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The Big Pitcher – Gangs of New York Edition

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The best case scenario for soccer in America now that MLS has dropped its 20th team into the most-populous metropolitan area of the country won’t be twice-, thrice- or quarce-yearly trans-Hudson-and-Hackensack skirmishes the league has been salivating over since it started adding teams again.

These games will likely feature as high a quotient of recognizable names as any MLS game that didn’t involve David Beckham. They will be broadcast nationally and hyped heavily. They will be, the league hopes, at the tip-top of the list of prime draws in a new age of MLS on television.

That will all be nice. This announcement feels like a pivotal point because the names involved are so big, and because NYC2’s approach has felt a little something like Sir Lancelot storming our castle. Whether they’ll kill everyone now that they’re inside isn’t a completely ridiculous fear, but this is supposed to be a happy occasion, so let’s look on the bright side, shall we?

If the Red Bulls-Other City games break ratings records, that will be a good thing for the league. If they don’t, it will be a disappointing setback, but Don Garber will not commit seppuku in front of the NFL’s Manhattan offices. Casualties will be limited. The league will march on.

But where this rivalry may have the opportunity to break new and interesting ground is in their impending soft war. Judging by the initial reaction to the announcement, New York’s second MLS franchise and its wealthy backers will not be greeted as liberators when they arrive on these shores. The people who will be in charge of the new team know enough about modern sports fans to know that slapping NYCCICCIPPI or whatever on a building and a T-shirt does not make that franchise suddenly of that community; the big bosses in England are already sounding notes to that effect.

The campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people will have to go further than having Joe Hart and James Milner star in a new American Gladiators reboot. (A. Why is it always those two who get featured in the breakout videos? Sergio Aguero took some cuts too. B. Hart has a nice swing; Milner needs to raise his elbow more, but gets surprising power out of just his wrists.)

Instead, you’d imagine the first phase would be to capitalize and expand on the charity and development efforts City’s been putting into the city for the last several years. Nothing reverses public opinion on an obscenely wealthy Scrooge faster than throwing some of that money around for someone else’s benefit.

What efforts like this do is create goodwill, which makes people like your organization more, and when people like your organization more, they tend to wish it well almost despite themselves, even when your franchise is owned by two of the entities that people on two different continents have come to hate more than all the others as totems of everything wrong with the relationship between modern sports and money. That might not be totally fair, but you can see where there might be something of a likability gap that NYCFC is going to have to make up.

No amount of advertising can duplicate the goodwill the Timbers organization and their fans generated when they took it on the chin from the Green Machine earlier this season, or when the Sounders had to be saved by Electron Boy a few years back. (I don’t mean to suggest that either of these organizations did it for the publicity, but with the kind of publicity they got even just within the soccer world, God, why would you not participate in something like this?)

Goodwill doesn’t solve all of a franchise’s problems – it’s not a replacement for exposure – but it does help create new fans, something the New York teams are going to be in the market for. Sky blue turf fields for everyone!

Unless they get darker blue fields instead. It can’t be in the Red Bulls’ best interests to cede the eastern islands to this newcomer, even if their power base remains in New Jersey. They already offer initiatives like the vaguely-named Urban Soccer Program and the usual but important MLS Works stuff.

This is where the escalation could bring about a boon in the soccer community, because if Red Bulls and NYCFC invest in more soccer development it means we’ll see a broader spectrum of programs that can do more to make an impact in the lives of the people they serve.

It isn't outreach in the way we typically think of it, but it's safe to attach a similar motivation to why the NASL Cosmos franchise have attached their brand name to one of the niftier ideas in sports, the city-wide championship of pseudo-national teams formerly known as the Copa NYC. If the Cosmos decide they’re going to try to keep pace with their MLS counterparts, then the possibilities become even more varied.

New York City is already a hub of soccer and social change programs, from Street Soccer USA, which hosts the finals of its annual national tournament for homeless players in Times Square, to America Scores New York, which teaches kids about soccer, social work and poetry in a safe after-school environment.

When the clubs start really putting some effort into the field, the city and the surrounding area will become a laboratory for these programs, exposing new audiences to the game and doing good work through soccer in ways that can be exported to the rest of the country.

The border war will be the big show when NYCFC hits town, but the most important battles may be fought far from the front lines.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

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