This is the dead period in the English Premier League. The title race ended weeks ago, with Manchester United claiming their eleventy-millionth championship in honor of retiring rage-legend Sir Alex Ferguson. At the end, there was nothing left to wonder about but whether or not Wigan Athletic will escape relegation. Coming as it does with the start of spring, this annual tepid period carries a pleasant taste of the English countryside—village greens and quiet pubs and all the other stuff Ray Davies just couldn't get out of his system. But for Manchester City, who will finish second this year, it is a time of seething discontent.
Last May, the blue half of Manchester won its first title since 1966, in five minutes of madness that made the madcap end to the 2011 baseball season look contrived. (Relive it here, accompanied for good or ill by the musical stylings of The Verve.) Manchester City won the FA Cup the year before, and will try for it again this weekend, taking on hard-luck Wigan in a match as well balanced as Goliath vs. David’s asthmatic younger brother. With all their recent success, the placid American fan would expect them to be happy. “You can’t win them all,” we tell them, naively. But if City loses on Saturday, a dapper gent named Roberto Mancini will probably be out of a job. The Premier League is no place for sentiment.
And in a league where a bad season is rewarded with relegation, there is no such thing as rebuilding. (Jeff Fisher, for instance, would not have lasted in England.) Sheikh Mansour, City’s doe-eyed billionaire owner, has dumped nearly half-a-billion pounds into the club, and has no interest in passing a springtime afternoon over a pint of bitter, wistfully crooning, “Wait ‘till next year.” The Premier League system is a mad one, driven by greed unheard of in American sports. So it is maybe or maybe not a good thing that it appears to be on its way to Flushing.
Somewhere around the 2006 World Cup, Americans stopped making fun of soccer. Perhaps it was the Americo-Italian brawl that left Brian McBride’s face a red-white-and-blue smear that convinced us. Or maybe it was the fact that, like air travel and family brunch and too few other things, soccer is an excuse to get drunk at 10am. But Major League Soccer, for whatever reason, remains happily provincial—as puritanically sober as its predecessor, the free-spending, self-immolating North American Soccer League, was hedonistic.
Since the ill-conceived Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folded in 2001—ah, the insecure cheesiness of the early MLS!—the league has expanded conservatively, building cozy little stadiums for its cozy little teams, and never daring to step too boldly beyond its comfortable niche. For those outside the inexplicably soccer-mad Pacific Northwest, the MLS remains a curiosity. It’s no longer embarrassing, which is good. Instead, it’s just there.
Of the league’s 19 clubs, none is more there than the New York Red Bulls, who have been decidedly uncool every since they were christened the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Their sale to Red Bull and move to the marshmallow-shaped bespoke arena sprouting from the moonscape of Harrison, New Jersey felt like a new beginning, a chance to find the playoff success that had always eluded them. But the team still has yet to win a title, Thierry Henry and sheer inertia bedamned. If they ever do, New York City may not even notice.
As a New York-based MLS convert, I’ve always been fond of the Red Bulls, if never quite enchanted. I don’t mind a 70-minute subway ride to Citi Field, but a half hour PATH trip through the Jersey swamps makes me feel like I’ve gotten lost in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Red Bulls are a good team, but they’re Jersey’s team, and I am not a Jersey person. Like an overindulged younger brother, New York City wants its own toy. Reasonable enough, in its way. But what happens if New York actually gets that team? This is now something we have to worry about.
This is a golden age for major league sports within the five boroughs. When the Islanders skate into Barclays Center in 2015, there will be as many top-tier sports teams in the city as there were in 1957, when the Dodgers and Giants fled west. Add in the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees, and the city has an overwhelming number of places where kids and grown folks alike can watch grown men play various sports for money, and maybe get concussions. This has maybe spoiled an already spoiled fan-base, or not. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask for more from New York’s new MLS team than what we seem likely to get. Is it really too much to ask for the New York Cosmos?
For the past year or so, Major League Soccer has been conspiring with the Bloomberg administration to shove another stadium down New York’s throat. The proposed location is Flushing Meadows, the strange and sprawling park adjacent to the Mets stadium, the National Tennis Center, and something like nine different highways. Capital New York’s Dana Rubenstein has done an excellent job covering that controversy, and she’s the person to read if you want to know more about it. It is, unsurprisingly, complicated. But maybe not so complicated in a soccer sense. If the administration can hustle this new stadium through, and in an election year that is no sure thing, the team that inhabits it should be one capable of capturing the city’s imagination. And in the history of North American soccer, only one club has ever come close to that.
The New York Cosmos were everything that was wrong with the old NASL. Their free-spending swagger brought Pelé to New York and helped lead the league to its doom. The team was bigger than the league—for example: can you name a single other NASL club?—and the MLS was designed to ensure that could never happen again. But now the Cosmos have been revived as a minor-league team, and will begin playing at Hofstra University in August, taking on such teams as Minnesota United and the San Antonio Scorpions. The crowds will be smaller than the ones they once drew to Yankee and Giants Stadiums, but the uniforms remain the same stylish white and green. (They also have one that commemorates the 1977 New York blackout, for some reason.)
When the generally low-volume MLS rumor mill began whispering about the Flushing Meadows stadium, it was assumed that the revived Cosmos would step up from the minor leagues to occupy it. They would have stood out immediately in the homogenous MLS, for obvious reasons. Here was a once-great franchise, proud of its history but humbled by two decades in the void. No matter how badly they played—and really, the worse they played, the better it would have been—they would have served as a thoroughly sexy alternative to the Energy Drink Team across the Hudson. The Cosmos are a brand without a team, but a year ago, so were the Nets, and people still bought “Where Brooklyn At?” t-shirts by the metric ton, despite an objectively depressing product. It’s no great stretch to guess that New York might have fallen in love with the Cosmos all over again.
But the MLS resisted the overtures of the boys from Hofstra. The Cosmos fired back with an insane, half-baked plan to build their own stadium—a $400 million complex that looks oddly like a pistol pointed at Manhattan. The MLS ignored the threat. This would have been the end of it except that, as Sports Illustrated reports, New Yorkers, MLS and folly connoisseurs everywhere are getting themselves a billionaire.
Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour is the odds-on favorite to occupy the proposed stadium, and appears willing to pay $100 million or so for the right to invent something called New York F.C. as the team to play in that stadium. Mansour is hardly the flashiest billionaire in the English Premier League. This is not at all an insult; it just means that he doesn’t own the biggest yacht in the world. Still, the team that crash lands into Flushing Meadows Park, like Vincent D’Onofrio hurtling through the Unisphere, will be a wealthy one, and as easy to dislike as a strutting rich kid on the first day of school.
It is one thing to rationalize the handing-over of a big patch of city parkland to a team with its own Technicolor history and mad, scrappy charm. But New York F.C. is not that team. They are, if anything, the MLS version of the Nets: a reflection of a vanilla plutocratic will, and so nothing much worth cheering for.
Which is true of a lot of teams, honestly, in and out of MLS. But the pity of it is that New York F.C. will be just as uncool as the Red Bulls, if admittedly much, much wealthier. This, too, will cut against them, and will somehow make the team owned by an international energy drink company, improbably, the underdog. The uncoolness, it piles up.
MLS commissioner Don Garber resisted the Cosmos because its ownership group is untested, and because the revived team would have been sexier than the forever dowdy MLS. But a team owned by Sheikh Mansour will be bigger than the league, and that’s apparently just what Garber and company has spent a decade trying to avoid. This is a disciplined call, at least by the MLS’ chosen standards, but that doesn’t make it an appealing one.
The stadium in Flushing, if indeed it ever gets built, will be a billionaire’s playground, making it a fitting legacy of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as the peevish and perversely un-fireable CEO of New York. Pelé will never stop by, most likely. His descendants will play at Hofstra, and the most compelling major league team will remain a PATH ride away. Queens may end up with something called New York F.C., but to the city as a whole, it will be nothing but a foreign curiosity. More of the same, then, in the saddest and most familiar possible way.