M.L.S.: The Red Bulls will get a rival and like it

Thierry Henry. (Howard Megdal)
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For roughly as long as Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has pursued a second New York franchise, the Red Bulls, the area's first franchise, have expressed support for the idea.

“We have already spoken about this possibility," Jurgen Mainka, a spokesman for the Red Bulls, told me back in August. "We would welcome a second New York team. Local rivalries are one of the most important traditions of international soccer."

Things have changed.

Mainka is now working for C.O.N.C.A.C.A.F. The team's general manager at the time, Erik Soler, was fired in October. And the new G.M., Jerome de Bontin, doesn't seem to feel the same way about the idea.

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"A second team in New York would be a good thing, but today it’s probably premature," de Bontin said. "I wonder if market is mature ... The league should learn from its own mistakes. For example, in L.A. clearly a second team didn’t work out. Rather than supporting the idea of a second team in New York tomorrow, I would question whether if the league would be better served looking at Florida, Atlanta, Minnesota."

His point of view is certainly understandable. Despite three straight playoff seasons and the highest payroll in the league, the Red Bulls saw attendance drop more than seven percent from 2011, to 18,281 fans per game, in a league in which attendance was up, on the whole, by more than five percent.

Essentially, the argument for adding a second New York team, from the Red Bulls' perspective, is the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. A presence in the area by the Cosmos, or another M.L.S. team, would provide greater attention on soccer in the area, with the reflected glow adding to what the Red Bulls are doing.

That remains the league's position, with Garber using his state of the league address and press conference to smack down de Bontin's objections.

Garber chalked up de Bontin's objections to his short time in M.L.S., saying, "Once Jerome understands this project, he will be as supportive as the rest of the league's general managers and owners are."

Garber also made it clear that regardless, the Red Bulls are not in a position to block a second team from the region.

For their part, the Red Bulls declined further comment on the subject, but a Red Bulls source referred me back to de Bontin's comments, suggesting that this represents the team's official position.

Perhaps the misgivings will be temporary. Or perhaps somebody higher up in the Red Bulls corporate structure did some math, and realized that the team's internal estimates that 60 percent of the fan base comes from New Jersey means that 40 percent of the fan base comes from New York City and surrounding areas closer to Queens.

Those next steps for the Red Bulls, which reportedly could include simply cashing out, will be fascinating to watch.