As Pep Guardiola’s players emerged from the concrete bowels of the Los Angeles Coliseum, the fans jeered.
The boos came as little surprise.
Real Madrid are such an overwhelming darling of the Spanish speaking communities of southern California, that last month’s pre-season encounter against the Champions League winners was akin to an away game for City. “In the years to come, maybe we can seduce more people to follow us and be part of our club,” was Pep Guardiola’s diplomatic response – his Barcelona allegiances did little to improve the situation.
But it will take City many moons before they fulfil the objective of becoming a ‘global brand’ – one of those sickening phrases for supporters, yet one which takes on increasing importance in the boardroom, as the Premier League drips into every continent.
City’s bid to spread the word is far from operating on a solitary front though. Five clubs are already signed up to the City Group ownership, with more additions on the horizon. Untapped markets are at the forefront of the cash-rich organisation’s expansion plan, with New York City FC leading the way in the historically tricky task of bringing soccer to the masses in the USA.
“We’re big believers, we think the US is underdeveloped,” the City Group’s chief commercial officer Tom Glick told the Guardian. “If you look at the TV ratings, it’s the Mexican League, MLS, the NBA and then the Premier League [in fourth] in terms of young audiences.”
There are valid questions about how much money can be made from MLS, but nevertheless City’s sister club are two-and-a-half years into their Major League Soccer journey and a progress report would generally reflect on a period of encouraging progress after their debut campaign in 2015 saw them finish third bottom in the Eastern Conference.
Patrick Vieira’s appointment in the dug-out prior to last season was a watershed moment after the World Cup winner took the club to the MLS playoffs for the first time – a feat they are on track to repeat this time around.
Attendances have deteriorated since the average 29,000 high in their inaugural season to around the 23,000 mark this time around. But perhaps that’s to be expected after the excitement of a new project begins to wane. The long-term objective of building their own ground, rather than playing at Yankee Stadium, wouldn’t hurt crowd sizes either. Various sites across New York’s five boroughs have been considered – including in the Bronx, Manhattan and near Flushing Meadows – yet planning permission issues have halted stadium proposals in their tracks. Although NYC FC are aiming to solve the ground riddle within the next 10 years, it has somewhat hit the buffers. Club president Jon Patricof even admitted recently: “It’s a very active process, but there’s nothing new to report.”
But Glick - NYC FC’s president for the 2015 season - is confident that the club will eventually become a nationwide brand, if they are able to lift trophies and continue to attract some of world football’s most renowned names.
“It will become one of the country’s most popular and important clubs,” he predicts. “As a club we wouldn’t go to Los Angeles, for example, and market our New York club. We aren’t allowed to because we leave that patch to the Galaxy and LAFC.
“Our job is to develop our fanbase and a bond with the city of New York. And to win. And to invest in our community. If we do those things well, the club will become popular for soccer fans all over. A winning team and a team that markets itself well with stars should be popular nationwide. That should be part of our future.”
Signing household names has unquestionably boosted NYC FC’s profile after David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard all arrived in time for the club’s debut campaign in 2015. Villa and Pirlo remain there on $5.6m salaries, although the latter is now showing plenty of signs of wear and tear at the age of 38. But Villa has been a colossus; netting 23 times last season on his way to being crowned MLS’ Most Valuable Player and putting himself firmly on course to exceed 20 goals again this time around.
Villa has just signed a one-year contract extension and will not be the last big name to arrive in the Bronx. Although the club are keen to promote youthful talent, such as 20-year-old English midfielder Jack Harrison, there is a realisation about the importance of making headlines with heavyweight signings.
“We have some star players right now, and that will always be part of what we’re about. The key is picking the right players, and David Villa is the best example of that,” says Glick. “He came to us at 33, still with a ton to give. He has been a super captain, a winner, a goalscorer, an MVP and he’s just signed a contract extension because he’s still fit and motivated. He’s the perfect example of a senior star coming to MLS for all the right reasons and still putting in a shift-and-a-half to help the team win and help the sport grow.”
Likewise, there will continue to be players moving within the City Group’s network: Venezuela international Yangel Herrera has caught the eye during his season-long loan switch from the Etihad to Yankee Stadium. Given the hurdles in graduating from Manchester City’s £150m academy into the first-team, a temporary move to play regularly in the MLS might be a God-send to some of the club’s young hopefuls. “We’re creating more pathways for players to develop their career and stay part of the City football group,” said Glick.
Before NYC FC can ponder nationwide domination in too much detail though, Glick knows they must keep their focus on thriving in the five boroughs, particularly when New York Red Bulls boast the history of an inaugural MLS franchise.
The rivalry between the pair initially had the whiff of an artificially-manufactured marketing gimmick, yet it has grown into a fierce derby, on and off-the-pitch – Sunday’s 3-2 thrilling win for NYC FC was the latest installment in an entertaining series.
“It’s been great. It’s been good for both of us,” added Glick. “The two together create a bit of magic. The rivalry has got an edge to it and it makes soccer that much better.”
Finishing on top in the battle for supremacy in New York is one thing. As Hillary Clinton will attest, winning over the rest of the States is a very different matter.
This article was written by Chris Young, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th August 2017 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010