The recent Yankee Stadium soccer match between English Premier League teams Manchester City and Liverpool provided a preview of the future of New York soccer. The European powerhouse teams were there for one night only, but the stadium, starting next season, will be the home of New York City FC, a new MLS franchise.
NYCFC’s primary owner is City Football Group, a holding company under the auspices of Abu Dhabi United Group, run by Abu Dhabi royal family member Sheikh Mansour. They also own Manchester City FC, which they purchased in 2008, subsequently investing hundreds of millions in player acquisitions and facilities, resulting in Premier League titles in 2012 and 2014.
The minority owner of NYCFC is the New York Yankees. Of the $100 million investment required to purchase the franchise, CFG put up $80 million, the Yankees put up $20 million. City Football Group hopes to leverage their partnership with the Yankees for marketing tie-ins, knowledge of the New York sports market, and political capital.
Yankee Stadium soccer a temporary move
Unusual for MLS, the NYCFC franchise was awarded prior to construction of a soccer-specific stadium — the current plan is for the club to play its home games at Yankee Stadium for 2-3 years, and eventually move to a purpose built stadium somewhere in the city. As the Yankees well know, the process of building a stadium in the city can be complicated, and the wrangling over the site for NYCFC’s stadium is proving that. Several sites have been proposed, but each has run into political snags — over public land use, public financing, access and parking issues, and squabbles with the Yankees’ crosstown rivals, the Mets.
Until they are able to work out the details of their future stadium, the temporary Yankee Stadium soccer situation will present its own challenges. Chief among these — scheduling Yankee Stadium soccer games — the two seasons being roughly concurrent. According to Yankees President Randy Levine, “We’re not going to do anything to affect the Yankees schedule…. We don’t anticipate any scheduling problems. If there is, there are other venues in the city.” As Yankees COO Lonn Trost expressed, soccer will play second fiddle to baseball in the stadium, as the name makes clear — “Yankee Stadium was, has been, and always will be Yankee Stadium.”
The Premier League game illustrated some of the logistical challenges of the stadium share, particularly in terms of the quality of the temporary pitch. Laying down playable turf over the infield dirt is tricky and doesn’t seem to result in a perfect playing surface, like those common in European competition.
“Maybe it was not the best pitch to play (soccer),” Manchester City coach Manuel Pelligrini said after the match. “But it was not so bad. It was not a problem for the players.” Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers echoed that sentiment, “I thought three-quarters of the field was excellent.”
Many of these challenges will no doubt be worked out as the grounds crew makes the change from diamond to pitch on a more regular basis, as NYCFC will have 17 home games scheduled at the stadium next season.
The team has begun its marketing offensive already, with splashy signings of European veteran players David Villa, Spanish international, formerly of Barcelona and Athletico Madrid, and former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard. These high-profile signings, as well as their pedigree and affiliation with Manchester City, have American soccer enthusiasts’ attention.
Challenges in the Big Apple
Just as with any new franchise, however, NYCFC will face challenges. They will they have to compete for attention and fans with the other, established New York MLS team, the Red Bulls, as well as playing in a temporary stadium, while building a squad from scratch. If the template of Manchester City tells us anything, however, it may be that financial resources can result in championships in relatively short order.
The game proved that New York has a healthy soccer community, but building loyal fan support for a new franchise on the crowded New York sports scene, and the political battle to site and build a stadium they can call their own, will likely determine the future success of the experiment that is NYCFC.