New York was starving for a soccer team and NYCFC's Yankee Stadium debut is just what the fans ordered.
NEW YORK—Some of what took place here in the Bronx on Sunday afternoon was incongruous. A corner flag fluttered mere feet from the rightfield foul pole. The sightlines along the third base line were skewed and the video board posted MLS results under the heading "Out of town scores."
In the first half, David Villa and his New York City FC teammates celebrated the first home goal in club history on the grass between home plate and the Yankees dugout, or, exactly the spot where baseball players would gather following a game-winning home run.
A cartoon published Sunday in the New York Daily News depicted a ball bouncing past Yankee Stadium's iconic Monument Park, where the ghosts of the men honored there in wondered in unison, "What the…."
For many, NYCFC's home debut, a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution, may have been about uncomfortable juxtaposition. There are good reasons that soccer and baseball teams don't typically share stadiums, and no one involved with the well-funded, high-profile MLS expansion franchise believes the House That Ruth (or Jeter) Built represents an ideal or long-term solution.
But to focus on that sky blue peg in the pinstriped hole is to forget the fact that New York City also is a soccer town, and a vibrant one at that. Gotham's connection to the global game includes 25 U.S. Open Cup champions, far more than any other city. From Greek American and New York Ukrainians to Brooklyn Hispano and New York Hakoah, the honor roll is testament to its diversity and soccer's deep roots in the five boroughs. The amateur scene remains vibrant, neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves come alive during the World Cup, and bars are full on Premier League weekends and Champions League weekdays.
There'd even been soccer at Yankee Stadium. Both of them. Scottish power Celtic played in the Bronx back in 1931, Liverpool visited in 1953 and recently, across the street, the likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain have come calling. In 1971, the New York Cosmos attracted an average crowd of 4,517 to the Bronx during their inaugural NASL campaign. They returned in 1976, when attendance was four times higher (largely due to Pelé). But the following year, the Cosmos moved to New Jersey. And there, top-tier pro soccer stayed. The New York Red Bulls, founded in 1996 as the MetroStars, signed big-name players and eventually built a beautiful stadium in Harrison. Although crowds have been decent, eclipsing 18,000 in each of the past five seasons, the club has minimal resonance east of the Hudson River.
NYCFC defender Chris Wingert was born and raised on Long Island and played at St. John's University in Queens before making his name at Real Salt Lake. He's part of an RSL cohort that followed coach Jason Kreis to the Bronx. But for Wingert, the move was as much personal as professional. He's near family and friends—he said around 30 were among the 43,507 fans in attendance on Sunday—and happily living in Manhattan's West Village. He remembers going to see the minor league Long Island Roughriders and a few MetroStars games as a teenager (Mike Petke was a favorite). But never really developed an attachment to the MLS club.
"When we would fly into play against Red Bulls, guys would say, 'This is where you're from,' and I'd be like, ‘No, are you kidding me? Don't even suggest that. That's like telling a Kiwi he's from Australia,'" Wingert recalled from his days at RSL.
Jason Hernandez, an NYC native and Wingert's partner in central defense on Sunday, acknowledged the width of the Hudson and said, "Any time there's been some matches in New York, the friendlies, the crowds have come and the support has been there. People in the city are beyond passionate about this sport … We are looking to be New York City's club, in every way represent what they represent."
It hasn't been entirely smooth for New York City's club, which was unveiled two years ago and has taken its fare share of shots since. The stadium situation (which remains murky without assurances that the Yankees, who own 20 percent of NYCFC, will agree to host the team next year), the misleading 2014 announcement regarding the "signing" of midfielder Frank Lampard and the appearance that it's subordinate to Manchester City and parent company City Football Group present easy targets. Revolution supporters sang, "Man City B! Man City B!" on Sunday. It's a chant NYCFC fans will be hearing for a while.
But there's been significant work going on behind the scenes designed to generate some traction and forge an identity. The Times Square billboards and public events, from a jersey unveiling at Manhattan's Terminal 5 to Lampard's introduction at Brooklyn Bridge Park, have generated buzz and a bit of press. Meanwhile, NYCFC has tried to reach the grass roots. It's already affiliated with 11 youth soccer clubs around the region and recently announced a developmental league for players aged U-9 through U-11 that eventually will form the foundation of NYCFC's academy. Under the direction of Paul Jeffries, a Manchester native who's lived in New York for more than a decade, NYCFC has endeavored to cement its citizenship through camps, clinics and tutoring programs aligned with local sports organizations and schools.
NYCFC already has sold more than 15,000 season tickets and its supporters group, the Third Rail, had some 2,000 members before the first ball was kicked.
"In a lot of ways this club is a microcosm of the city—very diverse, representing a lot of different countries and nationalities. That's been a staple of this city and that's going to be a staple of this club," Hernandez said following Sunday's win, which lifted NYCFC to 1-0-1. "The responsibility is 100 percent on us to be accountable to make sure the people of this city and community feel we represent them. That they see us, we're present and involved, so they feel we're a reflection of them."
The pregame processional included uniformed members of the city's police and fire departments. Wingert and Villa presented a jersey to Mayor Bill de Blasio. During the national anthem, which was sung by Long Island native Ashanti, NYCFC's players stood behind a banner reading, "This is My City. This is My Club."
And then, NYCFC went out and won, which Wingert said also is critical.
"There's nothing like winning in New York," he said.
Villa was the catalyst. The Spanish World Cup winner, who failed to see much of the ball during NYCFC's 1-1 draw at Orlando City last week, was more open and available and was consistently dangerous with the ball at his feet. The field, much maligned during the buildup to Sunday's game, didn't appear to be an issue. Villa blew past New England's Andrew Farrell in the 16th minute but was denied by goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
Three minutes later, a quick give-and-go with midfielder Ned Grabavoy allowed Villa to split four defenders before notching the opener. He should have doubled NYCFC's lead in the 49th, but hit Shuttleworth again. The Revolution (0-2-0) were reduced to 10 men thanks to José Gonçalves' 66th-minute red card and in the 84th, Villa turned provider. He stormed through the left channel and slid a cross toward reserve forward Patrick Mullins for an easy finish.
It was the sort of performance that brings people back.
"Hopefully we're going to get those people excited about the team and that's why I think today was vital in moving forward and getting everybody pumped up," Wingert said.
"The passion was incredible," NYCFC sporting director and New Jersey native Claudio Reyna said. "Some New York City language as well there toward our opponents, but they're behind the team, behind the players. It was a great occasion for the club."
Wingert, 32, chose to live downtown even though the club's training ground, at SUNY Purchase, is a good 22 miles northeast of Yankee Stadium. He spoke about how excited he was recently to see Roger Federer and the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden and to eat dinner with his family out on the Island. Wingert recalled that his mother, during a recent visit to the city, commented on the crowds and chaos around Penn Station then said, "Look at the smile on your face. I can tell you're totally in your element."
And he smiled Sunday as he recounted his commute to Yankee Stadium. It was chaotic, congested and quintessentially New York.
"I was going to go on the A-C-E and I screwed up and I took the C and I should've just waited for the A, so it took me a little longer than I realized, and by the time I got on the D, it was packed with our fans. And I was in [an NYCFC] suit, so I think some people [were] staring and I think they realized," he told SI.com. "I just kind of kept my head down and tried not to make a big deal. But I have to tell you, in a way, I was glad that I did it. It was so cool to be right in the mix and … and I'm a fan too. It was cool for me to see how New York could be and I'm looking around and trying to take it all in and realize that these people are here for us. And that's really special."
NYCFC isn't a typical club, even by MLS standards. But New York isn't a typical city. It's diverse and demanding. It's also starving for soccer. Sunday marked the first real step toward building a bridge between locals who love the game and a top-tier club they eventually may call their own.
Hernandez emerged from the shower on Sunday evening, knotted his sky blue tie and surveyed the victorious locker room. It was Yankee Stadium's visitors' clubhouse, and the chairs in front of each stall had the Major League Baseball logo embroidered on them. But he clearly felt at home.
"This is big time. This is where all athletes want to go to showcase their skills, showcase their qualities, and really get out there and represent this city. Because this city means so much to this country and so much to the world of sports in general. It's a great responsibility and it's a great honor," he said. "In a lot of ways we are looking to be New York City's club, in every way represent what they represent, and I think we've gotten off on the right track doing that."