It’s World Cup time, and soccer is coming of age in New York.
“What an ass!” screamed Charles Guder, when the TV at Nathan Hale’s restaurant downtown showed national team coach Bruce Arena. “Look at him, he’s smiling now. He’s gone. He’s got to get fired.”
Whether it was the soccer nerds in team jerseys at bars like Nathan Hale’s, or the more affected Europhile types who snuck out of their jobs in media and publishing to witness the world’s biggest sporting event, New York has felt a little like Somewhere Else since the World Cup kicked off on June 9. New Yorkers, it seemed, cared about soccer.
So is it the arrival, finally, of the world’s most popular game as a major sport on America’s biggest stage?
For one thing, the team isn’t cooperating.
In their first game at this World Cup—against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen, Germany—the United States stank.
A team of experienced Czech players from Europe’s top leagues towered over the nervous Americans, scoring three goals on their way to a depressingly easy shutout win. There was almost nothing good to take away from the U.S. team’s performance, and the coach and players descending into ugly recrimination after the game.
And if that was disappointing—particularly after America’s strong performances at two of the past three World Cups—it’s only likely to get worse this weekend when the U.S. plays Italy, the perennial world power that brought the world catenaccio: the defensive, aesthetically nauseating style of play that typically results in boring-but-inevitable 1-0 victories over inferior opponents.
From the perspective of soccer gaining a foothold in New York, an embarrassing setback couldn’t come at a worse time.
The sport is in a sort of limbo here. The legacy of the 1994 World Cup in America—the one in which the U.S. team emerged from the initial group round and scored a notable upset of Colombia—was considerable: the founding of a domestic league, a spike in public interest in the professional game and a seismic windfall for local bars when Ireland beat Italy at the Meadowlands.
New York was always a specially prized target for the soccer evangelists—the most cosmopolitan city, the most valuable media market, the most logical magnet for international luminaries of the sport.
And the dream almost came to pass in the 1970’s, when the New York Cosmos were here, spending insane amounts of money to assemble a team that included Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer and blowing away all domestic competition in front of sellout crowds at Yankee Stadium.
The most optimistic of the sport’s boosters feel that New York is on the verge of a return to that halcyon era, with interest in American soccer spilling out of the Spanish-speaking community—New York’s most reliable bastion of enthusiasm for the game—and into the mainstream.
“I think it’s definitely getting more popular here,” said Youri Djorkaeff, a former World Cup winner for the French team who now plies his trade for Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls. “When I was watching the France game today, there were American fans at the bar. When I watched the U.S. game yesterday, even though it didn’t go too well, I think it’s the first time you can really feel some excitement here.
“If you want to compare the U.S. to France, it’s the wrong way to look at it,” he said. “The fans are totally different. But it’s growing here. When I got here two years ago and went to the Nike Shop, I couldn’t find any soccer jerseys. Now they’re everywhere.”
But even with a player like Djorkaeff, the New York Red Bulls—formerly the New York/New Jersey Metrostars—are not the Cosmos. They fill a small fraction of the seats on a good day at their games in Giants Stadium. They have never won a league title. And instead of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, the team has featured a raft of likeable but eminently ignorable homegrown stars from the city and suburbs on Long Island and New Jersey.
There’s a parallel there with the national team, which has enjoyed some success in recent years, but is still stocked with players unknown to most American sports fans. (The team’s most marketable player, Landon Donovan, is a charismatic and occasionally exciting attacking midfielder who failed twice to make an impact in the German Bundesliga.)
Rather than take to the domestic game, which is still decidedly second-tier, some fans have been able to turn to a glut of broadcasts on cable from the English and continental leagues.
“I’m an awful American fan,” said Robert Jacklosky, an English professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent who was watching the France-Switzerland game at a midtown bar. “I wind up watching the Premier League and Manchester United. There’s a little bit of self-loathing when I root for them, but it’s tough to watch American soccer.”
His feelings reflect a general breakdown of American soccer fans: They follow a foreign league closely, or just show up and watch the World Cup.
“I can’t believe Americans are actually into their team,” he said. “You see all these fans don the U.S. jerseys, but it’s like rooting for America in the Olympics. It’s jingoistic and fun, but a week later, you couldn’t care less. It’s hard to believe fans are really enthusiastic about beach volleyball. It’s the same thing with the World Cup. It’s about the moment.”
But it is the World Cup that is supposed to give the sport the boost it will finally need to approach the soccer fan’s dream of supplanting one of the area’s minor-major sports fixations on basketball or hockey.
It’s not entirely unreasonable. The Knicks are overpaid, unlovable losers. And hockey, well, it’s hockey—it has its limits.
Meanwhile, the New York region, a soccer hotbed that has produced a disproportionate number of the national team’s players in recent years, is as logical a place as any to capitalize on an international event like the World Cup.
“The interest is absolutely increasing here,” said Carl Christian, the 38-year-old British-born owner of Nathan Hale’s, who has lived in New York for 20 years. “The game has always had a fan base, but to average Americans and to my average customers, there’s just a lot more interest here. It’s meant so much more for business.”
Christian said on a Monday he will generally serve 40 to 50 lunches, but with the U.S.A. soccer team playing at a noon start, he served as many as 150 lunches.
“The love for soccer is a permanent feel here in the city,” said Jeff Z. Klein, an editor at The New York Times Escapes section who is co-writing the paper’s popular World Cup blog. “This isn’t just for the World Cup. When I hear people talking about ‘Oh, is soccer going to break through?’ I feel that conversation is so ancient. It’s been here for years. I love hockey, I can’ t find another person in New York to talk about hockey. But anytime I meet up with people in New York, they’re always talking about soccer. Whether foreigners, or New Yorkers, they know soccer really well.”
“When we think of New York sports, we think WFAN, but that’s just for a certain audience,” Mr. Klein said. “The WFAN audience and the Daily News audience isn’t going to follow it, but there’s a whole other swath of people who actually live in New York.”
But what of those WFAN types?
Here’s WFAN’s Joe Benigno on the dawning of a soccer age in New York:
“I mean, the kids are into it, but as a viable sport, no way it’s going to supplant any other big sport in the city,” he said in a typically impassioned phone interview. “The only time you get a buzz in the city is during the World Cup. Only because it’s such a big deal. But that’s it.”
The American team’s performance so far—a disaster by any measure—hasn’t helped.
It would, as U.S. goalie Brad Friedel has already said, take a miracle for the team to advance out of the initial group stage of the World Cup.
And if the U.S. gets swept out of the tournament in the next two games? What then for the lasting popularity of soccer in New York?
“If you lose three games,” said Andranik Eskandarian, who played for the Cosmos in their glory days, “it’s going to be a big blow. It’s going to be bad.”