Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game and The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City.
This past weekend, Major League Soccer began its twentieth season with more attention and fan interest than it has ever had, especially in the Tri-State area with New York City Football Club joining the New York Red Bulls. As detailed in this New York Times story, there is a rivalry brewing. Kinda. Sorta. It will be the first time a top-level team has played its home games in the five boroughs since the New York Cosmos played a season in Yankee Stadium in 1976.
In soccer, few things are as special, and explosive, as a derby: a match between two teams in the same city. Whether in Rome or Milan, Liverpool or London (which has many), it is (with the exception of in Spain) the apotheosis of the club game.
So why, as a native New Yorker, raised in the Bronx, and a soccer fan since the early 1980s, am I not preparing to link arms and sing songs, chant put-downs, and proudly prance up and down the avenues with the colors of my team.
It’s because I don’t have a local team and any talk of rivalry feels manufactured and contrived. An Austrian beverage company vs. City Football Group, the “gazillionaires” who own Manchester City in the English Premier League, plus teams in Australia and Japan, in effect the KFC of globalized, franchised, branded soccer (not how soccer became the most popular sport in the world, by the way). NYCKFC, perhaps?
New York is a soccer city, there are hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people who love the game here. It always has been—even after the NASL and the beloved Cosmos tragically shut down in 1985—you just had to know where to look and be open to the game in foreign languages. It’s why so many of us looked to Europe and South America in those dark years, not out of snobbery, but simply to watch and enjoy the sport at its highest level.
When the MLS started, many, if not most, of us fans in the New York area tried to support the local team, originally known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars but it was hard. It felt like homework or like spinach (though served just so, with garlic and lemon, I’m open to spinach). They had players I liked—Tab Ramos, Roberto Donadoni, Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, Jozy Altidore, Youri Djorkaeff, Eddie Gaven—but none stayed for very long. They had good coaches—Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena—but they, too, were gone before long. And have you ever been to a game with 70,000 empty seats? What was I being loyal to, the shirt? In 2006, the team was bought by Red Bull, the Austrian beverage company, and the shirt—and the colors and the logo—were obliterated, or rather, “re-branded.”
The move into the smaller Red Bull Arena, it must be said, helped. But by then, it was hard to care. I’d go, on rare occasion. How could you not, as a student and lover of the sport, not want to see a player like Thierry Henry live? And when the franchise hired Mike Petke, a Long Island native who played (and loved) the MetroStars/Red Bulls, as head coach, I was impressed. Petke told me once that it was his dream job, and he doesn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body. After games when he waved to the few hundred hardcore fans behind the goal, he’d often get choked up. But it was more than sentimental; he was successful. The team won its first trophy, the Supporters Shield for best regular season record in 2013, his debut season, and last year came within a game of advancing to the MLS Cup Final. Something good, finally, was happening with this team, a sturdy new foundation, with local roots, was being established by Petke, who had the guts in his first season to actually bench Henry. And what did the Red Bulls do? They fired him in the off-season.
So am I now supposed to “support” a team in Manchester City colors? A team that promised fans a player—a good one in Frank Lampard, sure, but one I have no allegiance to—and then said, well, he’ll get there when he gets there. Ha! Besides, the home opener, ominously, is on March 15. Beware the ides.
Slowly, quietly, over these last ten, twenty, thirty years, Americans from every part of the country have fallen hard for soccer. And that’s been an incredible, if sometimes unbelievable thing to see. But it doesn’t mean I have to pledge my allegiance to franchises who seem more interested extracting money from my wallet. If other fans want to, bless ’em; it’s not for me to judge. But I was a fan before MLS came to New York, and I will be after one of them moves to Las Vegas when the area is no longer a viable market. And don’t look now, but here come the Cosmos, and opening the season at Coney Island. What’s more New York than that?
-Michael Agovino (@)