Think about NYCFC for a moment. The first thing that strobes into your mind – go. Now hold on to that.
Among a mixer of many, there are two very specific things you can say about the relationship between New York City and NYCFC. The first is this notion that the club will be very rich and therefore a dubstep mashup of the Yankees and Manchester City, two parents living in a 3,000 square foot penthouse on the upper east side. We once presumed all the city’s soccer money would be dumped into the Red Bulls. Instead, as we’ve heard…
You need not look past the team’s name for appropriate proof that the team is intrisically tethered to New York City itself, if not by concrete placement than by marketing design. So when the club announced Monday that it would be playing its next three years at Yankee Stadium, you perhaps should have been wholly surprised. Outrage was all but out of the question.
NYCFC has spilled so much ink and expended so much intellectual capital fashioning this team around the city itself. It’s been the party line since day one. New York City has had a “team.” Now it will have a team, one that isn’t actually in New Jersey. What this probably led you to expect was that the club would have some kind of moneyed stadium deal in the works soon. A palace dropped into Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx somewhere. What you have instead is Yankee Stadium.
This is what that looks like.
It’s OK. Not great. The grounds crew will plow over most of the dirt infield to get the field playable, and the severe lack of width will squeeze games uncomfortably into a Gogurt tube. It also sends a message (though how strong of one I’m not sure) that this soccer club is like the rich, over-privileged playboy son of a billionaire living off his father’s gains. Without a stadium, it leaves NYCFC looking oddly frail, at least outwardly.
The other option, though it may never have seriously been on the table: play at Red Bull Arena. A real soccer stadium. Eek.
But the marketing. The club could never have left the boroughs. Never. Imagine the derisive chants burning off the ESC’s collective tongue toward a club that touted itself almost exclusively as the city’s soccer avatar. We’ve heard so much about this club becoming the city’s main squeeze that watching it flee across the river would look like George Washington retreating across the Delaware instead of crossing it in the dead of night. So it goes.
So what of the Red Bulls? If we’re honest, a reprieve. Three years (at most) to molt, reorganize and punch from a different class.
If they decide to cling to some predatory notion that the city is still theirs – that the money spigot still gushes most violently into Harrison – the whole venture is lost. At that point, the Red Bulls are a plucky lightweight (the imagery!) bobbing inside colossal jabs from Mike Tyson.
This leaves a very interesting avenue – a subtle, un-advertised rebrand. The Red Bulls have an unbelievably productive (and talent-rich) academy system. Currently, the U18 side – featuring a murderer’s row midfield of Chris Lema and Arun Basuljevic, both of whom are headed to Georgetown next season – is 13-1-2 in the Development Academy. The U16 side is 14-1-0. The U13 and U15 pre-academy sides compete in US Club Soccer’s National Premier Leagues, and both currently lead groups they’ve won two years running. This is a juggernaut from root to stem. And an established one.
NYCFC may some day eclipse the Red Bulls’ academy system. It’s not inconceivable. Money and resources tend to trump all else, and Manchester City’s abiding desire to build from the ground in Manchester sets a strong precedent. But it’ll take time and no small amount of money to compensate for the boots the Red Bulls have had on the ground since the academy’s inception. And with that in mind, it’s entirely possible the Red Bulls simply change their stripes, move more into the nation building mold rather than the set-em-up-and-knock-em-down mold and become more interested in pruning the bushes already on the property rather than (at times) blind spending.
The important thing for RBNY is to guard the academy’s coffers zealously. There are no transfer rules in the DA, meaning if some enterprising family with a talented son is swayed by the glitzy idea of NYCFC, there’s nothing keeping them from pulling their child out of the Red Bulls’ system and moving across town.
The city’s most obvious soccer wars will be fought over transfer targets and pub televisions and stadium deals and scarf sales. What the Red Bulls must now do is fight a shadow war with guerrilla tactics. If nothing else, three years provides them ample time to stockpile ammunition.