t provoke much ire.)
As of right now, NYC FC doesn’t even know where its stadium is going to exist, much less what the team will be like. That’ll get done. Mike Bloomberg and New York have already welcomed MLS with open arms, and that’s a major endorsement in and of itself; by making this deal, Major League Soccer proves that it’s significant enough to dance with this caliber of partner. Soccer’s first big surge as a spectator sport in the United States happened in the ’70s when the Cosmos captured New York’s attention. Its second surge could be on the way to the city right now.