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Singin' the Etihad Blues: Man City & the NYC fan's dilemma

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We asked New York City supporters about how they are coping with -- or celebrating -- the club's connections to the "Etihad Empire." How much impact do Manchester City and the Premier League really have on NYCFC fan culture?

New York City FC may be new to MLS, but its budding fan base isn't exactly overflowing with newbies to the Beautiful Game.

More than a few of the inaugural NYCFC faithful already hold strong allegiances to one or more established clubs around the world, which is peachy-- fandom doesn't have to be exclusive at the global level because the world is really really big. Disputes are developing, however, among NYCFC's supporters over the new team's direct ties to Manchester City Football Club: how can New York's vibrant, diverse population of Man City-haters reconcile their venom for the Etihad Empire if that same empire was responsible for introducing their own new favorite team to MLS? For New York's Man City faithful, how much club culture ought to be shared on both sides of the ocean, if any?

Also, who does Frank Lampard actually play for?
...
Yes, I'll hold.

This is an experiment in its early stages. We are still unable to gauge the full impact that the English league even exerts on MLS in the first place. So, in order to make sense of these emerging questions, we asked members of NYCFC's Third Rail Supporters' Club to hop on the soap box. Their responses ranged from righteous finger-pointing to sober indifference, and from willful sky blue glee to rueful anti-Mancunian defiance. Within this ongoing situation of "supporter's dissonance," let's explore four identifiable groups currently at odds.

GROUP A: The unconditional Villa/Lampard superfans

Among those with no particular love for the Man City brand are the all-day-all-night David Villa and Frank Lampard worshipers, of which there are understandably many. A day will come when this crowd is just a footnote in the annals of New York sporting history, but they are out-and-proud in the early stages of NYCFC. That makes sense given their name recognition and the lack of games to discuss; until spring 2015, hype, marketing, and public relations are king. As Third Rail member Tom Fong told us, however, fandom ought to begin and end with the team emblem:

For a real supporter, the badge comes first. For these groupies and fan boys, the name on the back is more important than the badge. When they pull out an NYCFC shirt from the closet, they see a David Villa or a Lampard shirt, not an NYCFC shirt... These are temporary fans of a team as long as their favorite players are on that team. Once [their] contract is up, they jump ships and change shirts.

The point is well-taken: some number of tentative NYCFC adherents with greater allegiances to Villa and Lampard (and their longtime former clubs) will inevitably scale back their New York City support, or drop it entirely, when the star men finally depart. What we cannot determine is how large of a group this really is, and whether their attrition will have any noticeable impact on club culture. Hey, maybe Stephen Gerrard and Chicharito Hernandez will sign on and take their places! Then it won't matter! (Then again, there are already enough bad accents around New York. Adding a scouser like Stevie G might be overwhelming to anyone with ears.)

New York City's front office shouldn't have to defend signing Villa or Lampard -- both are highly capable of generating goals, wins, and revenue -- but it's equally clear that neither of them will be around even three years from now. So is it better to fully embrace their roles as the venerated faces of the team while it's still possible, or to stay mindful of the likelihood that both will be put out to pasture before playing a single game in NYCFC's proposed new stadium? Especially given Frank Lampard's uncertain status as a New York City player in light of his run of form on "loan" in Manchester, we may soon know for certain which self-identified NYCFC supporters really value the "NY" above all else.

GROUPS B & C: The Man City Disciples vs. the Sky Blue Haters

Fans of Manchester's Noisy Neighbors ought to feel one hundred percent welcome under the New York City banner simply by logic: this team doesn't exist without the breakout success of MCFC over the last five to six years. Whether Man City's instant emergence from middling status in English football via Sheikh Mansour's billions is good or bad for England is a separate question worthy of analysis, but it is hard to argue against its essential positivity for the New York sporting sphere: numerous Third Railers who support Man City's competitors in the Premier League, including Michael Schwartz (Manchester United) and Will Griffith (Tottenham Hotspur), told us that they were grateful to the Etihad Empire for delivering them an MLS team that doesn't play in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, particular elements within the common fanbases united under Sheikh Mansour have been overly gung-ho in their rush to force the incorporation of inherently Man City-ish fan culture into the New York club. Multiple NYCFC supporters expressed to Hudson River Blue their agitation over this insistence. In order to stick, songs and assorted tifos cannot be premeditated. It's just like giving yourself a nickname: unless you're Kobe Bryant, it's not going to take hold. That legitimacy has to come from the public, and the proper consensus takes time, despite the pontifications of some sky blue supporters.

The on-field product, emerging personalities, and the dependable passage of time ought to determine what gets encoded into a club's mythology and tradition, and many fans find themselves at odds with the pro-Man City faction allegedly forcing the issue on their own behalf. The familiar look of the home kit does nothing to cool this conflict in the short term. Declared the Third Rail's Scotty Hockey (FYI: his name on Facebook), an Arsenal supporter: "[I] Will not, under any circumstances, wear a shirt with ETIHAD across the front... [but I] can support the club without supporting the sponsor." Scotty shares this sentiment with a growing crowd New York city supporters, most of whom fall into the fourth group we will introduce in a moment (Scotty's "under any circumstances" remark places him distinctly in our Group C, where anti-Man City passion affects the condition of one's fandom in a noticeable way).

The pro- and anti-MCFC types aren't direct opposites of one another. The main divergence is that Man City fans value the idea, as reiterated by New York City Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, that Manchester's success helps New York's success, and vice-versa. This is an important wild card for NYCFC fans, as those with no regard for Man City cannot totally agree with Reyna's view because MCFC's success either (1) doesn't matter to them at all, or (2) likely requires the defeat of a team that they themselves support in the Premier League or the UEFA Champions League.

Here's a compromise for the more skittish members of the Mancunian faction-- for instance, instead of jockeying to implement "Blue Moon" into the NYCFC songbook (and the civil bloodbath that would ensue as a result), let's stick with Sinatra and all sing "New York, New York." Forget that Ol' Blue Eyes was from Hoboken. That's still a hell of a lot closer to Yankee Stadium than Harrison.

GROUP D: The New Yorkers

Here's supporter Kirby Pate's early outlook:

I hate Manchester City and I hate the Yankees. But this is a city I love and now there is a team playing my favorite sport in the city I call home. This is New York's team.

Our fourth group is a combination of soccer fans with no preferred club team preceding New York City, those content to peacefully separate their support for NYCFC from any prior allegiances overseas, and a generally hopeful crowd determined to wait and see what actually happens. The common thread here is that New York comes first, and that NYCFC fandom isn't informed by support for any other team or particular player.

This is not to say that such a group doesn't have concerns. Most frequently, fans related to us their anxiety that New York City is destined to be a Manchester farm team. "I would rather us have our own identity," said Third Rail member Kevin McDermott. Fellow fan Edward Rooney concurs: Frank Lampard's uncertain status aside, "How long will it be before a young star emerges and then Man City wants to take them away?"

Is it best to rage against NYCFC's connections to the Etihad Empire, or just ignore it? The latter is not only an option, but the preferred choice for a growing pocket of fans. Supporter Brad Barkhauer, anticipating some discomfort, advised that New York's Citizens "need to be able to separate their [Premier League] allegiances from their support for NYCFC. If that is something that people cannot do, then maybe this isn't the club for them." That will be no small task, however, in the team's early stages.

Third Rail member and proud Chelsea fan Kirk Cahill took a similar perspective when he told us he would try "dealing with NYCFC's affiliation with Manchester City by essentially not dealing with it at all," but noted that, if New York does begin to look like a minor league affiliate for Man City, it will be difficult to turn around and root against the players that would inevitably switch from New York to Manchester and square off against his preferred Chelsea. Luckily for the sanity of everyone involved, we haven't reached that next stage of development yet, but Cahill and others are already rightly anticipating the dissonance it will cause in the coming years.

If all the moving parts have you tied up in knots... welcome to the club. Amid the dense fog of preseason, all manner of tangled allegiances are yet to be reconciled. This is simply the condition of soccer in New York these days. Our game is a global one, and the Etihad Empire -- for better or worse -- has made it a hell of a lot global-er.