Friday, May 24, 2013

Some advice for New York City Football Club

The Death Star.
The city of New York is getting a soccer team. I use the future tense because using the New York Red Bulls in this space is somewhat disingenuous. Yes, the Red Bulls have a grip on at least part of the city. And yes, there are diehards (like Mike Petke) who will forever take exception to the media flaunting NYCFC's project as a game-changing project that is perhaps the most important bit of takeover news in league history. Part of the whole thing is unfair. Yes.

Red Bulls fans don't want to hear that. And I get it. But it's true. At least partly.

Look, the only reason Manchester City's land grab is possible is because the Red Bulls raided your liquor cabinet, drank that Macallan 1946 your grandfather gave you, staggered down the hallway screaming Smash Mouth lyrics, raked its hands across a wall adorned with precious family photos, took a leak on your authentic Claudio Reyna jersey and then passed out naked in your bed. You've been sleeping on the futon since 1996. It only registered that this wasn't normal when a sober, rich dinner guest from Abu Dhabi pointed out that your friend NYRB drunk sob-screams at a ficus in your backyard when something goes off the rails. And something always goes off the rails.

In the end NYRB is part of a larger brand. As European men in smart suits spread thick layers of bureaucracy over the Red Bull brand, the treadmill spins. And on we go, trophy-less as the club's overlords angrily grind together its coins. Look at it this way. Earlier this week, the New York Times took an in-depth look at Wigan's relegation with a takeout feature. In the same issue, the Red Bulls got 45 words from a vanilla Associated Press story. Right.

So we have NYCFC. This is not unlike an overworked, broken ACL being replaced with a cadaver. Between the Cosmos and the Metrostars/Red Bulls, the city has inflated its own expectations and popped them so many times that it's hard to know the transition point between synthetic and real. The promise here is staggering. If this club is half as successful as the power pushing it forward, MLS has its new superpower.

Here are four keys to learning from the Red Bulls (and the Cosmos) going forward. Neither were entirely unsuccessful at all four of these, and NYRB cannot be considered an abject failure by any measure. But the new kid in town has the potential to make the old ones… well, you'll see.

Tone down the bombast


It's a fact of life that PR will yank out our cultural absurdities, dress them up in finery and push them out, sore and afraid, for our general consumption. This is only functional because, mentally isolated as we are when we consume advertising, we allow those absurdities to play on our minds and dazzle us with unreal possibilities.

So it goes with soccer. Barcelona wants you to think that it is More Than A Club when in hard reality this notion is quite impossible. Whatever add-ons you draw into the adjacent space are pleasant fictions. While far from immune from this kind of proselytism, American soccer fans are generally more savvy than Europeans like to give credit for. It would be easy enough for City's fixer crew to sweep into New York with a bag full of gimmicky tricks, grease over the city and lean back as the lather begins to rise. This was the Cosmos' greatest failure.

This is not to say that public relations are unnecessary. Especially here, this isn't close to the case. But what it does mean is that the bullshit meter here still works. Should City take the tack (on any level, really) that its experience in Manchester has taught it everything it needed to know about relating to fans here, New York will curdle. This has to be organic. It has to be roots-based, tossing seeds toward pitted concrete jungles that can become proving grounds for kids kitted out in City's colors. Make it real. Make it earth-green, not DayGlo pink.

That said…

Embrace the hate


The Death Star is NOT YET FULLY OPERATIONAL. But it will be soon. Those damnably furry Ewoks will be eradicated, Luke will be thrown down the ventilation shaft instead and Jar Jar Binks will immediately be promoted to a position as the Empire's public relations voice. You will hate this club. And that is (at least partly) what City is counting on.

The death of progress is apathy, which all but assures City the keys to MLS. Whatever your stance, you have an opinion on this club. You like it for the league, you love it for New York. You like it for the league, you hate it for your team. You don't care about New York and you can't wait to destroy this team on Reddit. You are a New York Red Bulls fan and you've spent the last 24 hours smelting brass knuckles with C-I-T-Y engraved on each finger. It's all relatively even.

City needs to use this. The capital of sheer will (whatever its direction) built up around the country will power its apparatus forward. It doesn't require a huge shove, just a series of pushes that plays on the country's thought process. I hate to reference Millwall on anything, but chants of Nobody Likes Us And We Don't Care are already attaching onto faint wisps of smoke in Queens, drifting into the atmosphere and raining down in 19 American cities.

Whatever shape this takes, City needs to embrace its role as the villain. With backing from the Yankees and Manchester City, that shouldn't be hard. Whatever avenue this thing ends up ducking down.

Connect with the community


This is perhaps NYRB's greatest difficulty. How can a native New Yorker really call the Red Bulls his team when he has to trek to Harrison to find a game? It obviously happens, yes, but is it really New York's team in that case? Probably not. New York's presence in the whole thing is fed by proximity, not by identity. It's New Jersey's team. Which explains the branding of the new team's name. The City is obvious, but the unadorned rest of it is an obvious homage to that which the Red Bulls could never provide - a city for New Yorkers in New York. The salvo sheers off a stitch of Mike Petke's cardigan as it whistles past.

A large majority of this will be less about any outward initiatives (though building into New York's soccer infrastructure as it has Manchester's east end would be a good start - and for the love of Pete Sampras, work with your supporters groups) and more about simply setting itself apart from its deep-pocketed overlords. Going back to the notion of controlling its level of bombast, NYCFC has to step out from under the shadow of its big brother and create a name of its own.

You've no doubt heard the Chivas USA comparisons, and they are clumsy and overly simplistic. But there is a cautionary tale here. By design, that club was never really given the opportunity to step out from under its parent club. You knew what it was, and it wasn't its own. That obviously won't fly in New York, though I can't imagine more than one mega-investor trying the gambit that has failed so spectacularly in Los Angeles.

What should excite fans and potential fans of NYCFC is Manchester City's willingness to pull the Yankees into the bargain at the 11th hour. They could have very easily dove into this head-on without any Stateside help, but at least on a surface level it provides a sheen of Americanism with which to coat the whole endeavor. Nobody knows New York better than the Yankees. Claudio Reyna's hire as the organization's first employee proved that this whole thing is starting as it should. Whether or not you accept this franchise (as a potential NYCFC fan here) is up to you, but City needs to grease the track as much as humanly possible.

Win


The Red Bulls look more than a little like a guy who'd spent 17 years working out, getting spray tans, taking French lessons and reading Shakespeare for a girl. And then Brad Pitt walks in. Game over.

The next 18 months are among the most crucial in the franchise's existence for a couple reasons. Mostly because of the empty hardware cabinet City is already looking on with a sort of bemused disdain. With the capital this club has at its back, it's hard to imagine City not competing for titles from the jump. The cap is a sort of equalizer, requiring shrewd development, a vibrant academy and a willingness to play young players. Hans Backe had the academy but not the will. The jury on Petke is still out, but he is eternally hamstrung by a franchise enamored with (addicted to?) signing over-the-hill European former gloryboys to bloated contracts. What good is a brand new Maserati if you're not willing to pull it out of the garage? So if the Red Bulls fail to win anything before City fires up in 2015, you can bet Brad Pitt is about to steal the girl from under Seth Rogan's nose.

So here we are. At the confluence of NYRB's final push as the city's only professional team. NYRB's inability to win anything at all has created a wedge between the fans and management, not necessarily because it takes wins to woo fans, but rather what the lack of trophies says about the ownership's willingness and ability to adapt to the league. And make good choices. In that regard, the door is wide open for NYCFC to ax down NYRB's empty trophy case into splinters, erect its own marble case in its place and start stockpiling it with gleaming showpieces immediately. This is what's at stake.

It's not all quite as apocalyptic for NYRB fans as it may seem. The club is still wealthy by MLS standards, will continue to stay in discussions for cups, will not drop off the face of the earth. But the heat underneath the pot was just cranked up to 10. Imagine yourself losing a race in which your 17 competitors have different car brands (Chivas' car brand is actually a tricycle). You are the only one racing your brand, and you're not good. After a while, fans become inured by your standing in the middle of the pack and forget the heavy weight behind a winner. And then, suddenly, another car in your class burns out from the garage and laps the field. "What the hell was that?" you exclaim. Your competition. You just got scooped by your 2.0 model.

So anyway, all this is yet to be determined. As noted above, NYCFC still has a lot to figure out. There are a billion ways they can take the franchise, but here's hoping common sense wins out in the end. New York City is ready.

- Will Parchman

No comments: