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EXCLUSIVE: Comprehending City Football Group with the Guardian's Graham Parker

We caught up with the transatlantic ace to discuss the state of the NYCFC union and the goings-on at the Parent Company.

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CFG chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak (left) and CEO Ferran Soriano
CFG chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak (left) and CEO Ferran Soriano
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Transatlanticism isn't just an album you listened to in high school in a doomed attempt to beat against the current of millennial angst-- it's also a concept that New York City FC's overseas overlords are determined to master.

The City Football Group empire still lacks the kind of organizational coherence of, say, Red Bull (*GULP*), as the particular multi-territory structure is very much in the experimental phase. To help us wade through the muck to get a better sense of how CFG operates, we called in an expert well-versed in the ways soccer works -- or doesn't -- on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Graham Parker, a sports columnist from the other side of the pond whose bylines are peppered all over the Guardian and ESPN FC, spoke with us in the wake of Jason Kreis's firing earlier this month about the parent company's ongoing efforts to cultivate a winning culture in the Five Boroughs.

Let's get right to our exclusive interview, edited only for length:

Hudson River Blue: What does the Jason Kreis firing say in context about the NYCFC organization up to this point?

Graham Parker: It struck me, the fact that they mentioned an end-of-the-year review. It's kind of interesting, because you can start to make an argument that [Manchester City's Manuel] Pellegrini – and [Ferran] Soriano himself, for that matter -- when they had their interview last year, you could have made a case that they were on thin ice. You just feel like Kreis is a very easy and convenient fall guy for a bunch of decisions that were handled wrongly, that I don't think he had a lot to do with.

HRB: It does seem to be more of a systemic thing. On Soriano-- a lot of his messaging has been about bringing "the City Way" to New York. Is that a real, coherent thing? In light of what we've seen from NYCFC, what are we talking about when we talk about The City Way?

GP: It's possible to have an idea of what a City Way might be. I've read Soriano's book. It's very interesting; when he was asked about Chivas USA, you know, "[NYCFC] is nothing like it. It's a different project." But in his book, he cited Chivas as an example of what it might mean to have a multi-territory club!

In practice, if you think about most football clubs in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, they came out of industrial wealth, industrial cities.

HRB: Sure, workers that migrated there for jobs, they built the culture.

GP: Concentrations of people, the industrialization of leisure, all of those things coalesced around that.

In the age of globalization – this isn't necessarily something I agree with, but I can see the logic – if you were going to start a football club, you'd start to come up with models like [City Football Group]. I compared it one time to the way EA Sports works. They've got their campuses: the NBA series is made down south, the FIFA series is done up in Vancouver, and they've all got their particular identities, but they have centralized financial resources. You can see the idea and how it could have value, including as a way of spreading risk, if you like. 

HRB: Is it risky for European owners to invest in Major League Soccer?

GP: Well, even twenty years ago, the Premier League didn't look at all like how it looks today. I was just speaking about this the other day with [Men in Blazers'] Roger Bennett-- we were remembering being in England at that time, and the Italian press, when [Fabrizio] Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, they were weeping for him: "What are you doing? What has happened?" Today, that wouldn't be a remarkable signing.

This is all to say that you can see the logic of a multi-territory model. David Conn has written a lot about Manchester City and City Football Group, and kind of hates what they've done in a lot of ways, but can't help but admire how efficiently they've done it.

When you go to the City Academy, it's perfect. It's all about football. Every window overlooks the fields. Every field looks onto the next level of progression: the under-18 field looks over the Elite Development Squad field, which in turn is looking at the [Etihad] Stadium across the street.

On the ground, the way that loyalties work, the symbolic way that clubs become valuable, come to mean something to people-- it doesn't work like other markets. You have to accept that. And when they appointed Jason Kreis, I thought they had really figured it out, apart from the Yankee Stadium part...

HRB: Oh, we know!!!

GP: But I really thought they'd done it perfectly in appointing Jason Kreis.

HRB: They claimed at the time that he was the exact kind of guy they wanted. I don't think they understood the extent of what they were really saying.

GP: The whole thing came together incredibly quickly. I think they thought they could jump into the stadium [proposal] in Queens and work from there, but everything's been on the move since then. There's been a sense of the "provisional" about the decisions they've made; they don't feel like long-term decisions.

HRB: They feel like marketing decisions.

GP: And they sacked Kreis the day after deadline day for [season ticket] renewals.

It's all very well to look across the river at what the Red Bulls did. It's a completely different context. There's this idea that the Red Bulls ripped it up and started again, but they didn't.

HRB: They've got a much more coherent system in place than "the City Way." And it looks like CFG is making the same mistakes in MLS that the Red Bulls/MetroStars made earlier in their history, in terms of trying to make headlines by splashing the cash.

GP: Ali Curtis was brought in as someone who was on board with [Red Bull's] centralized plan from Austria. The playing style, the pressing. There's a specific benefit to having an Ali Curtis in place, which is that he knows the rules. He knows the roster guidelines better than anyone in the league, because he drew up a lot of those rules.

HRB: "GarberBux!"

GP: He knows how to play it. Honestly, at the draft – and at that point, he was hated, the Red Bulls fans were booing – they played possum, did some smart horse-trading. As the deals started to come together, they were kind of modest, but they were MLS deals. I've seen previous Red Bulls sporting directors, you watch their learning curve take place, and just say, "ooohhhhh...." 

HRB: There's one type of sporting director that buys Rafa Marquez, and another type that uses the same money to buy nearly an entire midfield.

GP: Hans Backe, when he came on as Red Bulls coach, went to his Board. They said, "We're spending ten million dollars and we're buying Thierry Henry." And Backe said, "No, if you buy me ten one million dollar players, I'll win you the Cup." And they said, "We can't do that."

"No, no, it's the same money!"

They said, "No, we can't do that under the rules."

Ruud Gullit went to L.A. Galaxy and did the same thing. The Gullit example is the one I really worry about for New York City. I have a feeling that player power, and the certain type of insular arrogance that comes from the Premier League... I think they sometimes credit themselves as having more knowledge and wisdom to do the right thing than they should.

This has all the makings of senior players breathing down managers' backs and saying,  "No, he's not up to it." Even the best-organized coach, one that might make them better at set pieces or defense, they aren't going to be able to adjust to MLS in sooner than eighteen months.

HRB: There are enough folks out there who downplay the difficulty of the roster constraints, the salary cap, the limits on international players. Also, of course, there are new rules added on practically every year! There's such a small handful of people with any demonstrated ability to navigate all of it. It's infuriating, because Kreis is one of those people.

GP: Let's remember as well, it wasn't like Real Salt Lake [under Kreis] was suddenly a fifty-points-a-year team.

HRB: They won the MLS Cup with more losses than wins in the regular season.

GP: It took Jason Kreis time. And the Cup win was an aberration compared to the regular season. But it took him a while to get settled and get them doing what he wanted them to do. And the fruits of that system don't really become apparent until you start replacing players, until you start dealing with the inevitable cycling of your roster that MLS forces on you.

I think many very good coaches from other leagues would throw their hands up. Jason Kreis was very prudent about cutting his cloth. Just because it's New York City and just because there are expectations doesn't change the fundamentals of the pressures on MLS teams in any territory.

HRB: The announcement the club made about Kreis's removal-- did its tone or any of the content jump out at you?

GP: That's a fairly leading question.

HRB: Yep!

GP: [The press release] was just unnecessary, holding Kreis to account for decisions that were made without acknowledging the circumstances changing. Also, I think it's telling and really weird that they included quotes from Tom Glick, but not from Claudio Reyna.

HRB: That was very conspicuous.

GP: It's certainly not a vote of confidence for Reyna. It doesn't suggest that he was on board with how it went down. Either way, it widens the fault lines.

HRB: And then, of course, they turn around and thank Kreis and wish him the best of luck.

GP: It's funny, I sat down with Kreis in Manchester before the season. It was an hour-long conversation. We were talking about learning the most about your organization when times are tough.

When things got tough this year, I think all of the idealism went out the window. I was fascinated by the idea of a young, confident American coach, who really believes in himself and also in his peer group, in that milieu. I think he went to Manchester and took confidence from realizing that, in terms of his own abilities, the gap isn't that huge.

I feel like the converse realization has not been made. When push came to shove, City Football Group were happy to throw away the American.

That's just a gut feeling, but having lived and worked around English soccer before I moved to the U.S., the fact that football is everything over there tends to make people not actively jingoistic, but just convinced that England is the center of everything. It would take an incredible individual to transcend that or escape that. I think subconsciously there's a tendency to say, "Yeah, we knew it, we should have done it this way." And it just won't work. If they bring in a European coach, at some point he'll be saying, "What do you people expect?"

HRB: And you can't bench your designated players, even if you've got guys on the bench like Tommy McNamara and Kwadwo Poku who might do more to help the team in context. You can't sit Lampard or Pirlo when fit, even though they don't defend. There'd be an open revolt. That drives us nuts here.

GP: When [former Red Bulls manager] Mike Petke found the nerve to bench Tim Cahill last year, he eventually brought him back on and [Cahill] immediately got a red card. Straight back off! I went into the locker room after the loss to New England in last year's playoffs-- looking around at the other players, who are the leaders of the team now, they were just sad. It mattered to them.

I'm not down on the City Way or the City philosophy. Football clubs are not natural, nor are the circumstances that surround them. So, the City model is as natural as any. It's just how you people it and how you respect and understand a local context. And if you can't do that, then your foundations will never be firm because you haven't examined the terrain.

*          *          *

How do you evaluate CFG's progress in New York City? What does "The City Way" mean to you? The comments are yours! You can also drop a line to Graham on Twitter @KidWeil or hit us up @hudsonriverblue.

You'll note that this interview makes no reference to Patrick Vieira as NYCFC manager. Our chat took place before the appointment was official, FYI.

Finally, please excuse the Death Cab. Honestly, I don't even like them. Don't act like I like them.

I do not.