NYC FC are one of MLS's best teams – and they're still playing in baseball stadiums

Graham Ruthven

Dome Torrent started thinking about how to acclimatise his New York City FC players to the unusual surroundings of Citi Field weeks ago. It became clear earlier this month that the New York Yankees’ playoff run would likely push NYC FC out of the teams’ shared home, Yankee Stadium, for at least one of the MLS Eastern conference semi-finals and final. Torrent, like the club itself, quickly drew up a contingency plan to mitigate any impact a temporary move seven miles away to Queens could have on his side. Practice sessions at Citi Field – the home of MLB’s New York Mets – were pencilled in early.

As things panned out, the Houston Astros’ win on Saturday night saw the Yankees miss out on a place in the World Series, but a rain delay earlier in the series meant NYC FC’s contingency plan had to be activated regardless. Indeed, New York City FC will face Toronto FC at Citi Field on Wednesday. The club’s most important game of the season so far will be at a venue they have only ever played at once before and there’s no guarantee Yankee Stadium will be free for a potential MLS Cup final either, with a college football game set to be played there the day before. Such uncertainty at the most critical point of the campaign shone a light on NYC FC’s current situation. This is their fifth season in MLS and they still don’t have a stadium of their own.

Of course, NYC FC aren’t the only MLS franchise to share a stadium. Far from it. Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, the New England Revolution, the Vancouver Whitecaps and many others share with another team. That NYC FC are squatters in the home of another sporting franchise is not the primary issue.

The primary issue is that Yankee Stadium is a baseball venue. There are a number of NFL stadiums in use across MLS, but Yankee Stadium is the only baseball stadium hosting top-flight soccer in North America. While NFL and soccer teams make for decent bedfellows – both are played on a rectangle – the same can’t necessarily be said of the relationship between NYC FC and the Yankees. Their relationship is one of necessity rather than convenience.

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Indeed, there is an undeniable awkwardness to the way a soccer pitch is squeezed into Yankee Stadium. Opposition players and coaches have complained about the dimensions, the smallest permitted by Fifa (70 yards x 110 yards). Some doubt that it is even that big, with Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes claiming four years ago that he’d measured it at 68 yards x 106 yards.

NYC FC will play Wednesday’s game in another baseball venue, this time the New York Mets’ Citi Field
NYC FC will play Wednesday’s game in another baseball venue, this time the New York Mets’ Citi Field. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

Yankee Stadium isn’t the most natural soccer venue for supporters either. NYC FC told the Guardian that many fans are happy with the stadium arrangements, although none of the supporters we spoke to reflected that view. “The sight lines where typically the best seats in the house would be, which are centre field, those are the worst seats in Yankee Stadium,” explains Justin Bulova of NYC FC supporters group The Third Rail. The stadium is orientated towards home plate. The grandstands fan out from that apex because for a baseball game that is the focal point of everything. “I’ve sat there for a NYC FC match,” Bulova continues, “and you feel like you’re half a stadium away from the field.”

Big name signings like Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa, as well as the link with Manchester City, have made them a marquee franchise and so the image they present resonates. Yankee Stadium’s improvised, some would say unsuitable, soccer pitch isn’t the best advert for MLS, a league which has otherwise made great progress over the past decade or so in the construction of soccer-specific stadiums.

This situation could be accentuated further if NYC FC go on to host this year’s MLS Cup, the league’s showpiece event. As the East’s No1 seed, this is entirely possible. “We have an exceptional team this year,” says Bulova. “How embarrassing would it be to have the MLS Cup held in a baseball stadium? I almost hope it happens because it would shine a spotlight on to something NYC FC and MLS have to address.”

Location wise, Yankee Stadium has a lot going for it. “The saving grace for NYC FC right now, being at Yankee Stadium, is that they’re on the subway line,” says Jack Bell, former soccer writer for the New York Times. “You can count on that to funnel people to the games. For me, that’s one of the reasons NYC FC has consistently been able to draw 20,000 people to games.” Indeed, NYC FC’s average home attendance is better than most in the league. The Bronx, it would seem, is a good place for a soccer stadium. That’s probably why City Football Group have identified a site, among a number of others, not far from Yankee Stadium in their search for a permanent home.

“I also like the stadium atmosphere a lot,” adds Bulova. “I’d say it’s up there with some of the best in MLS.” Just how much better would it be in a stadium designed for the sport being played, though? NYC FC fans must look at the state-of-the-art facilities that have opened in places like Minnesota, Los Angeles and Orlando in recent years and wonder what such a building would do for their club.

Finding a suitable location in one of New York’s five boroughs was always going to be challenging – particularly due to a lack of space and astronomical land prices in the city. Supporters are aware of this and have some sympathy for the difficulty encountered by the franchise. They point to how the New York Red Bulls took what they could get and have since been left to rue the shortcomings of their Harrison, New Jersey location.

Patience is starting to wane, though. That is perhaps best illustrated by falling attendances. With the exception of 2018 (which saw a jump to 23,211 from 22,643 the season before), NYC FC’s average home crowd has fallen season-by-season since their expansion year in 2015, when their average gate stood at 29,016, to this year’s figure of 21,107. That remains a solid number – ninth of the league’s 24 teams – but the trend isn’t a positive one.

NYC FC had the likes of Lampard, Pirlo and Villa to draw fans over those early years and so the crowd figures aren’t strictly an illustration of growing frustration over the stadium, but it cannot be discounted. “We know it’s hard enough finding space to park your car in New York City let alone building a stadium for 25,000+ people, but the bigger problem is that the club lacks transparency on this issue,” says Anthony Scarcello of the Dudes in Blue podcast. “They keep you in the dark, they don’t tell you what their plans are, they don’t tell you what they’re trying to do and eventually that wears thin with New Yorkers.”

The club says it is still committed to finding a new stadium. “New York City FC is actively pursuing a permanent home in NYC and exploring several options, including working with Maddd Equities in the Bronx,” a club spokesperson told the Guardian. For many supporters, that isn’t enough. Not after so many seasons at Yankee Stadium. “I’m sure there are many competent people trying to find a solution,” says Bell, “but here we are five years down the road and still nothing.” Playing at Citi Field this week won’t help ease that frustration. “It makes us feel like the whole thing is in limbo,” says Bulova. “It adds to that feeling of homelessness.”