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EXCLUSIVE: Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl on City Football Group and NYCFC's story so far

We spoke with America's Soccer Writer about New York's newest team, its parent company, and the transition from Jason Kreis to Patrick Vieira.

NYCFC's new manager has a huge job ahead of him.
NYCFC's new manager has a huge job ahead of him.
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Here at Hudson River Blue, our offseason coverage has predominately focused on the organizational structure of City Football Group (CFG). Our goal is to comprehend how CFG's decisions mitigate New York City's ability to do what it was ostensibly created to do: win Major League Soccer games.

We've hit this admittedly tough topic from a couple of angles. We caught up with league commissioner Don Garber and City Football Group CEO Ferran Soriano at November's BlazerCon extravaganza in Brooklyn. We attempted to grasp the workings of NYCFC's parent company with Graham Parker of the Guardian and ESPNFC. And, of course, our Fearless Leader nearly broke Twitter with his declaration that New York City FC is getting treated like a farm team. Farming! Yuck.

Today, we're diving back into the morass of ideology that is CFG with the help of Grant Wahl, resident soccer scribe at Sports Illustrated. Let's get right to our exclusive interview, conducted in November, edited only for length.

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Hudson River Blue: After Jason Kreis was fired, Brian Straus wrote in Sports Illustrated that New York City behaves "like a European club." Do you look at it that way?

Grant Wahl: There's a lot to that idea, especially given how many of the biggest decisions so far have been made in Manchester.

I agree with Brian in the sense that it isn't a reason to be critical as much to simply accept that's the way it is for now. They paid $100 million to get into this league, so it's up to them. That's certainly the direction the club appears to be going in right now.

HRB: One criticism of CFG is the idea that they haven't yet shown the ability to work efficiently within the particular roster and salary constraints of MLS. The botched pursuit of Martin Demichelis comes to mind, but it's a small sample size overall. Do we just need to wait and see how they carry it?

GW: We don't have a huge sample size yet. I don't think Jason Kreis would say he got enough of a sample size to show whether he should be kept or not.

You look at the success that the club has had in attracting attention this year in New York; I think that's a success. The question becomes whether you can maintain and build on that, and how much do you need to win in order to make sure that's the case?

HRB: Looking at the Red Bulls, it takes more than just winning to get people to show up. We can't underestimate the marketing and sales component in a media market like this, but you've got to find the right balance.

GW: The Red Bulls completely changed their philosophy on what kind of team that they wanted to put out there over the last year. They [were] one of the best teams in the league, the best in the regular season, and their attendance has actually been pretty good. But there's not a lot of buzz about the Red Bulls, for instance, in Manhattan. Not as much buzz as there has been for NYCFC. I find that interesting.

I've run into people on the business side of Sports Illustrated who aren't soccer people, and they're taking their kids to Yankee Stadium for the NYCFC game. They've never been to a Red Bulls game; I've met a lot of people like that this year.

We're still in the formative stages of New York City FC, so clearly the big decisions that have been made are more of a European bent in their flavor and origin during this calendar year. It didn't feel so much like that before when they hired Jason Kreis and Claudio Reyna.

HRB: They've chosen now to go in a completely different direction in hiring Patrick Vieira. What do you see the new manager bringing to this team? What would you tell the fans to be excited about with respect to his tenure?

GW: You look at Patrick Vieira's stature, particularly in relation to David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard. You'd think that when Vieira walks into a room, there's a different type of respect than when Jason Kreis does. It's just the truth, and I don't think that's being unfair to Jason Kreis, whom I have a lot of respect for.

HRB: Vieira's like a foot taller, for starters.

GW: We don't know exactly how Patrick Vieira's wants to play, do we? He hasn't come out with some big mission statement yet. He played for some beautiful-to-watch Arsenal teams, but the teams he played with at Inter played very differently. He was a defensive midfielder; he was capable of scoring goals, but he's "a thinking man's hard man."

HRB: Yes. He's not Roy Keane, is he?

GW: He's a very insightful guy. I interviewed him once for a Sports Illustrated story in 2010 about what it's like to play in the World Cup final, just a really enjoyable conversation. He's smart about the game, has a ton of respect. But I don't know exactly how he wants to play.

He's clearly paid his dues over several years in the City organization away from the bright lights. Most ex-jocks don't have to pay their dues as coaches. It's a different type of situation for him.

HRB: A lot of decisions about playing style are going to depend on some roster moves still to be made, but we've also heard messaging from both sides of the Atlantic about this thing called "The City Way." What does "The City Way" mean to you as an aesthetic, or as a way of doing business?

GW: I have some built-in skepticism because it's not the first time I've heard that construction before. I remember covering college basketball and doing a piece for the season preview about "The Duke Way." That's literally what we called it.

HRB: Because "The Krzyzewski Way" is too long for a magazine headline?

GW: Right. I had a few wisecracks about floor-slapping and things like that, but the people at Duke certainly played into the idea of a certain culture that Duke has, so I get it. I think there's some truth to it.

I also think there's a little bit of corporate B.S. involved with some of that stuff, and yet, Barcelona can make that same kind of argument. There's a culture that has developed at that club, in part because of their amazing academy and how many players have come there at age thirteen to absorb everything there is to absorb about FC Barcelona.

Clearly, Man City, with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, has that Barcelona background. They probably want that to carry over with City. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, right?

HRB: If you're going to emulate somebody, that's a pretty excellent choice.

GW: At the same time, how many academy guys are we going to see playing for the first team at Man City?

HRB: Kelechi Iheanacho is working his way in, but he's a rare case. The hope is that NYCFC plays a prominent role in defining and distinguish CFG's over-arching culture, but there's minimal evidence of that right now.

GW: It's interesting to me that Ferran Soriano hasn't really done any media in the U.S. since the start of the season.

HRB: I'd love to talk to the guy. He was one of the featured speakers at BlazerCon in Brooklyn, but I requested an interview only to hear that he wouldn't be available to the media. That's strange for a keynote speaker.

GW: I was hoping to talk to him as well.

HRB: So, I'm not crazy!

GW: It makes perfect sense. And he did a fair amount of media in 2014, so you got the impression that he was going to be an active part of NYCFC, that his voice would be heard on a fairly regular basis. What's happening is that we're not hearing his voice necessarily at all, but we are seeing his influence.

I was surprised, in the announcements firing Kreis and hiring Vieira, we didn't see anything from Soriano. This is an interesting club right now. It's kind of an open secret that Tom Glick is going back to Manchester; everyone knows it. He replaced a guy, Tim Pernetti, that left pretty quickly.

HRB: He departed at the end of January, more than a month before the season started.

GW: And yet, the business side and the off-the-field side seem to have gone well this year. The stadium is still a big, big problem, and there are a lot of real questions: about all of the changes at City, about Frank Lampard not coming until mid-season, why not give Jason Kreis more time, all of that stuff. These are basic questions.

HRB: I don't think anyone at the club is in a rush to answer those right now.

GW: I do think there's more pressure on Claudio Reyna, in the sense of knowing the U.S. system and the college system. So we'll see. Do they have a "cap-ologist"? Is that Reyna's job?

HRB: I would hope not, because guy hadn't ever built a senior roster before last year. But Ferran Soriano has made it clear that Reyna's in charge of that.

GW: And Jason Kreis had Garth Lagerwey at Salt Lake. I don't know if he had a Garth Lagerwey here. I get the sense that what Claudio Reyna is doing is very different.

HRB: In the introductory video the club posted for Vieira's arrival, he says he's fortunate to have someone like Reyna showing him how MLS works. But damn, Reyna spent $1 million on Adam Nemec, Javier Calle, Andres Mendoza, and Jefferson Mena.

GW: And what sorts of goals should they have in place for next year? It's funny, the first thing people say is that you've got to make the playoffs. So many MLS teams make the playoffs. To me, if you're finishing fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference, it's not that great of an accomplishment.

HRB: You might have more losses than wins.

GW: So, that's the measuring stick. I do think that if Kreis had made the playoffs this year, he'd still be the coach.

HRB: Last one-- how do you put together a competent MLS midfield if you've got Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo out there at the same time? Neither of those guys defend. How do you make that work?

GW: You find a Patrick Vieira.

HRB: That sounds easy! You go and find Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso's secret biological clones, maybe.

GW: It's a tough question. It's a real challenge to find someone like that. But Osvaldo Alonso's getting shopped around [by Seattle]; he might be a guy that NYCFC should look at.

HRB: They haven't got a guy like him. You have to shield Pirlo, but you also have to help Lampard make runs without worrying about tracking way back to gather the ball. How do you make that work within the roster rules? They had no solution for this in the first year.

GW: With the incoming Targeted Allocation Money, it could allow them to get someone like Ozzie Alonso.

HRB: But overall, who is the guy at NYCFC that knows the player pool enough to do what Lagerwey does, or what Ali Curtis has done with the Red Bulls?

GW: That's Reyna's job description more than anyone else's.

HRB: *Gulp*

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(One major positive to come out of this interview: we had the privilege of explaining the utility of iPhone Face Time Audio to Grant, who had apparently not used it before. So, a victory there.)

We want to know what you think about what our special guest had to say about the Bronx Blues and their often-peculiar trans-national ownership group. Leave a comment or blow us up on Twitter @hudsonriverblue. You can also tweet Grant @GrantWahl.