FROM STEVE BRENNER IN NEW YORK
The beginning of Major League Soccer’s 20th season cannot come quickly enough for its newest, and arguably most talked about, member.
Ever since Manchester City announced that NYCFC would help form the American branch of the all-encompassing City Football Group (CFG) , huge doubts of skepticism have rained over the Big Apple and beyond.
When someone like Sheikh Mansour , personal wealth stretching towards £20 billion, becomes involved with a sporting venture it’s natural to assume huge swathes of spending will swiftly follow.
After all, there is no institution on planet football which has the kind of structure CFG have attempted to build. The Yokohama F-Marinos were purchased in May while Melbourne City are enjoying the fruits of their Abu Dhabi association.
Manager Jason Kreis and his squad enjoyed time rubbing shoulders and tapping into Manuel Pellegrini’s knowledge last month. A simply priceless opportunity not afforded to others.
Yet the MLS doesn’t operate like the Premier League , or anywhere else for that matter. The Sheik’s incredible £1.2 billion investment will not be replicated here. With strict, and at times mind numbingly convoluted, rules ensuring spending doesn’t exceed strict guidelines, NYCFC haven’t been able to scour the world and bring a bucketload of superstars to Manhattan.
Kreis was swiftly brought in by former City midfielder Claudio Reyna who is now the club’s sporting director. The 42 year-old is highly rated in the US following an impressive seven year spell with Real Salt Lake City where he won the MLS Cup in 2009.
With the franchise being based in New York City, a place where the biggest names come to play, the moneymen in the Middle East were acutely aware just how important it was to bring excitement to the table.
Putting bums on seats was vital ,a view not shared by the New York Red Bulls : star men Thierry Henry or Tim Cahill have not been replaced with faith placed in younger , hungrier players. The natives at Red Bull Arena are far from happy.
NYCFC though knew big names had to arrive especially at the inception with a temporary home at Yankee’s Stadium in the Bronx not the ideal base to spend the first three years. A soccer specific stadium is in the pipeline – yet , as David Beckham is finding out in Miami, locating real estate for sporting venues in major US cities is anything but straightforward.
So in came David Villa and , protractedly, Frank Lampard.
Both stellar signings tap into the fervent , cosmopolitan football fanbase here. Villa ticks all the boxes for the Spanish speaking fans who pack the bars when Barcelona and Real Madrid strut their stuff in La Liga.
Providing the 33 year-old steers clear of injury, it would be a shock if the Spanish forward doesn’t get 20 goals or more. The slow paced, pretty much Championship standard of MLS will ensure a player of his class will provide defences with more than their fair share of nightmares. Expect him to drop deep yet still cause all manner of problems in Kreis’ preferred diamond formation.
Lampard too will have fun even if his signing was woefully handled by all concerned. New Yorkers are not used to being forced to settle for second best. And they wasted no time in showing their discontent.
With the former Chelsea midfielder’s name plastered all over billboards along with Villa, his arrival was the trigger which helped secure 14,000 season tickets.
Naturally when news broke of the decision to stay in the Premier League until the end of the season, there was anger. And understandably so. City hoodwinked MLS commissioner Don Garber who , for someone who rules with such autonomy, was shown to be a touch naïve throughout the whole ‘will he , won’t he’ saga which always looked like having an outcome which would n’t benefit New York.
The fury , though also indicated there are people who already care.
Yet when once kick-off arrives on Sunday at a sell-out 60,000 at fellow new franchise Orlando City, Lampard won’t be at the forefront of anyone’s thoughts.
With US midfielder Mix Diskerud signing from Rosenbourg, Kries is building a strong core while a strong contingent from South America and Europe add flair excitement – and something of the unknown.
“We have players who want to play, who like to play one and two touch and excite the crowd, “ said the 24 year-who was part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad last summer.
“I definitely think that we are starting history here.”
With the Red Bulls based in New Jersey – a 30 minute train ride away from Manhattan – NYCFC have advertised aggressively to make their mark in Manhattan.
Building a team which will be competitive won’t be easy . Cohesion takes time. Yet if the honeymoon period stretches over a few victories, who knows where the feel good factor could take City’s latest potshot at glory?
Community projects have flourished for the past two years following the creation of the City soccer schools in Harlem while the tie-in with the New York Yankee’s – arguably one of the most famous and iconic sporting brands on the planet – should not be underestimated.
An indelible mark has already been made off the pitch.
Now’s the time to start producing on it.