Soccer was an after thought back then. For me personally, and most of the country. In 2006 there was a mild excitement over the World Cup, but it didn't quite take the country over. In 2010, the World Cup and American interest in the event seemed to finally become something substantial. MLS had continued to grow as a league. American players were gaining success in European leagues and bringing that back to the national team. The US also had a defining national soccer moment with Landon Donovan's extra time goal against Algeria propelling them to the knockout stage of the tournament.
By the 2014 World Cup, soccer craze in America was at an all time high. The US Men's National Team had an upsurge in popularity. Their first group game against Ghana broke TV ratings records for audiences in the US. Soccer had finally "arrived" in the US. But was it here to stay?
The long standing argument about soccer in America, which is probably accurate, is that it will never surpass the four major leagues in terms of popularity. NFL has become the most lucrative sports league in the US. The NBA has a stronghold on it's fan base, creating some of the sports world's most popular celebrities (despite being the most predictable league with little balance from the top teams to the bottom). Baseball will always be America's past time. And hockey has rebounded to become the sport for the diehard fans. Underappreciate by ESPN, but never by local fans.
So where does soccer fit into this equation? First, for soccer to survive long term as a popular sport in America, MLS will have to continue to succeed. And I would argue that MLS is at it's highest point of popularity ever. American stars formerly playing in Europe are returning to the MLS to continue their careers (Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore who all had good runs in European leagues are now stars in MLS). MLS attendance continues to flourish in its most popular markets, with much of the league gaining 15-20,000 fans regularly. In cities like Seattle and Portland, the atmosphere could easily be compared to some of Europe's league. New TV rights for MLS have soccer on American television more than ever. And the MLS has expanded to 20 teams, with the addition of a franchise in Orlando, and a second in New York: NYCFC.
This all leads me to this past Sunday March 15, 2015 at Yankees Stadium, where I attended my second professional soccer game of my life. It was the home opener for New York City Football Club. Walking toward the stadium synonymous with championships and baseball history, you couldn't help but feel like you were apart of something special. And it wasn't a Yankees playoff game or a Yankees-Red Soc rivalry game. It was for a soccer match. The crowds were filled with the blue and baby blue colors of the new soccer team. Yet to play a game in their home city yet, and the crowd was buzzing with excitement. These weren't just people here to check out how this whole new soccer experiment might work. These were FANS of the team.
The stadium was packed getting in. The crowds were bigger than any recent Yankee game I remember. Or that's how it felt getting in. Maybe because we were all piling in about ten minutes before start time. We got to our seats during the sixth minute, not missing much action. Early on, the game was reminiscent of a lot if the action you see around MLS. There was little fluidity to the game, wih a lot of broken possession and a back and forth style of play. The New England Revolution were pressing NYCFC a lot, preventing much offense from the home team. The Revs had a few chances, but nothing they could put away. They were exposing lots of problems in New York's defense, crossing balls with ease toward the middle. The best early chance was still for the home team, when Spanish superstar and captain David Villa broke away from his defender and tried to trickle a ball past the Revs Keeper, who got just his finger tips on it enough to deflect it away from goal. It was a great chance, and the crowd was loving it. Finally, a few minutes later, the home team broke through and gave the crowd what they wanted. After a beautiful give and go, Villa was left alone with only the keeper to beat and finished with ease, scoring the first home goal in NYCFC history.
The second half had significantly better action. NYCFC held into possession easier and were more confident in their attack. Also, their defense showed less vulnerability. Villa had a few more chances he couldn't finish early on in the half, thanks to great saves by the Revs Keeper. When rookie Khiry Shelton came on as a sub in the 65th minute, he immediately made a difference, earning his team a free kick, after a Revolution defender tackled him near the penalty box and was sent off with a red card. Another sub, Patrick Mullins sealed the game with a late goal in the closing minutes, off a fantastic pass from Villa. The NY crowd was excited the whole way through. Both goals garnered great enthusiasm and loud chants. The Third Rail chanted and cheered in the bleachers the whole game, proving even a new team could have a loyal and die hard fan base.
The new soccer team in NY is quintessentially more "New York" than the Redbulls. Playing in famous Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, only a train ride from three other boroughs, they're infinitely more connected to the city than the Red Bulls who play in Harrison, NJ. Nothing against the Red Bulls, but they just never connected with the actual city fans in the New York area. Maybe it's the location of their stadium, or just a bit of a stagnancy in the MLS's marketing of the team. But NYCFC felt like something to be a part of. I feel like a fan already, and that they're my new team. As much as I followed the RedBulls in the past and tried to root for them, it just never felt right. If the future of soccer in America is linked with the success of MLS, the fate in New York is looking awfully bright. 45,000 fans in the Bronx saw it on Sunday, and thousands more will be a part of it this season.