By Paul Gardner
Professional soccer in New York City? Now there's an idea. I'll buy that. And that's what the United Soccer Leagues, the USL - which likes to define itself as an "alternative league" to MLS - is promising us.
MLS has dithered and dickered around this issue for all of its 14 years of existence - without showing any real signs of coming up with a Big Apple franchise. You might think we have a New York team. After all - the New York Red Bulls - that's their official title. Frankly, they've got some nerve. New York? For a team that plays in New Jersey, has its offices in New Jersey, and has its practice facilities in New Jersey?
There used to be a tenuous New York transportation link - nice special buses from Midtown Manhattan straight to the stadium on game days. Now, even that service has been nixed. As far as I'm concerned that's the umbilical gone. The Red Bulls are now officially and irretrievably the New Jersey Red Bulls.
But we're soon to have FC New York, a new franchise in the USL First Division. "We are excited to bring professional soccer back to New York" - the words of Doug Petersen, one of the owners of FC New York. He was talking at a press conference yesterday at the Yale Club, in the heart of Manhattan.
I wish him and FC New York well. With the usual caveats and queries. Firstly, the name. Why FC? Meaning, I suppose, Football Club - when this is actually a soccer club. Last week we had another Manhattan press conference at which a series of tours by foreign teams was announced - to be called the "World Football Challenge." Why football, when the sport to be played is soccer? Sheepish answers were given, but no convincing reason emerged.
Yesterday, the USL's head honcho and only-creator, Francisco Marcos, American soccer's great survivor, regaled us for 14 minutes, and used the world football repeatedly. I don't know why, and neither did he.
Whatever. FC New York should be SC New York if they want to go with initials. But I pass on to the New York bit. Does that mean New York City? The official USL press release is in no doubt, with "USL-1 Headed To New York City." I'd like to think that's true. But it's baffling to find the new owners talking about playing at Hofstra University. The Cosmos played there for a couple of years in the early 1970s. No doubt the facility is a hell of a lot better than it was in those days - it has to be - but it's still not in the city. It's some seven miles over the boundary, in Nassau County. It's Long Island. New York State, yes - but not in the Big Apple.
Ignoring such technicalities, Petersen announced with brazen New Yorkishness that there must now be a trophy to be played for between the local teams - the other one being "our brothers on the other side of the river" - Petersen's words, his way of putting the New Jersey Red Bulls in their non-New York place. And Zap! ... here comes the shining trophy - a gold-looking apple, and a modest cup. The game to be called The Grapple for the Apple.
This is good stuff. But the big move for SFC New York will be to grab the fan base before MLS can move in. We know, with certainty, that there is a potentially huge Hispanic following for soccer in the city. All those Colombians and El Salvadorans in Queens, for a start - not thatfar from Hofstra. If SFCNY (that's pretty awful, but they've forced it on me) can grab the allegiance of those groups, it's going to make it difficult for MLS to move in.
The "ethnic fans" were mentioned at the press conference, so there is awareness. That's a good start. SFCNY will start play in 2010. For the moment, putting together the team is a priority - plus, they tell us, the "establishment of a youth academy." And the construction of a soccer specific stadium - site TBA.
Coach? Players? Not quite yet. Seems there's talk going on with a European club that will be an affiliate, that will provide expertise. One can only hope that it will not be another of the dreaded British clubs that will be handing down advice. Because if that happens, if SFCNY puts a Brit-oriented team on the field, it will not interest the Hispanics, and will be throwing away its strongest asset.