Bronx, N.Y. – For the first time since 1976 when Pele and his Cosmos called Yankee Stadium home, a professional soccer team hosted a game in the Bronx this Sunday, with New York City Football Club emerging 2-0 victors over 2014 MLS Cup runner-up New England Revolution.
Like in Pele’s day the club’s star, in this case David Villa, showed his teammates how it’s done, scoring NYC’s first goal in the 19th minute, before setting up Patrick Mullins for the second half clincher.
Villa’s heroics took place in a city that is in many ways unrecognizable from the crumbling metropolis that Pele graced all those years ago, even the Stadium itself is new.
Change has come as well to the Stadium’s South Bronx neighborhood, which is no longer shorthand for urban blight, as it was in 1977 when Howard Cosell proclaimed on national television, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” while the Goodyear blimp projected that very image to the nation, as the Yankees prepared to play the L.A. Dodgers in game two of the World Series.
And while the condition and size of the Yankee Stadium pitch has been much scrutinized these last few days, nobody seemed overly concerned back then that Pele and company might compromise the playing surface for a Yankee team that would advance to the Series in October 1976, the first time the Bronx Bombers had contested the Fall Classic in a dozen years.
That the infield dirt went uncovered for the Cosmos was just another thing no one kicked up about in those laissez faire days. No helicopter shots of the field were splashed across the back page of the New York Daily News, as happened this week, and if anyone asked Pele if the field was ok with him, his answer has been lost to history.
In contrast, after Sunday’s win, the overflow press contingent asked pretty much everyone to comment on the condition and width of the pitch, and NYC FC coach Jason Kreis soon tired of the topic.
Kreis came to New York with a MLS Cup win with Real Salt Lake on his coaching resume, along with a reputation for intensity. The latter was evident when the playing field was brought up during the postgame press conference. After complimenting the Yankee Stadium grounds crew for its work in getting the field prepared after a tough winter, the coach was asked about the fields width.
“Do you know how wide all the fields are in the league?” Kreis quizzed his inquisitor. The answer came back yes, between 74 and 80 yards. “You’re incorrect,” Kreis admonished, “all of them are between 70 and 75, so ours is four yards less than average.”
Kreis added that “quite a few are actually 72, so you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
Villa and his teammates were similarly satisfied with the Yankee Stadium playing surface, and something else all could agree on was the Yankee Stadium atmosphere.
GotSoccer asked center back Jason Hernandez if, as a native New Yorker, he felt his foreign born teammates understood the significance of playing at Yankee Stadium. “I think,” Hernandez said, “a lot of them know in a general sense, but the fact of the matter is when you’re stepping onto this field you know it’s hallowed ground. It’s an honor to be there.”
Hernandez was very happy with his team’s performance, telling GotSoccer, “I really think that the guys rallied around the atmosphere that was created by the fans and the supporters.”
Mix Diskerud called that atmosphere, “awesome,” and actually credited the supporters with influencing the game. “In the second half you could really hear them,” Diskerud said. “I wanted to run extra yards and do extra things, just because of the fans, the 12th man as they call it, it’s super important.”
Interestingly, both Director of Football Claudio Reyna and Kreis were unsure what sort of support the team would generate for the home opener.
Both men used the word nervous to describe their pre match state of mind. Reyna said he was “nervous to get a result, about what message that sends out. But NYC’s architect was pleased that “the fans came away encouraged with the team, with their performance, and the pride that they showed.”
“It was,” Kreis conceded, “a nervous moment for me, “not to know what the fans would be like here, and to meet them for the very first time.”
All the NYC FC players that GotSoccer spoke with following the match were thrilled with that atmosphere and support from the Yankee Stadium crowd. Shay Facey, a 21 year old defender on loan from parent club Manchester City, who came in as a late sub, called the atmosphere, “fantastic.” “I’ve never seen anything like it, not even at the Etihad (Manchester City’s home ground). “I’ve been to all the Premier League stadiums, but it was just different here,” Facey said, “there was a warmth and togetherness.”
And while much has changed about New York since the Cosmos sublet Yankee Stadium, one constant is that New York City loves its stars.
The North American Soccer League of the Pele era was driven by stars, and no team employed the star system like the Cosmos. And if Major League Soccer, is to the old NASL, as today’s Disneyfied Times Square is to the down and dirty Forty Deuce of the 1970’s, stars still draw.
Even the slow growth, single entity MLS realizes that, and has long brought in the likes of David Beckham and Thierry Henry to add a little flash to its steady as she goes business model. On Sunday David Villa introduced himself to New York City as only a true star could, and after the match even his teammates were star struck.
Patrick Mullins entered the game as an 83rd minute substitute for Sebastian Velasquez. Less than a minute later the former New England striker had scored his first NYC FC goal, teed up perfectly by his captain, Villa.
After the game Mullins could only laugh. “He’s such a special player,” the former two time College Player of the Year chuckled. “If me and the rest of the forwards get in the right position,” Mullin added, “we can really benefit off him.”
Khiry Shelton, a young forward who has made an impact in both NYC matches coming off the bench in the midfield, considers it an education playing alongside the Spanish master.
“He’s a teacher,” Shelton told GotSoccer. “We try to learn as much as we can, and we try to get to know him more, and to read and visualize what he does.”
NYC FC may not approach Sunday’s attendance of 43,500 again this season, we will have to wait and see on that. But if first impressions are as important as we believe, then the stargazers could find themselves making regular trips to the Bronx, and not just to see the Yankees.