Welcome to New York – Bringing the Beautiful Game to the Big Apple

Boasting the likes of World Cup winners Andrea Pirlo and David Villa in their roster, alongside England and Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, New York City FC are trying to boost the profile of Major League Soccer in a city full of sporting giants… giants who play other sports, that is.

A good indication of the challenge they face is the comparison between average attendance at New York City FC home games (27,196) and the average home attendance of the Yankees, the baseball team they share their stadium with (37,819). Average American Football home attendances in New York? They’re at least twice that figure!

However, it has never been a better time to be an MLS franchise. The sport has been growing in profile and attendance year on year and there are plans to expand to twenty-two teams and beyond. New York City FC only joined as the twentieth team two seasons ago and they have the third-highest average home attendance in the whole MLS, not to mention that they are currently enjoying a play-off run that has the possibility of bringing home that vital first piece of silverware. The times they are a-changin’.

New York City only joined the MLS two seasons ago and have the third-highest average home attendance in the whole league

So how have New York City FC managed to make an impact so quickly? It could be attributed to the fact that the management of New York City FC is the result of a rather forward-thinking global strategy from City Football Group (the UAE-based owners of Premier League team Manchester City) who also own Australian A-League side Melbourne City FC (formerly Melbourne Heart) and have a stake in Yokohama F Marinos in Japan.

The links with Manchester City no doubt helped to acquire world-class players for New York City FC’s inaugural MLS season. In fact, part of Frank Lampard’s deal with New York City FC was that he was immediately loaned to Manchester City so that he could train and play with a top Premier League team in the MLS off-season. The exact machinations of this deal led to some controversy when Lampard missed the start of the MLS season in order to finish the Premier League season.  Allegations arose that City Football Group and New York City FC had misled the MLS and fans over exactly who Lampard was signed to at the time.

In a similar move (but without the controversy) David Villa was loaned to Melbourne City FC during the same period, allowing him to maintain match fitness prior to his New York City FC debut. Even though he was recalled after only four games, he was credited with boosting the profile of Melbourne City FC during this spell and reportedly tripled match attendances. Villa then proceeded to have a prolific and largely injury-free inaugural season, culminating in a place in the 2015 MLS All-Star Game. This strongly suggests that the move benefited both him and New York City FC in addition to having advantages for Melbourne City FC.

Despite Villa’s prolific campaign, New York City FC finished outside of the MLS play-off places in the 2015 season, leading to the sacking of their manager Jason Kreis. His replacement? Former Arsenal great Patrick Vieira. Viera also played for Manchester City and was part of their coaching staff before being given his first managerial appointment at the helm of New York City FC. Despite an initially poor start to the 2016 season (with only a single win in their first seven matches and a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of local, New Jersey-based rivals and eventual Eastern Conference leaders New York Red Bulls) form began to pick up. This lead to a second place Eastern Conference finish and a play-off place.

Former Arsenal great Patrick Vieira was appointed in 2015, and has masterminded a run to the play-offs

Now, whilst not favorites, Vieira’s men are three games away from silverware only one season after missing the play-offs completely. In addition, they could be facing their New York rivals again in the next round, a prospect that will further enhance the watchability of MLS in the Big Apple. Similarly, though unlikely, a heavyweight contest between LA Galaxy and New York City FC could end up being the final. This would see the likes of former England team-mates Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard going head-to-head. Stories like this would create significant media attention for the MLS, not just for domestic audiences but internationally as well.

Whatever your opinion is of the virtues of championing young American players, there is still a value to bringing in ageing world-class designated players. New York City FC, whilst also taking advantage of a global network not yet seen before in the MLS, have managed to do this whilst still managing to play attractive, attacking football. In addition, bringing more international attention to the MLS will increase the likelihood of players seeing it as a viable career option and not only when they’re aged thirty or over.

Ultimately, this may lead to the major breakthrough that the MLS requires in order to establish itself in the same vein as the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. If the introduction of the Designated Player Rule and the signing of David Beckham was the first phase in this process, then establishing a franchise like New York City FC was the second. Who’s excited for the third?