Thought Trail: Sheikhs, Queens, and a new home for MLS in NYC?
Eric: The details have been hidden in the shadows, but it comes as no real surprise to see the NYTimes reporting that Man City owner Sheikh Mansour eager to stretch his empire of influence in the world of football to America. Before we fly through this topic in our private jets, I think it’s worth recognizing that - to a degree - it’s impressive that MLS has a Middle Eastern oil tycoon fawning over it, right? Or do you see this as more of a “I want to be a part of it, NY NY” attraction?
Maxi: I get the cynicism towards the Sheikh’s interest; it’s the same sort of public opinion that trails oil barons whenever they buy clubs. But as a whole, this seems to me primarily a decision based in business. Or, as much as it can be given that football clubs aren’t usually all that profitable.
That said, it seems to vindicate that MLS is a league developing on a variety of fronts: whether in terms of quality, global recognition, or financial potential, there was something in New York that prompted the Sheikh to include the city in his plans for a global portfolio. It might be the global reach of a city like New York and the gratification that accompanies it, but does it matter when there had to be a functioning league in place to prompt the decision?
Eric: Speaking of cynicism, I think we have to look at where the Red Bulls will stand after a supposed stadium at Flushing Meadows. Does a New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey have any lasting allure to New Yorkers when there’s a stadium actually within the 5 Boroughs that’s just an easy ride on the 7 away? Is a rebranding in order? New Jersey Red Bulls isn’t quite the same…
Maxi: Have the Red Bulls ever had any allure to New Yorkers at all? Jokes aside, I’m not so sure the Red Bulls’ difficulties are completely due to their location, so much as their reluctance to build relationships with fans. Since joining MLS, have they embraced any sort of long-lasting community outreach or developed relationships with supporter groups? Sure, a new franchise in the boroughs might sway some fans over, but the problems go much deeper than what a rebranding could solve. MLS is working under the assumption that a New York franchise could develop a rivalry and underline Red Bulls support, but they’re cannibalizing the team to a certain extent, right?
Eric: Yes and no. The Red Bulls, courtesy of the beginnings as the Metrostars, will always be endearing to a few thousands fans, for nostalgia and consistency’s sake. Then again, it’s difficult to measure how many Metrostar fans lost interest after the rebranding. Of course, I’ve still never seen Red Bull Arena full, despite being a near-perfect MLS stadium. The Viking Army and The South Ward are always full of life when supporting their club, and they appreciate having world class soccer at their doorstep. A rivalry will develop naturally between New York City FC and the Red Bulls, but I wonder if it could be compromised to an extent because of the New York Cosmos, the x-factor in this whole scenario. The Cosmos do not appear to be going anywhere as they settle into their Long Island HQ. Fighting for similar fanbases, I can’t help but wonder if New York City FC and the Cosmos could become the big rivalry, leaving the Red Bulls as the odd man out. Is there enough support to go around? I think so, but I wonder if the way fans gravitate will be equally spread.
Maxi: Speaking of the Cosmos, is there any way they continue in the long-term, given that they won’t be joining MLS any time soon, if ever? While interviews with Cosmos representatives always underlined the fact that their plans weren’t predicated on becoming an MLS franchise, there’s always been an understanding that at some point, they’d need to join in to guarantee any sort of sustainability. We’ve all seen the stadium plans and recognized the promising additions to their roster, but is there enough of a market for a second division club to justify their vision? Does New York City FC spell the end of the Cosmos? For a second time?
Eric: The timing of this whole seems to be a less than subtle effort to strip the Cosmos’ foundation beneath them before they’re able to get started. They begin playing in NASL in August, so it’s hard to imagine that the effect will be immediate. At the same time, of course, the announcement of a $250 million stadium right in the city could influence prospective Cosmos fans. But it also looks like we’re heading towards a parallel tipping point of history vs power. More knowledgable fans will probably lean towards the Cosmos, whereas the younger crowd will have no problem adopting NYC FC.
But there is this presence of Middle Eastern money investing, and we don’t know exactly what it means. MLS pocketing $100 million AND having a brilliant stadium financed is undeniably huge for the league as well as American soccer, especially as I believe Queens is a soccer hotbed waiting to be fully developed. Stefan Szymanski, co-author of “Soccernomics” and professor at the University of Michigan, said, “These are long-term investors, the Warren Buffetts of the Middle East.” While I doubt don’t Mr. Szymanski’s judgment, letting the foreign owners have control still seems reminiscent of the transformation we saw when the Metrostars turned into the Red Bulls. Is this a similar, Faustian situation? Will part of the league’s soul be sucked away from this agreement, even if it does appear to be progress?
Maxi: The fear is understandable, given the way the investment group transformed Manchester City from this working-class, forged in failure club, to this metropolitan team that has the ability to open its wallet whenever it pleases. You certainly lose a bit personality and a bit of history when you make that transition. But with MLS, that ability to effect change by throwing cash at anything that catches your eye is certainly limited. Sure, New York City FC might bring in three exquisite Designated Players, but they still have to work within the salary and roster restrictions that MLS imposes. And given that the league has remained one of the world’s most competitive, even with the Los Angeles Galaxy making overtures towards international stars, I don’t think there’s reason to believe that will change.
Eric: Well, the league will have to change, there’s no doubt about that. Expectations will be raised across the country, never mind from outside viewers. If MLS receives $100 million, it will be expected to invest. Invest in academies. Invest in increasing fanbases. Most importantly, invest in its players. There’s no doubt in my mind that the league would increase dramatically if the salary cap were raised even just $1 million. I wonder if that’s the direction in which the league will move. There’s also the question of how that money will be used beyond MLS. With the USL-Pro partnership, it’s going to be expected that MLS will support the lower leagues in some respect. Ultimately, this money comes with a barrel of responsibility, and I wonder if the league is prepared to delegate those funds appropriately. That being said, the salary cap is absolutely vital to MLS’ long-term success, and needs to stay in place to prevent an American oligopoly. The question here, or maybe for another time, is where exactly do we reach the tipping point of parity?
Maxi: Or is this the tipping point altogether? By the end of next month, a Sheikh will be able to put his full force behind a team in MLS. Infrastructure, players, a stadium; this signals a shift in the future of the league. Will it be one that we’ll remember fondly, or something that we’ll come to regret? Either way, this is a groundbreaking moment for MLS, and the next few years should be fascinating.
Eric: ”A Sheikh will be able to put his full force behind a team in MLS.” That sentence, it seems the antithesis of what the league supposedly stands for, but all things considered this doesn’t seem as apocalyptic as I would expect. As groundbreaking as this is, the ground beneath my feet is still staying in place, and it’s easy to get excited about the ripples the city and the world of soccer will feel over the coming months, however positive or chaotic.
This thought trail was written by AFR editors Eric Beard and Maxi Rodriguez. You can follow us on Twitter at @bearderic and @futbolintellect. Comments below please. What are your thoughts about a possible NYCFC?
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- datwookie answered: Hey pal, great page. Just wanted to mention that the inside the stadium photo is for the proposed Cosmos stadium. Not New York City FC.
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- lordjunon answered: As a Manchester City fan, I think its good to have a high profile investor in MLS. And I know I’d root for them just for the City roots.
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- ekter answered: Since the end of the Beckham era at MLS, the potential of the league has never been more visible. This news comes to no surprise at all.
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- itsgonnabefullon answered: City have built 4 pitches (and a 5th is almost completed) in cities around the US. This is just another step to increasing brand awareness.
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