During one of the quietest times on the soccer calendar – an international break, with only four MLS teams still alive in the league, and the American eleven playing on a different continent – the third floor of Nevada Smith’s was filled with optimism for a team that still couldn’t field a starting 11.
About 50 people gathered at the famous New York soccer bar for a meeting of The Third Rail, the nascent supporters group for New York City FC. The crowd ranged from the original founding members to people who wandered in curious and, swayed by the enthusiasm, joined the group a few minutes prior.
I blended in toward the back, watching the group’s president, Chance Michaels, preside with efficiency and a surprising passion. I was here, not just to pick up a scarf, but to understand why people felt such attachment to a team with only seven players, a temporary home, and a take-it or leave-it home jersey.
Without strong ties to a team - a native Bostonian, I wish the Revolution do well, but have never seen a game live - I joined The Third Rail in hopes that it would ground me to a team. New York City FC is an opportunity to back a club, with no fear of the barrier to entry. The team has no history to learn, no bandwagon to board, no style of play to understand. I hoped joining the nascent supporter's group would anchor me to the team and give me a sense of investment (I also wanted the collector's item scarf).
Once I had enrolled, I was transfixed by all the different methods of support for the team. Already, a full-fledged message board hummed, with posts about crowd chants, meetups, potential team podcasts and blogs. A sub-reddit was flowing with rumors of player signings. All the while, a true supporters’ group was organizing itself – all for a team that had yet to kick a ball.
It was mind-boggling. All the activity I saw, both online and offline, pointed to an incredible sense of community and emotional commitment to the club. I already felt behind and I needed to catch up. As I waded through post after post, I took a step back, marveling at the fervor, thinking: why do people care so much?
Each post I read, Twitter exchange I followed and fellow supporter I talked to belied the desire for a team to truly be New York City's team. Even a fellow Bostonian – whose 14 year New York City residence hasn't softened his disdain for the Yankees – told me he never followed an MLS team because the city had no team.
The residency within the city limits – regardless of where the team finally plants its pitch – is a common refrain. "The main reason I support this team," said Jonathan Sanchez, a fellow Third Rail member, "is because it’s a team that’s actually from New York City." Sanchez, whom everyone at the Third Rail meeting seems to know, told me he joined the group since "before Day One." When the club was announced, its name was the clincher for his support. "It was an easy decision; I didn’t have to think twice. New York City was in the name, and I was sold."
For Harlem native Neverson Heatley, the team’s connection with the city also reeled him in. A current New Jersey resident, Heatley grew up just across the river from the original Yankee Stadium. He began following soccer while living with roommates who were fans of Premier League teams, but never claimed a team for himself.
Heatley became swept up in the World Cup and took a greater interest in the American game. With his interest piqued, a massive nostalgic pull towards his childhood neighborhood combined with the creation of the club and simple pride in the city of his birth compelled him to pledge his allegiance to New York City FC.
As I talked to more people and read more declarations of support because it’s New York’s team, I started to doubt whether I could love the team unconditionally. After all, the main line drawing fans together at this point is an undying love of the city -- and The City -- and a desire to have a hometown team. In my case, that’s feeling isn’t something I share as intensely as the current NYCFC fans.
I grew up in Boston, but I’ve spent my adult life in New York City and living here has helped shape me into who I am. I’m proud I’ve made it thus far through the meat grinder of New York City; it’s rough out there. I don’t know if I’ll ever love New York unconditionally – the way that Jonathan, Neverson, or so many other New Yorkers I know love the city. Or, to be honest, the way I love Boston, with its history and my history joined together.
I came to soccer as I was graduating into adulthood. I'm trying to support New York City because I live here. Those aren’t the traditional byways of fandom – growing up somewhere, having your mom or dad drilling it into you – but they pair up well.
That dissonance – between the city of my childhood and the city of my adult years – gives me pause and raises a whole lot of questions How would I feel when I walk into Yankee Stadium – known to me as "that house of jackals in the Bronx" – as a New York City FC fan? Would I stay with the team if they take on the Yankees’ personality? What if they make personnel decisions I don’t like? Would I love the team even through the inevitable strains that come with backing any exceedingly rich team in sports?
For native New Yorkers, that tension doesn’t exist. "I’m not going anywhere," said Sanchez. "I’ve made the decision to support this team, and there’s no going back. Win, lose, or draw, I’m here to stay."
For me, it’ll take some time. As long as I live here, I’ll give it a go, but, I’m missing the unilateral pull to the team just because it’s the city’s team. That’s why I’m immersing myself in the team, taking in the club culture. I’m talking with my fellow fans – and bit by bit, learning more and more about whether I can support a team with "New York" inscribed on its shirts.