A New York football team hailing from Giants Stadium comes alive in the playoffs, topples the regular season champion and ends a title drought that stretched back to the 1990s.
Yet while the New York Red Bulls organization is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, there is a chasm of difference between the NFL club and its soccer tenant.
Whereas the Giants were greeted by a raucous celebratory parade that brought the Big Apple to a standstill after they defeated the New England Patriots in Arizona last January, the Red Bulls' championship party – if they beat the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final on Sunday – won't generate nearly the fanfare.
Even at the moment of their greatest triumph, the Red Bulls would be served with a stark reminder of the challenges that lie ahead if the club is to make an imprint on the New York sporting psyche.
"If we can win this championship, then it can have a very positive effect for us," Red Bulls vice president of communications Andrew McGowan said. "New York is a city that loves winners and has won titles in virtually every sport.
"We are doing all the right things to build the organization, but we need to have tangible success around that."
The problem for the Red Bulls is how to get New York City interested in them. The world's biggest media market is awash with new fads and crazes and features long established sporting icons such as the Yankees, Giants and even the deeply troubled Knicks.
Playing across the river in East Rutherford, N.J., does nothing to help the Red Bulls. Giants Stadium's difficult access and unsightly surroundings are not conducive for a family-style soccer atmosphere. That issue should improve significantly when Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., opens next year. Hopes are high that the soccer-specific, 25,189-seat venue can generate a new breed of fan.
Genuine soccer support does exist in New York. Back in the days of Pele and the New York Cosmos of the ill-fated North American Soccer League, big crowds regularly flocked to Giants Stadium, and when David Beckham made his first appearance at the Meadowlands for the Los Angeles Galaxy last year, more than 66,000 turned out to witness the show – a 5-4 thriller won by the Red Bulls.
This season's attendances have been mixed, with nearly 47,000 coming to see Beckham again in July and 38,152 witnessing an exhibition against Barcelona three weeks later. However, the highest regular-season crowd, apart from the Galaxy game, was 18,546 against the Crew in October. The lowest was a paltry 9,053 for a clash with the expansion San Jose Earthquakes in April.
"If you have 18,000 in a venue that is hard to get to – and holds 80,000 – people are going to look at it and see something that appears empty," McGowan said. "But those figures in hockey or basketball are sellouts, so it is relative.
"With the new stadium, we feel we have a chance to build an environment and build a fan base that really cares about this team."
Consistent failure on the field has prevented the franchise from developing a solid core of support. Goalkeeper Danny Cepero, who grew up in the New York area and has been a fan of the local MLS side since childhood, understands the sense of relief that has accompanied the team's run to its first-ever MLS Cup final after a string of empty campaigns or first-round playoff exits.
"It is incredible to be able to be in your home area where you were born and raised in and to be part of a special organization and a great club like I'm at right now," Cepero said. "We have waited a long time to have a team capable of winning a championship and it is exciting to be one game away.
"It has been a point of pride to be a part of a New York team having been rooting for the MetroStars since I was younger. It's pretty tremendous and a special feeling."
The hope among the Red Bull hierarchy would be that, if head coach Juan Carlos Osorio can lead the team to the title, there would be a corresponding swell in interest and attendances. In reality, no one really knows what the full potential is in the New York market, just that there is some.
"What I am concerned about is winning games and trying to win trophies," said Osorio, who left the Chicago Fire last December to join the Red Bulls. "This is a market that will respond if the team is doing well and that is what we are trying to achieve."
- New York Red Bulls
- New York
- Juan Carlos Osorio