By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 29, 2020) US Soccer Players - The New York City metropolitan area is home to nearly 20 million people. According to what is surely an imperfect accounting, people speak more than 500 languages in the country's largest metropolis. New York is practically a universe unto itself, containing so many diverse peoples and cultures that it's sometimes difficult to keep track.
Passion for the sport of soccer runs through the region. Whole communities of people from Europe, South America, and other soccer-mad parts of the world live and thrive in New York. A vibrant adult soccer scene and rising interest in the game in established communities just adds to the strength of New York as a soccer town.
Soccer towns should have professional soccer teams. Because New York is the largest media market in the United States, the biggest leagues are constantly working to cement their place there.
The most famous American soccer team of all time, the Cosmos, burned bright for a 16-year run while spending most of its best years playing in New Jersey. The Cosmos proved a big enough deal at the height of Pele-mania that its brand reached around the world while the club drew massive crowds to Giant Stadium. New York didn't need another professional soccer team during the heyday of the Cosmos. That team did more than enough to capture the entirety of the market at a time when soccer didn't have much mainstream reach.
Back in 1996, there was never a question that Major League Soccer would place one of its inaugural teams in New York. Because of stadium availability, the league chose to base a club in New Jersey, rather than in the city itself. It made sense at the time and built off a long American football tradition of teams representing New York while playing games in New Jersey.
MLS struggled with the name of what was supposed to be its marquee team. Initially "New York/New Jersey" to represent both sides of the Hudson River, the oddly named MetroStars dropped the geographic part of its name only a few years after launching. Unable to fully connect the entirety of such a vast metropolitan area, the MetroStars simply stopped outwardly trying. Or maybe they were emulating the Cosmos. Not made public at the time, the league reserved a slot for a team in the geographic confines of New York City.
A few years later, Red Bull bought the team and brought back a geographic designation, choosing to eschew New Jersey for New York. The team still played in New Jersey and even succeeded in building a European style soccer-specific stadium in Harrison. Still, the new investor/operators thought it better to aim for representing "New York" as a city, region, and concept. Such is the appeal of being New York's team, full stop.
A full review of the history of pro soccer in New York would be incomplete without mention of the New York Americans and Brookhattan. The combo Brooklyn/Manhattan club was in the American Soccer League in the 30s and lasted as an amateur outfit into the early 50s. Whether the team wanted to represent just two of the five boroughs specifically or was just being clever is lost to history. Either way, the club didn't make it to the modern-day and doesn't tell us much about how successful a professional soccer club might be if it chose to narrow its focus to one part of the metropolitan area.
Unlike London, which spawned a mass of clubs in the earliest days of the sport and maintained them even after technology shrunk the world, New York was never ripe for multiple teams to dot its map. London's top clubs can now draw fans from outside their traditional strongholds, but their identities tie them to the parts of the city they occupy.
New York's lack of professional neighborhood clubs is a function of the relative importance of soccer culturally, in the city and the country. It also turned on the size of the United States. With population centers across the breadth of a continent by the 1950s, leagues needed to include clubs from different parts of the country.
Only the Brooklyn Dodgers achieved fame and success representing a specific part of New York City in another sport. Even they eventually departed for the West Coast to stake a claim to all of Los Angeles. The New Jersey Nets moving to Brooklyn created a new set of problems. The Islanders are now splitting time between there and their former home in Long Island before eventually moving to Belmont Park just outside the New York City limits. That horse racing facility was once a potential site for a soccer stadium.
In 2020, the landscape is markedly different for soccer in New York. The Cosmos are a lower division club. The Red Bulls, despite the new stadium and "New York" moniker, only scratch the surface of professional soccer support in the city. New York City Football Club, Major League Soccer's attempt to get more of a foothold in the city proper, calls one of the five boroughs home but is still on the search for a place to build a proper soccer stadium.
The Cosmos returned nearly a decade ago but haven't rekindled the old fires. The organization that sprung to life under the Cosmos name played most of its games on the edge of Nassau County before moving to Coney Island prior to the collapse of their league. It's not that the Cosmos don't matter. It's just that the team is playing minor league soccer in a far-flung location by New Yorker standards.
The Cosmos do have a corner of New York to call its own and will enter a new league in the fall. NISA, the National Independent Soccer Association, is also where small, but ambitious, clubs like Detroit City and Chattanooga FC play. The Cosmos should find itself with a natural geographic rival in that league later in the year when New Amsterdam FC joins NISA.
New Amsterdam intends to play in the Bronx, though club leaders say that the new outfit won't specifically focus on that area of the city. For a team that doesn't need to draw more than a few thousand fans per game to meet its modest budget goals, the distinction doesn't matter much.
There is another path to tread, one that could pitch New York more in the direction of London when it comes to clubs dotting the city. New USL entry Queensboro FC looks to be on that path. The new club has strong financial backing in the form of investor Jonathan Krane and the star power of David Villa as the face of the effort.
Queensboro is doing what no other club in New York has done. They're consciously choosing to focus on one section of the vast New York metropolitan area. The USL Championship club doesn't need to market to everyone in the region to succeed. There are more than enough ardent soccer fans in Queens to support a well-run team. Maybe it doesn't make New York the American version of London, exactly, but it's a departure from the approach of the past and a sign that more startup teams might follow suit.
The United States might never have the promotion and relegation system that ties all of London's professional clubs together. That ingredient is missing. New York is still strong enough, and soccer support still big enough that it doesn't hurt to dream of a map dotted with clubs.
More From Jason Davis:
- The importance of organized support in MLS
- Expansion keeps going in American soccer
- The lost classics of the USMNT in the 1990s
- Pat Onstad tells Rochester's Open Cup Cinderella story
Photo by Andy Mead - ISIPhotos.com