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Pro soccer and New York City: We have a problem

2019-05-02

New York’s fickle romance with pro soccer has hit another rough patch.

Most everywhere else, Major League Soccer is thriving, drawing impressive crowds to watch high-scoring matches and higher-profile stars. Young clubs in Atlanta and Seattle average 52,000 and 38,000 fans per game. Commissioner Don Garber is seeking a $200 million dowry from expansion bidders, and there is no shortage of suitors.

But here in the metropolitan area, where the Cosmos once thrived and where towns like Kearny, N.J., practically gave birth to the sport in America, early-season doldrums have evolved into an ill wind. It isn’t just that the Red Bulls and NYCFC aren’t scoring enough goals, though that certainly doesn’t help. It’s also that these teams have hit a formidable wall because of lackluster star power and stadium geography.

Without super-striker and top attraction David Villa, who fled to Japan, NYCFC is struggling in seventh place and has won just two of its first nine games. NYCFC has posted six draws altogether, and at Yankee Stadium has scored a total of four goals in five home games. The team’s latest 1-1 home tie with Orlando on Saturday was typically unsatisfying. NYCFC has gone five games without a loss, yet that includes three draws in a busy, soft, part of its schedule.

Average attendance in the Bronx is down slightly – at 21,341, ninth in the league – from the overall number last season. On television, the team drew just 119,000 viewers on ESPN2 for its match against Minnesota United on April 13.

Yankee Stadium has been a poor fit for soccer since Day 1 for NYCFC. (Elsa / Getty Images)

To compound the problem, NYCFC still plays on a field that is absurdly narrow by professional standards, in an asymmetric baseball stadium where the club remains an uncomfortable guest. The field’s claustrophobic dimensions suffocate creative wing play, forcing hoof-and-chase soccer generously described as “direct.”

One insider told The News this week that parent club Manchester City and partner owners, the Yankees, still hope to make an announcement by the end of the season about a new stadium less than a mile south of Yankee Stadium. That would inject a fresh dose of needed energy. It’s not a done deal yet, however, and NYCFC has had its heart broken before on such matters.

The Red Bulls, meanwhile, have been a model franchise known for economic restraint and three Supporters’ Shields in the last six years. Yet they own a 2-4-2 record after breaking a five-game winless streak with a narrow, 1-0 win over an expansion opponent. Cincinnati hit two posts and a crossbar while possessing the ball 54% of the time. The Red Bulls are in a four-way tie at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with eight points.

Average attendance is 15,821 (15th in the league) at the Red Bull’s gorgeous, soccer-specific stadium in Harrison, an urban outpost lacking big-city stature. The broadcast numbers are no better. Worldsoccertalk.com reported that the Red Bulls-Sporting KC match on April 14 drew a paltry 90,000 viewers. By comparison, league-wide MLS broadcasts have been averaging nearly 250,000 viewers.

As part of an overhaul of Red Bull Arena – and a concession that the stadium has too many empty seats – ownership placed a sprawling red canvas over several of the glaringly empty, upper regions of the stadium, cutting capacity from 25,219 to 20,000 per game.

Plenty of empty seats on display as less than 16,000 show up for the Red Bulls' April 6 game against Minnesota United.
Plenty of empty seats on display as less than 16,000 show up for the Red Bulls' April 6 game against Minnesota United. (Elsa/Getty)

The club says this is part of a plan to create “open concept spaces where fans can congregate and watch matches together,” such as an area called the Blue Point deck. Larger video boards also have been installed.

The team has struggled in the recent past at the starts of seasons, much like this, only to recover nicely with late-season spurts. This particular skid appears more dangerous, however, if only because an aging Bradley Wright-Phillips is not in form and slightly injured. The Red Bulls have scored just nine goals in eight games and also look more vulnerable on the back line.

“There have been mistakes made in games, there has been lapses of concentration,” goalie Luis Robles said. “And we have been punished for it. If we are going to be the team that we expect to be, we cannot have those and I know that as time goes on, because of the experience that we have, it will get better.”

The coaches of Red Bulls and NYCFC, Chris Armas and Domènec Torrent of Spain, appear to be in similar, uncertain straits. Each is coaching his first full season with these teams, and both are answerable to large, European conglomerates that may or may not be running out of patience. This past week, Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett denied rumors that Armas might be replaced by former star Thierry Henry, calling such reports “false.”

Armas was relieved to get his victory on Saturday, regardless of its fortunate nature.

“The breaks go our way, what does it even mean?” he said. “Luck is hard to talk about. They had some flurries, giveaways by us, it held up for us. We made it happen tonight. There was good energy in the building, It was loud. Really special, in so many ways. A big three points.”

New York will take points, however they arrive. There is no use turning to the National Women’s Soccer League for relief around here. Sky Blue FC, playing in Yurcak Field at Rutgers, continues to be a considerable mess. The club averaged 2,531 fans in 2018, worst in the NWSL, and finished last with an awful 1-17-6 record.

There have been complaints from Sky Blue players about alleged mismanagement and poor living conditions. Gov. Phil Murphy is a part owner, and now his wife, Tammy, has reportedly made the team a personal priority.

Despite having U.S. star Carli Lloyd on the roster, Sky Blue FC struggles to put fans in the seats of a college stadium in far off Piscataway.
Despite having U.S. star Carli Lloyd on the roster, Sky Blue FC struggles to put fans in the seats of a college stadium in far off Piscataway. (Rich Graessle / AP)

Sky Blue has yet to win a game this season after a 2-2 draw against the Portland Thorns on Sunday dropped its record to 0-2-1. The two goals scored by 2015 World Cup hero Carli Lloyd in the opening 20 minutes were the first two of the season for the club.

That’s the way it goes around here this spring. For every goal scored, two own goals allowed.