New York City is a big place. But it’s also a conquerable one, awaiting the right hero. “I wanna wake up, In a city that doesn’t sleep. And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap,” Frank Sinatra sings in “New York, New York,” an anthem that could be about the outsized sporting personalities who have owned the town. Their charisma melts into the asphalt bedrock beneath the windswept avenues and mixes with the dreams of the peons who look up at the skyscrapers, yearning to be up high one day.
New York is the place where Joe DiMaggio of tiny Martinez, California manned centerfield for the New York Yankees, crushing ball after ball with that pure right-hand stroke, becoming an icon for the ages. In NYC, Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the powerhouse Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, led his Jets to the upset, and earned the nickname “Broadway Joe” for the swagger he displayed while accomplishing the impossible. Walt “Clyde” Frazier bounced from Atlanta to South Illinois to the New York Knicks, where he scored with an effortless ease that the kids on the streets still struggle to mimic. His play was substance and style filtered through love, and the crowd responded to his passion. They were the underdogs who prevailed, the little guys who won over the big city. Walt and Frank and Joe and Joe and others before and after are the reasons we play and watch the games we do, the reason we crave the romance that makes the pain of sports, of life, worth it all.
Millions of immigrants made New York, and each has a story to tell. Here’s one about a young Spanish boy, too small to sign with local powerhouse, Real Oviedo. He joined less prestigious Sporting de Gijón, where his talent grew though his physical stature did not. This happens in soccer, a sport where creative, imaginative, original can overcome bigger, faster, stronger. There’s a reason Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano wrote about the game of soccer as a universal language. The accents and inflection are altered around the world, the conjugation varied, but the root remains the same. Even a hard tackle or a shanked shot have a certain beauty in countrysides and cities of this lovely planet.
In time, this boy moved up- to Zaragoza, then Valencia, then Barcelona and Atlético Madrid- scoring wherever he took the field, winning La Liga and the Champions League while chipping in a record 59 goals in 97 matches for his country as it dominated after decades of disappointment. He played center forward, winger, and attacking midfielder, his versatility and technical wizardry blending into the unrelenting inevitability of Barca and Spain. He became an icon, on the field and off it, the slickness of his skills mirroring his perfectly gelled hair. He grew some scruff, his facial hair as focused as his piercing expression when he played. He was European and cool, the tight leather jackets, the distressed skinny jeans, the kicks that cost more than his first weekly wage at Sporting. He didn’t conquer the world, but the once small boy approached the summit. Then, finally, at the end of 2014, David Villa came to America. He joined Major League Soccer expansion side New York City Football Club. Now, he was something else, less a role model to young fans, more a figurehead for a new franchise. He scored NYCFC’s first goal in a friendly against St. Mirren. David Villa was 33 and all grown up. He’s 70 -feet tall on a Times Square billboard. But how long is the shadow he casts? New York City is a melting pot overflowing with dozens of traditions and ethnicities. Distill that bouillabaisse down to a sporting culture and you might find something that looks a lot like soccer in the city.
There’s magic on the narrow turf fields carved out between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets, the thrashed turf of Pier 40, the worn grass in Prospect Park, the pickup around the cricket ovals at Van Cortlandt. The ball dips and dances, moved by the unseeable whims of so many players. This version of soccer, where imagination is valued over formality, is the same one Villa played as a kid. But the Spaniard isn’t playing in the parks any longer; he’s joining a high-profile expansion squad that MLS needs to succeed. The league, two decades old, finds itself just past those awkward teenage years. It’s stable and growing, with robust fan bases in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, and elsewhere. It can afford European stars including Villa, Kaká, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard (whenever he arrives), and Xavi (if he comes). It can overpay for American leaders like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, enticing them to return home after stints – successful and otherwise – overseas. It has three new television contracts worth five times the previous deals but still a fraction of the cash infusion that allows English Premier League clubs to print the hundreds of thousands of pounds that they lavish on spoiled players.
The project to bring soccer to America in a formal and sustainable way always had New York City as a pillar. A major league needs a major team or two in the country’s largest metropolis: the Yankees, the Mets, the Knicks, the Nets, the Rangers, the Giants, the Jets. The New York Red Bulls, lodged in a beautiful facility 10 miles due west, failed to extend their influence into the five boroughs, settling instead for a Jersey fan base and assorted die hard or stragglers who aren’t intimidated by the PATH. Now sans Thierry Henry, a prickly French superstar who rode the rails, it remains to be seen how much of that weak gravitational pull remains. The New York Cosmos attempted to capture the attention of the NYC soccer audience as well, but all they did was prove how little sway nostalgia holds in a city where people move to forget their past and invent a new future. Other clubs are trying to capitalize as well, with German giants Bayern Munich opening a midtown office and establishing Youth Academy outposts around the country, dedicated to raising the level of the game in their own specific way.
With the coming of the NYCFC, the center of soccer in New York has shifted north to Yankee Stadium where the team will play this year, next year, and until they build something of their own. Structurally, it’s a bad place to watch a game, all strange angles, strips of turf with visible gaps, and a supporter group unable to unfurl banners taller than a person. But done right, the venue might create the necessary ambiance. Yankee Stadium, even the new one with its corporate foot forward, resonates with the undeniable glamour that permeates the grounds. Credit the long legacy of baseball for creating this environment; soccer will capitalize on this history for now as it strives to claim its turf in the American sporting landscape.
No one can reasonably expect soccer in America to become the country’s dominant sport. Just to compete represents significant success. That’s already happening. The 20,000 at Red Bull Arena, the 40,000 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, the 60,000 in the Citrus Bowl, and the millions watching the U.S. national team at the World Cup would agree. Soccer has already won; soccer will never win. Two sides of the same coin, perpetually spinning through the air. At some point, a problem stops being a problem and morphs into reality.
Soccer will not burn out, not fade away, not take over. It’s cultivated slowly on the fields and in the streets, the highlights and the Vines.The Spanish boy, a veteran of that perfect Barca squad, will create his own highlights in America. Someone once wrote that Barcelonistas want nothing more badly than winning, except for romance. Villa understands this sentiment. NYCFC won’t make us fall to our knees, exulting with joy to the heavens because of their beautiful play. They are an expansion franchise playing in a baseball stadium. Pretty is the wrong adjective. That goal Villa tallied against St. Mirren came after two defenders bungled a clearance and the ball fell to the striker, the happy recipient of a lucky accident. But the point is that he scored. Because that’s what he does. Because that’s what he learned. Because that’s what he knows. Because that’s what matters. Because goals, like New York, are romance no matter how ugly the package is in which they arrive.