I go to great lengths on this blog not to offend, frustrate, bore or otherwise upset the "Eurosnobs"* of the world. This is not necessarily because I agree with or support their views, but simply because they make up the bulk of the readership (with another sizable chunk made up of "LatAmsnobs"). If your readers don't want to hear about Major League Soccer, there isn't really all that much you can do about it beyond the occasional "educational" column. Consider this one of those occasions.
The New York metropolitan era is on the verge of a major soccer renaissance. The catalyst is a new, state of the art "soccer-specific stadium" built by and for the local MLS team, the New York Red Bulls. The ground is in nearby Harrison, N.J., which is across state lines but happens to be closer to downtown Manhattan than Shea Stadium. It opens March 20 with a friendly between the Red Bulls and Brazilian side Santos.
I'm not going to write an ad for Red Bull Arena. Others have covered that angle already. I did pay a visit and was impressed with what I saw. It's a real, honest-to-goodness football ground, as continentals would call it. It even has real grass. And it's going to be a big hit.
The truth is New York is a soccer town, though one that has been in deep hibernation since at least 1984, when the old North American Soccer League folded its tent. The prior decade, when a guy called Edison Arantes do Nascimento played here, the local club regularly drew 70,000 to its home games at Giants Stadium (also in New Jersey). For a time there was talk that soccer would become America's fifth "major sport," joining baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey. And the New York Cosmos' success did not end with Pele either, though it likely did originate with him; as recently as 1981, with Pele long gone, the team drew an average of nearly 35,000 fans to its home games. The following year it drew close to 29,000. Red Bull Arena can literally not fit that many people; its maximum capacity is around 25,000.
Which is not to suggest this capacity will become an issue, at least not right away. But it could eventually. Because soccer has the potential to become one of New York's three most popular sports. Key words here are
potential and New York. Probably nothing will displace baseball as New York's number one sport in the immediate future. But (American) football has always been more popular with suburbanites and in "red states" than in a (supposedly) sophisticated, liberal urban enclave like New York. Most people who attend New York Giants and Jets games are from New Jersey, Connecticut, or upstate New York as opposed to one of the four boroughs. The New York Rangers ice hockey team sell out nearly every home game, but really their following constitutes little more than a niche audience in a city of New York's size. Basketball long ago fell out of favor with the local team's pathetic performance this past decade, though it too continues to sell out games. Yes, if Lebron James is signed this summer that will change overnight, but there is a bigger chance that Thierry Henry will sign with the Red Bulls.
In fact, the word is Henry has already signed and the team is just waiting for the right moment to announce the deal. The Frenchman would then join the club after the World Cup. New York's Irish population will be outraged but they'll get over it and anyway make up just a sliver of the city's 2.87 million foreign-born residents these days. (Those who consider themselves "Irish American" are of course far more numerous, but probably know about as much about Henry as they do the IRA. Not that it stopped them from getting involved with that organization in the past. Okay bad comparison).
Anyway, Henry will get New York City residents out to Red Bull Arena in numbers, much the way David Beckham did when he came to town. With a few exceptions: 1. Unlike Becks, who played for the LA Galaxy on a different coast, Henry's appearance will be more than just a one-off; 2. Henry can score goals from something other than set pieces; and 3. Henry speaks fluent English.
If Henry doesn't come, you can rest assured the Austrian energy drink company will find somebody of (almost) equal stature to raise its profile. It has also begun an aggressive marketing campaign throughout the Metropolitan area. But the key will be to build something sustainable. And for that to happen the team needs to be watch-able.
The past 14 years it has been anything but. It played its home games on a plastic turf more often than not decorated with American football yardlines. It was mismanaged and miscoached. Its poor play (even by MLS standards) was only accentuated by the elastic pitch. But MLS play has gotten better and will improve even more this season. It will never be as entertaining as the Premier League but there will come a day when MLS play is not really discernible from Europe's larger (though not largest) leagues.
And its popularity will only grow. Professional soccer is already a hit in the Pacific Northwest, Toronto and Philadelphia. If MLS can get out of its own way (and avoid a work stoppage) New York will join that list.
For more news and notes on the New York Red Bulls, please check out their American Soccer News page where I am a regular contributor. This year I am also co-moderating a new podcast called Seeing Red! The New York soccer roundup. Get the most recent episode here.
*UrbanDictionary.com definition: Eurosnob
n. An American who is a soccer fan but refuses to support either the U.S. National Team or Major League Soccer, instead cheering for European teams they have no personal connections to, based on the perceived superiority of said teams.Fan 1: "Hey, you like soccer, too! Wanna check out the Dynamo game?"
Fan 2: "I'd never watch American soccer. I'd rather watch Arsenal on TV than go to a live game down the street."
Fan 1: "Douchebag Eurosnob Traitor..."