What does Major League Soccer have to do to get New York's attention?
Reminder: New York has a soccer team.
The New York Red Bulls, formerly the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, have made the playoffs, and will begin their pursuit of an MLS Cup title on Wednesday night. That is about the only thing that has gone according to plan in what was supposed to be their coronation season in a league desperate for a credible soccer franchise in the New York market.
New York signed a pair of expensive “designated players” last summer: forward Thierry Henry, who arrived in New Jersey via Arsenal and Barcelona, and defender Rafa Marquez, captain of the Mexican national team. And early this season, New York traded for Dwayne De Rosario, a five-time MLS Best-XI attacker, and declared him “the final piece” of a champion-caliber construct.
Anyone familiar with New York's history—no trophies since MLS play began in 1996 and a remarkably consistent inability, year after year, to rise above mediocrity—couldn't have been too surprised by what followed.
With little explanation, New York shipped De Rosario to DC United, less than three months after trading for him. De Rosario scored his first goal for his new team against New York and went on to lead MLS in scoring while the Red Bulls struggled in attack, almost single-handedly rallying DC past New York and into the playoffs.
As for Marquez, his effort has come under repeated scrutiny. Following a disappointing 3-1 home loss to Real Salt Lake last month, Marquez called out his teammates for “infantile” mistakes, causing coach Hans Backe to suspend him for a game. Marquez moved from the more vital center back position to defensive midfield, replaced by the well-traveled Stephen Keel. Considering Marquez's $4.6 million salary, the third-highest in the league, his season has been a massive disappointment.
One of the only two players who makes more than Marquez, his teammate Henry, nearly derailed New York's playoff hopes in a single inexplicable episode. In a crucial late-season game on Oct. 15 against Sporting Kansas City, Henry collided with Sporting KC's Roger Espinoza, kneeing him in the head. The referee quickly determined that Henry had done so on purpose, showing him a red card. Down a man, the Red Bulls eventually lost, 2-0. The red card meant a one-game suspension for Henry, keeping him out of New York's final match of the regular season as well.
Because of the league's aggressively inclusive post-season set-up, and thanks to a 1-0 win over Philadelphia, the Red Bulls were able to claim the tenth and final available playoff spot. (The league has 18 teams.)
Along the way, they set a league record for ties, hardly dominating as most observers expected of a lineup that contains not only high-priced stars, but up-and-coming United States national team members Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo.
It is the presence of all that talent, along with the club's recent improved form, that gives New York a chance, even after their lousy regular season, to make some kind of post-season run.
But it is clear that the Red Bulls, like their Metrostar predecessors, have once again failed to live up to expectations, and failed to register as a presence on the New York sports scene.
After all, MLS posted its highest average attendance per game in league history—an average of 17,870 people attended each regular-season match, up seven percent from last season. Ten of the 18 franchises topped 17,000 per match, with Houston checking in just under that mark at 16,924. And in Seattle, the Sounders are bringing in 38,495 fans per match. New York's 19,691 per match ranks a comfortable fourth in the league, so it's not as if fans aren't going to beautiful Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Yet New York's playoff pursuit drew barely a ripple in the local media. Consider the contrast between that silence and the flood-the-zone coverage of a New York Jets player hanging up on an obnoxious radio host. That story is now in its fourth day, if you are keeping score at home.
Judging from the efforts by MLS commissioner Don Garber, he's certainly aware of what's going on.
Garber has made no secret of his desire to make MLS' 20th team (the 19th, the Montreal Impact, joins next season) New York's second team as well, ideally as early as 2013. All the standard explanations are issued to protect the Red Bulls—the rivalry would make both teams stronger, etc.—but the league is clearly looking to address a problem.
(MLS was in a very different place in 2004, when the league introduced a second team into the Los Angeles market. There were just ten teams at the time, and two that had recently folded, and a desire, above all, for sponsors. The Mexican club Chivas' willingness to step in was key there—they were an owner in search of a team. The league's hunt for a second team in New York is the complete opposite: it is a location in search of an owner.)
That Garber met with potential investors for another team during the U.S. national team's recent match—held in Red Bull Arena—speaks volumes about the urgency, and the desire to have that team receive the media attention the Red Bulls aren't getting. No one is clamoring for a second team in Seattle, for instance, though their attendance, divided by two, is roughly equal to that of the Red Bulls.
So by that standard, New York faces an even tougher task in the MLS playoffs than simply beating FC Dallas on the road Wednesday night, defeating the regular- season champion Los Angeles Galaxy in a two-leg playoff, then likely facing Seattle in front of that enormous home crowd, where a win would put them in the MLS Cup final. The Red Bulls need to hope that this unlikely pursuit captures the imagination of New York.
That may not seem like a fair thing to ask of a soccer team in just a few weeks. But this franchise has had sixteen seasons to win New Yorkers' hearts. Each defeat now reminds fans of failure, while bringing MLS one step closer to relegating the Red Bulls to a second division within their own market.