NYCFC: The CFG’s club of the people?

NYCFC supporters back the team in full voice. They are no fair weather fans. (Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)
NYCFC supporters back the team in full voice. They are no fair weather fans. (Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images) /
NYCFC MLS Champions
NYCFC players would later celebrate their 2021 MLS Cup victory with those who got them there: their supporters (Photo by Brad Self/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

They were the City Football Group’s (CFG) opening act. Ferran Soriano’s brainchild. The start of the end for many concerned about wealthy ownership models taking over world football.

But talk to New York City FC fans and you get a different picture. Of a club that genuinely seems to represent its city and the people in it.

Dave Arends, a man who grew up watching Borussia Dortmund, believes NYCFC do that better than any of the city’s other sports teams.

“You look at a team like the Yankees, the Rangers, people are being priced out,” Arends said. “Soccer is the one sport that brings everyone together. It’s New York City, it’s the greatest city in the world. We want the club to represent that, to bring people from all different cultures together.”

He remembers his first game well. It was back in the club’s inaugural 2015 season. Sat in the bleachers opposite the supporters section, he watched in awe.

“It was such a cool atmosphere because I’d never been to a soccer game before.” It brought to mind thoughts of Dortmund’s infamous stand. “Obviously nothing compares to the Yellow Wall but to see the supporter culture alive was insane.”

NYCFC: The birth of a global entity

Two years prior, when the creation of NYCFC was announced, many saw it as the latest exercise in dragging the soul out of football. A long-planned venture of MLS commissioner Don Garber and Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano, NYCFC would be 80% owned by City Football Group, a global entity funded by the club’s Abu Dhabi owners.

Soriano had dreamt of this entity since his days as Barcelona vice president. Himself and Garber previously planning an MLS expansion in Miami before his abrupt departure in protest at Joan Laporta’s presidency in 2008.

He had imagined a network that could dominate the world of football, clubs across continents creating a pool of knowledge and data impossible to compete with. This was the basis of NYCFC’s founding. Cold hearted global domination.

At first, the club did little to change people’s minds. The colors and emblem practically carbon copies of Manchester City’s. Big name players brought in to build a brand, not necessarily a team. The likes of David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo their chosen Designated Players. Patrick Vieira then brought in as manager after an unsuccessful opening campaign.

The hope? Instant success, both commercially and competitively.

“It felt like a temporary team.” Javier Luis tells me, himself a passionate follower of Mexico’s Liga MX at the time. “I think more people were usually at the games for Villa and Pirlo than they were for the actual team.”

That didn’t last long.

After Viera’s departure in 2018, a change in tact was set upon. A move away from the big stars. No more Lampard’s or Pirlo’s. David Villa had been prolific, netting 77 goals in 117 appearances, but he had not won them the MLS Cup. The scouting pool of the CFG and youth development would be the new focuses.

For fans, this is when NYCFC truly became rooted in the city.

A club for the real New Yorkers

Passion on show. NYCFC fans light up a Bronx night against their Red Bull rivals. (Photo by Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

“I think that’s when it shifted. It was cool to have those players but, to have these people who really wanted to be there, who really cared about the team, that was it. I don’t think Pirlo ever gave a crap about NYCFC,” Arends said.

The club’s recruitment and youth-focused approach drawing connections between players and fans that perhaps didn’t exist before.

“Even from the academy team, you feel that connection, they embrace the city like it’s their own.” Arends said. “I think that’s because we have a lot of young homegrown talents like Tayvon Gray who grew up in the Bronx.”

It was a connection epitomized in their MLS Cup winning year of 2021. After leading the club to the Eastern Conference title in his opening year as coach, Ronny Deila would do one better the following year.

A late season wobble had worried the club’s supporters, especially Arends.

“We were all saying ‘there’s no way we’ll go on to win it.”

NYCFC: MLS Cup champions 2021

They edged past the likes of Atlanta, New England and Philadelphia to reach the final, only a trip to the Portland Timbers in their way. Twenty-five hundred supporters made the journey to see top scorer Taty Castellanos put NYCFC ahead in the 41st minute. From then on, it seemed a foregone conclusion.

“Honestly, I thought we’d won the game until the 94th minute.” NYCFC supporter Angel Gonzalez Jr tells me.

But it all quickly changed.

Portland  equalized in one of the last kicks of the game, sending shockwaves across the travelling NYCFC fans.

“The energy in the supporters section (home fans) had us worried. Extra time, it was gut wrenching,” Gonzalez said.

The tie eventually going to penalties, Alexander Callens lined up NYCFC’s fifth, knowing all he had to do was score and the cup would be theirs. He did.

“I lost it. I was filled with tears of joy and excitement. It was one of the best sporting moments in my life,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez was over the moon.

Arends was no different: “It was absolutely crazy. I was in Portland with about 2500 supporters and about 20 people I could call some of my closest friends. Being able to stand with them, to hug them and to celebrate with them, it was just an incredible atmosphere.”

The party continued into the night. Players and fans bonding over drinks, cementing that connection Arends had talked of. He even shared a beer with Jesús Medina.

“It was fans and players together in the basement of the players’ hotel. Free beer and drink, taking pictures with the cup and the players. I got to meet Taty and Maxi (Moralez). The after-party was insane.”

A sight rarely seen at the top levels of modern football, where players are often hidden from the reach of supporters.

However, many of those players would soon be gone. The day after the MLS Cup victory, the club announced the release of four players: Jesús Medina, Juan Pablo Torres, Gudi Thórarinsson and Tony Rocha.

“They could have waited until after the cup celebration at City Hall to announce the roster moves.” Gonzalez feels. “Those players seemed very down at the parade, it was bad on the team’s part.”

A team turned over

NYCFC players
A team rejuvenated. After a year in transition, recent results suggest NYCFC are beginning to turn the corner. (Photo by Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

The next year would see many fans further frustrated with countless players exiting with no apparent replacements. The one that hit home was Golden Boot winner Castellanos, sent on loan to fellow CFG club Girona mid-season before being sold to Lazio.

Then Deila left.

Leaving his assistant Nick Cushing to pick up the pieces. Against Toronto FC last weekend, only two players from the MLS Cup final squad lined up for the team. Even for MLS standards, the turnover has been drastic.

For many it’s the reason they have struggled so much this year. Sitting ninth in the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they’ll need to continue their recent uptick in form to stand any chance of qualifying.

Cushing himself shares a lot of the blame. Arends, Gonzalez and Luis all believing he’s been tactically poor and should go. Though there’s an unlikely additional target for their frustrations: The CFG.

“We sometimes feel like they put NYCFC on the low priority list.” Gonzalez states.

“After winning the cup, there was a lack of replacing the players we needed the most. They sent a few players to other CFG affiliate clubs. Why couldn’t they send players in certain positions we needed from other CFG affiliate clubs?”

Arends agrees.

“I think we all have this trepidation that we’re never the first focus of the group. I don’t think we’ve ever really seen any benefit from the ownership. I thought we’d get a lot of young loan players from Manchester City or Melbourne or Japan, which has not been the case.”

These frustrations are largely from an investment perspective, that they feel undervalued. That they’re not the main focus, especially given Girona’s shock rise to the summit of La Liga.

“I think we are letting our assets go to waste,” Luis remarks.

It is not a question of the morality. Or fair sport or monopolization. Only Arends, with his Dortmund hat on, acknowledges mixed feelings about such issues.

“For me personally, being a fan of Borussia Dortmund, it was really tough to buy into a team that is part of an ownership group like that when I spent my entire soccer fandom hating on Red Bull for doing the same thing.”

But in all his hesitations, he is resigned to the fact that it is just the reality of modern football:

“Do the negatives outweigh the positives? In my opinion they do,” Arends said. “I hate that it’s the way football is going but I think people just need to accept that it’s the future.”

It’s no surprise there’s little appetite from fans to fight this part of the ownership. After all, they’re supporters of a club birthed by the CFG. They exist in the world of the MLS, a league where merit doesn’t matter to enter, where you literally have to buy entry into it.

CFG’s ownership model is not a threat to this. In comparison to the rest of American sport and other teams in the city, NYCFC is in a way the least commercialized. To these fans, CFG have given a set of club-less supporters a home they did not have before.

A side that now feels truly connected to the supporters and the city.

“NYCFC is more than just a team. You build a family when you start going to the games. We travel as a family and represent the best city in the world anywhere we go!”

Related Story. Girona FC: Catalan dreamers or Man City’s feeders?. light

If you fancy catching the boys in blue, they’re up against Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami this weekend in what could be season-defining game. Arends is confident, on one condition.

“How do I feel about Saturday? Depends on if Messi plays…”