With NYCFC, MLS has planted a flag in the cultural capital of the world
By Gabriel Luis Manga | Photo by Peter Voelker
[O]n Sunday, you could feel tens of thousands of fans, league officials, players, and pundits collectively exhaling; the moment wished for and imagined for so long was finally taking place. Against a Grantlandian blue-gray sky, a blustering day with quips of spring but enough bite to remind us of the winter still clinging to us, New York City’s XI took the pitch to mark a coming of age for MLS.
For a league still grappling with issues of perception, the importance of a franchise within the city limits of the cultural capital of the world cannot be understated. A game experience rooted in the metropolis, and a team representing the boroughs. There’s a reason the young people flocking to New York will seemingly move ever further into Brooklyn rather than to the distinctly closer locations across the Hudson in New Jersey. It is why brands will spend millions on entirely unprofitable locations in Soho. It is an issue of silly yet distinctly important semantics, to be able to say that one does reside, really and truly, in the city. For MLS and NYCFC, these same insecurities and desires hold true. Soccer may now officially say it lives in New York.
At 20 years of age, MLS has outgrown the gimmick and exceptionalism of its formative years (countdown clock, MLS shootout, nicknames, etc). The league was chided for overly marketing the game to families, soccer moms and their children: easy money to fill seats and sell concessions. For a hardcore soccer fan in 1996, it would no doubt have been frustrating to see aspirations for a “true” soccer experience, that of the Kop or Curva Nord, replaced by a league creating a soccer theme park. And yet, it is those very same children who attended early games who make up the core of the league’s new form of identity, and who have taken on the more intense fandom so many have longed to see stateside. Though this development and birth of hardcore supporters groups likely has more to do with the increased accessibility to European soccer that the internet and channels such as Fox Sports World brought to the younger generations, MLS and its marketing did play a seminal role.
Stadiums are most certainly still child friendly, but there is indeed a grittier, boozy, and purposely raucous experience that now permeates throughout the stadiums of MLS. NYCFC is no exception. (Upon stepping off the 4 train, I’m invited to drink aguardiente with a group of Colombian fans in the street. Being half Colombian, I am culturally obligated.) Billy’s Sports Bar is packed to the brim with sky blue clad fans lagering. In the supporters section, liquid confidence lubricates the anxious growing pains of learning the songs, chants, and unified voice that fans hope to make the identity of their team. One can feel the yearning for a complete, rapturous, and non-stop environment from groups such as the Third Rail, NYCFC’s main supporters group, and there is little doubt that they will get there in time.
As most young adults moving to New York can attest, living in the city comes with compromises — less-than-ideal housing being one of them. NYCFC’s sublet in the Bronx is no exception, but it makes do. Sightlines are at odd angles, but close enough to the field to see Mix Diskrud and David Villa turn the match into a competition of who can pull off the more elegant backheel. The building has been actively branded for the club, with navy replaced by a lighter shade of blue, and faux graffiti on the outfield wall. It does actually feel fit for soccer, even if the Yankees aren’t thrilled about it.
It is an issue of silly yet distinctly important semantics, to be able to say that one does reside, really and truly, in the city.
The narrative of calling oneself David when truly occupying the role of Goliath is a time honored tradition in New York. However, the more accurate narrative of Gotham is in fact less about defeating an oversized opponent, but about living up to one’s own potential in a sea of others trying to do the same. With the backing of billions of dollars and a league that has seemingly done everything it can to make this franchise successful, NYCFC will be grappling with this urge just the same, fighting to live up to the expectations of excellence bestowed, and opponents across the league relishing their potential failure.
At the end whistle, the crowd is sprung into Asturian induced applause. As if scripted, Villa has lifted City to a 2–0 victory. “New Yorkers love a winner” (unless you are the Knicks, in which case the city’s masochistic idiosyncrasies emerge), and if Sunday’s match is any indicator then “The Kid” is going to be lusted after by soccer fans all summer. Exiting the stadium, the young fans who have come to the ground with their neighborhood posses chant, cheer, and echo in the soft yellow din of the subway above. For a moment, with the sun faded and moment obscured, we could be in London, we could be in Berlin. But we are in New York. Of all the chants thought up, from the clever to the vulgar to those directly mimicking counterparts across the water, it is the simplest that resonates most powerfully, booming down River Avenue: “NYC! NYC! NYC!”
Follow Gabriel Luis Manga on Twitter @Gabri_elManga.