A Third Year in the City

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NYCFC logoIf it was all about the result then the past year was a waste. The ending was the same and they haven’t built a stadium yet. Yet to focus on those aspects of New York City FC’s season is to ignore the broader picture of where the club is after three seasons of play. The play on the field and organization off it have improved, but the roadblocks to long-term success are more apparent than ever.

There is plenty to suggest that the future, at least on the field, is exceptionally bright for NYCFC. The spine of the team is in its mid-to-late 20s and it is augmented by promising young wide players in Jack Harrison and Ronald Matarrita. A designated player spot is open for this off-season and a second could theoretically open up, which would enable them to better support David Villa. With the right additions and the opportunity to secure the return of Harrison, Matarrita and Yangel Herrera, City would be expected to reach MLS Cup next year.

Off the field, City have improved its relations with both media and fans. Officials are more willing to discuss matters with reporters and club president Jon Patricof has hosted season-ticket holders for breakfast in addition to the City in the Boroughs program. The New York City Soccer Initiative is both masterstroke of soft power and a program with the potential of establishing lifelong connection between the club and children across the city.

Despite the community outreach, attendance suffered a second consecutive year-over-year drop. The figure remains above 22,000, which is solid but there is room for improvement. Local television ratings remain unreported but it is safe to say that they would be publicized if they were any better than the poor figures heard anecdotally. Coverage by the mainstream, English-speaking local media remains fleeting. The New York Daily News has no interest in regularly covering the team for market reasons while The New York Post retains a freelancer to cover both City and the New York Red Bulls.

The media forces, similar to the scarce amount of land available within the five boroughs, are beyond NYCFC’s control. Yet the club has to deal with them. Even though they have resources and investors more capable and more interested than the Red Bulls, City cannot make land appear from nowhere and probably won’t be propping up the local news industry. Maybe a renewed commitment to making the local news’ sports segment could help but unlike many teams in MLS, this team cannot rely on getting steady coverage as a means of exposure.

To City’s critics, none of these obstacles will be seen as excuses and they’re right. The NYCFC project was not only the league’s attempt at further establishing itself in the New York area but City Football Group’s attempt as well. Neither is intent on failing but if their success is limited then American soccer’s prominence in the area will be limited. It comes as no surprise then to see the relationship by Otaba Leaks and the emails describing the United Arab Emirates’ attempt to establish relations with U.S. Soccer.

Those leaks also showed the cautious approach CFG took to the stadium search when it did not have the clout to simply build one wherever it wanted. Now, in a development as significant as anything City has done on the field, it is amassing that clout. Council members in the Bronx and Queens are open to partnering with the club to build a stadium and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has made building a stadium in Queens a priority for her second term. If in those four years a stadium housing NYCFC begins to be erected, the club’s progression from concept to institution will be complete.

NYCFC’s on-field progress under Coach Patrick Vieira continues, but it has to culminate in something soon. Vieira has been involved or affiliated with NYCFC since 2015 and has relished the time he’s spent working with the club. He’s remained within CFG despite approaches from Premier League and Ligue 1 clubs but his contract expires at the end of next season and there has not been much talk of an extension.

Vieira learned from his mistakes as a coach in 2016 and reconfigured the team into a more balanced unit. His team conceded 25 percent fewer goals while only scoring six fewer than last season. Should the talent return, City should expect to concede about 43 goals again next season. Making sure Villa doesn’t have to score 39 percentof the goals, however, will be the challenge Vieira, Claudio Reyna and David Lee face this offseason.

If the triumvirate can find an attacking midfielder/winger capable of adding between eight and 12 goals to the attack and keep Harrison, they would have a front three that could contribute about 40 goals next season. That leaves seven players to account for 13 goals to match last year’s total, an extremely reasonable ask. Having three double-digit scorers also results in teams having to account for non-Villa players in the postseason which would enable him to impact the series as much as he did against the Columbus Crew.

The Crew ended NYCFC’s season in a baseball stadium that did not sell out its reduced capacity. City came within inches of extending its season and with it the chance to attract more eyes to their developing project. That didn’t happen and the team remains tucked away within the shadow of the New York Yankees. But a grand emergence onto the New York scene nears, whether they get noticed remains to be seen.