The new team, abbreviated as NYCFC, won't begin play until 2015, and it doesn't even have a permanent home yet. New Jersey native and former national team captain Claudio Reyna was named as NYC FC's director of football on Wednesday, but the focus was on a team that could become an institution.
"On behalf of my entire family and the Yankees organization, I just want to express my excitement about being a part of this endeavor," said Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner of the Yankees. "Soccer, as most of us know, continues to be one of the fastest growing sports in the country, particularly among our youth. And the MLS is one of the fastest growing leagues in the world. I do believe great things are going to happen here. This team is going to be a great thing for New York City."
That point, made by Steinbrenner and reiterated several times by other speakers, found itself a fitting backdrop on Wednesday. The club's opening news conference was located at Lexington Academy in East Harlem, a school that has already seen the difference soccer can make in the community.
Manchester City built a rooftop soccer field -- the only one of its kind in Manhattan -- on the sixth floor of Lexington Academy, and it provides staff that participate in free soccer instruction as part of the school's curriculum. More than 1,300 students have gotten a chance to play soccer as part of the program at Lexington Academy, and a sign on the rooftop field dares the students to dream big.
"Take your place," the sign said. "This is where dreams come true, where history is made and memories created. This is your chance to play your part in the latest chapter of an exciting new era. Be part of it."
Ferran Soriano, Manchester City's chief executive officer, said Wednesday that he wants that philosophy to be the guiding light behind the New York City Football Club. He made that point in an interesting way as he read a public statement from Manchester City's founding in 1880.
"By providing the opportunity to play football, we hope to improve the lives of people in difficult times," said Soriano, reading the statement and making it relevant once again. "This statement came in the time of the Industrial Revolution and indeed in very difficult times in Manchester. But today, we're here and we believe the same thing: We're trying to improve the lives of people through soccer. Isn't that amazing? It's 130 years later. Soccer can be a metaphor of life. It is life in 90 minutes, life on a pitch."
Manchester City, the Premier League champions in 2012 and the runners-up this season, have built similar fields and youth development programs in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles and Miami. And while they look at developing the youth of tomorrow as a gesture toward the well-being of society, Soriano said that Manchester City also believes in the immense potential of soccer's growth in America.
"We're giving birth to a new football club: The New York City Football Club," said Soriano of sponsoring a brand new team in a foreign league. "We are enthusiastic believers of the development of soccer in the US. We are thrilled to be in New York, the capital of the world. And we found in the MLS one of the best-managed leagues in the world. It was obvious for us. This is what we wanted to do."
And if it was obvious for Manchester City, it was a godsend for Major League Soccer.
The league has expanded by leaps and bounds in recent seasons, growing from 10 teams at inception to 20 when NYCFC begins play in 2015. Los Angeles became the sport's first two-city market, with the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA sharing a home field and competing for the local fanbase.
NYCFC will have a rival in the New York Red Bulls, but the two teams aren't expected to share a field. The Red Bulls play in Harrison, N.J., and NYCFC is expected to break ground in Queens. But wherever it winds up, MLS commissioner Don Garber is confident that New York is big enough to house two teams.
"New York City has always been a soccer town," said Garber. "It's had sold-out crowds for World Cup matches ... and lots of international friendlies, including an exhibition game that will take place in Yankee Stadium this Saturday. We saw one of the largest crowds ever to attend a soccer match in this area when the MLS All-Stars played the World All-Stars in 1997. And now Major League Soccer will take center stage in this region now that NYCFC will begin play in 2015 with a cross-town rival -- or a cross-river rival -- in the New York Red Bulls, who play in Harrison, N.J., in Red Bull Arena."
Garber, whose league hopes to expand to 22 teams by 2020, said that Wednesday is another "historic day" for soccer in New York, and he pointed out that his league's average stadium attendance is third among American sports, trailing only Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
And while the new team's future home is uncertain, New York can point to a busy recent history of building new venues. Randy Levine, president of the Yankees, spoke before Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday, and he lauded the city's chief executive for presiding over the stadium boom.
"I just wanted to take a moment to thank the Mayor and congratulate the Mayor," said Levine. "Mr. Mayor, you may recall, just a few years ago, thanks to your leadership, Yankee Stadium was born. The Barclays Center was born. Citi Field was born. All the gloom-and-doomers were around, all the people who said it couldn't happen. ... Nobody is saying that or any of those things today."
Bloomberg accepted those plaudits and passed them on to his staff, but he said the important part is that sports pay the city back for their support. Bloomberg said that more than two million people in New York City play soccer, and he stressed that the game is tied to the region's economic growth.
"We haven't had a Major League soccer franchise in the five boroughs since the Cosmos left back in the 70s," said Bloomberg of the former NASL franchise. "Back then, many other businesses were leaving New York as well. But today was another example in how far we've come in reversing this trend and how we're bringing new jobs, new businesses and major investments back to New York. I think it's a great show of confidence in our city's future and in the future of soccer here. That confidence is well justified."
Reyna, the guest of honor, was the last man to speak on the dais Wednesday, and he expressed disbelief in the path his career has taken. Reyna, a native of Livingston, N.J., went on to play college soccer at the University of Virginia and played professionally both here and abroad.
Reyna played in Germany and in Scotland before playing for Sunderland and Manchester City in England, and he finished his career state-side with the Red Bulls. Reyna made 111 appearances for Team USA, and he said he's excited to be the director of the New York City Football Club.
"As a player here in the United States, I grew up and truly cannot believe today," said Reyna. "I grew up in New Jersey and didn't even dream of playing professional soccer, because we had no league. It was the tail end of the NASL, and I was very young, so I do have vague memories of the Cosmos and some of the other teams. But they're very, very vague memories. I think, as a league, the MLS, and as a national team -- US Soccer and the youth game, boys and girls -- how far we've come is really incredible."
It is, indeed, but the more daunting thought is how far the US has to go. Team USA beat England in the 1950 World Cup, but then it went four decades without appearing in the World Cup again. America has made some soccer strides in the last 20 years, but it is still by no means an accepted world power.
The MLS can change that, and it has produced many players good enough to compete for a chance at playing on the national team. Now, with two teams in New York, the lens has changed. MLS is making an aggressive move to expand in Manhattan, and the game at home could follow suit.
"Now, in our 18th season and with 20 teams throughout the US and Canada, we have a big vision," said Garber of the league's immediate future. "Our vision is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world in the next 10 years. Today's announcement is one step toward achieving that big goal."