MLS Going Against Its Own Principles In Rush to Launch NYCFC

At Monday’s press conference, New York City FC (NYCFC), who will begin playing in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2015, announced they will be housed at Yankee Stadium for three years. This comes less than a year after what seemed like a rushed announcement giving Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees the franchise rights for the second New York team in MLS. At the time it seemed as if a stadium solution, while not on the horizon, could become clearer in the coming months.

Instead, the situation has become murkier and more embarrassing for MLS. Stadium ideas have hit a dead end around the city and even finding a training ground is meeting community opposition.

In early May 2013, when Major League Soccer was obsessed with placing a team in New York, there were two equations at play.

1. Sagging TV ratings with the next contract negotiation imminent.

2. Counter the growing momentum of the New York Cosmos who had chosen to play in the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) rather than MLS.

Despite awarding New York City a team in May 2013, trouble was on the horizon. First this was demonstrated by The Borough Boys, the largest supporters group that was advocating MLS expansion to New York City, expressing disappointment in the decision. The group opted to continue supporting the second division New York Cosmos who began play in the summer of 2013. In a statement released by the group it was made clear that the new franchise had hurdles to overcome:

“While we always desired an MLS franchise, what we never desired was being forced to accept a foreign club’s worldwide branding ambitions, using New York City as a vehicle to promote a separate soccer club abroad, We felt they (The NY Cosmos) were the best choice for MLS expansion and in part because they demonstrated a commitment to being an authentic New York club, a club that was born of New York, made its history in New York, and a club who’s very iconic status in this great city attracted countless members to the Borough Boys.”

The second sign of trouble was the inability of MLS, NYCFC or the Yankees to shift the narrative politically in the city once a franchise was awarded. The feeling in May of 2013 was despite the failure to have a stadium plan in place that awarding the franchise would move things substantially. If anything, NYCFC is in a worse place now, eleven months later as far as building a soccer-specific-stadium than they were on the day the franchise was awarded.

The awarding of NYCFC was odd as it came after years of employing a strategy that rewarded organic growth and historical legacies with elevation of the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact from Division 2 leagues to the major league in North America. Months after NYCFC was awarded, Orlando’s exceptionally well-supported and well-run third division team was awarded a ticket to MLS but only after a stadium plan was in place and was financed by local government and private interests.

The former three markets and sides listed in the above paragraph had been historical links to the days of the original NASL and today are among the strongest and most visibly successful clubs on the continent. Many local supporters felt that this was the model to follow yet again and that the New York Cosmos should be in MLS instead of a Manchester City backed franchise. But because MLS wanted star power prior to renegotiating a TV deal and had sold Manchester City’s executives on the value of the league coupled with the Cosmos decision to join NASL, MLS went in a very risky direction.

This is a direction where MLS was never supposed to go. After the success of soccer-specific-stadiums across the continent and the implementation of a hard rule that new franchises would not be awarded without a stadium plan, MLS suspended its own rules for one-time and one solitary ownership group. Has the ensuing eleven months proven MLS made a mistake in jumping the gun in to award the franchise? Perhaps, although the TV contract and Cosmos factor may have left the league with little choice, especially with Manchester City so hot to trot to invest in the league.

Since the NYCFC debacle began, Orlando as mentioned above had seen its minor league team guaranteed an MLS move in 2015 thanks to a new stadium funded partially by taxpayers. Atlanta has been awarded an MLS team based on a comprehensive stadium plan that involves a ground sharing with the Atlanta Falcons. Miami has been selected by David Beckham as the site of his MLS franchise but will not receive a team until a stadium deal is done. In Miami, progress is not being made as quickly as hoped on a stadium, which will leave MLS in an awkward position if advancement is not made soon. Either MLS can abandon the return to the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market, or allow Beckham the same deal that NYCFC was given by playing in Marlins Park indefinitely. Given the New York precedent, Beckham could argue for the latter.

Where does NYCFC go from here? A sentiment is that MLS Commissioner Don Garber and the league brass rammed this team down the throats of the committed and dedicated soccer fans in the five boroughs. Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised tax breaks but the new Mayor Bill DeBlasio is less enthusiastic. Garber was boxed in by his repeated “Not a matter of if but a matter of when” statement regarding the awarding of a second New York franchise.

It is important for the health of American Soccer and MLS that NYCFC is wildly successful. For years, many have argued that a second New York club, based in the city itself, could be a game-changer for MLS as it attempted to cut through the clutter and establish itself as both a big-time American pro sports league AND a global player in the world of club soccer. While many still retain the hope that this will happen, and the global branding of being associated with Manchester City helps the cause, the early returns have been far from encouraging.

This story as it continues to unfold could be the toughest pill MLS has swallowed in some time. Despite the league’s continued growth on many fronts, the continued trouble in the nation’s largest market with what may have been seen as the eventual flagship team of MLS can only make things appear more cloudy than they are.

Perception so often is reality. And on this one, MLS seems to be playing catch-up.

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