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What's in a Club Culture: NYCFC vs. Willa Cather

What Seattle and Willa Cather can teach us about fan culture—and why NYCFC will paint New York blue.

"I am not deprecating your individual talent...[but] a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup."

"We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil, and has its own roots.... We do not require aid from the Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous."

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Like American soccer fans, Father Jean Marie Latour has a weird relationship to culture. This French priest is dispatched to New Mexico to establish a branch of the Roman Catholic church, but when he gets there he spends just as much time balancing Mexican and Native American customs with the laws of a disputed American frontier, all in front of a backdrop of crumbling Spanish architecture. Cather complicates (but still glorifies) an American folk hero, Kit Carson, while she simplifies (not to mention slanders) a Mexican priest, Padre Antonio José Martinez. And yet despite the flattening, stereotyping logic it uses to do this, the novel still sets itself up as vaguely anti-imperial. Among the novel's insights is its understanding that the nation-state is never the end of the cultural story, that inheritance is always an uneasy balance of indigenous and imposed characteristics.

A century and a half on from Father Latour, soccer culture has arrived in America, and a club like NYCFC with strong ties to Europe will have to figure out what that culture is going to be and what to take from where. "What to take" can be understood somewhat literally in terms of its players. Player sharing with Manchester City is of obvious interest here, both in terms of the Lampard saga and the possibility of Yankee Stadium becoming a training ground for the Etihad. Facey might become a major asset for us in time, for example, but if he does, how automatically will he end up back in Manchester? Clearly, recalling a player from loan is the prerogative of any team with players on loan—I'm sure we'll be snagging a few back from Wilmington if we hit another injury spell. If that were to become too strong a pattern, though, the entire character of NYCFC's relationship to MCFC would change to something more like that of a youth academy or farm team to its first team. We'd risk subordinating our identity to our older, bigger cousin.

But Manchester City is far from the only European club complicating our sense of who we are. Whether it's rumors of former Chelsea players Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba being lured by Lampard or (now debunked) rumors of Xavi Hernandez reuniting with Villa, the prospect of a club that also contains the identities of its players' former clubs feels weirdly like having children who are genetically linked to all of your and your partner's exes. Especially when one of those exes is called "Chelsea," the notion becomes a bit noxious.

If this is a concern, it isn't a concern about what happens on the pitch. There are worse things than attracting players from Europe's top-flight, especially when they bring a history of domestic and international trophies. There are much worse things than having two such players who already know how to work together and can bring that coherence to the rest of the squad. If there's one fact that drives home what's unique within MLS about the strength of NYCFC's international persona, it's that this "problem" threatens to exist.

On the other hand, no MLS team makes a better argument for a culture that "grew out of the soil" than our recent executioners. Seattle is the only team so far that looked like they deserved to beat us (though even that was not clear for the full ninety). They were extremely coordinated, clearly playing a counter-attacking game from the start and, when they were countering, doing so decisively. When a squad features a majority of obvious starters and lines up in what has become its standard formation, it puts on display our own unrooted fluidity, with yet another surprising lineup and yet another formation change. (While it's clear that it's dictated by circumstance, I find this lack of consistency among the most worrying signs for our short-term development.)

Seattle is also, not unrelatedly, the team with one of the most convincing grass-roots supporter cultures in the league, a fact that was made clear enough by their audible away section. With a 2014 average attendance almost double that of their nearest rival and similar ratios in the years before, it's reasonable to suppose that the rootedness of the club and its success are mutually reinforcing. And while there's nothing particularly "indigenous" about a team in the Pacific Northwest whose stars hail from Nigeria and Texas, it's telling that (according to MLS homegrown rules) they get first dibs on Jordan Morris: a strong academy is only going to keep the Sounders vibrant for a long time. As Dave Clark recently suggested on Hudson River Blue, there's a lot worth emulating about the Sounders as an outfit, both on and off the pitch. We can start with the clarity of their identity (while taking nothing from the identity itself) and the extent to which it exists independent of anyone else's.

NYCFC can't, and shouldn't, sell its international character short. It's a big part of what's going to make the club strong in the long term. The sooner it finds a way to balance its global and local identities, though, the sooner it will come into its own.

***

Take another look at the two quotations I started with. They've been selected carefully to isolate an apparent contradiction that runs through Death Comes for the Archbishop, a tension that I think describes well the cultural situation of NYCFC supporters in this first season. We don't have "a thousand years of history" in our soup or in anything else. But the way that soup (can I keep this metaphor up without laughing?) becomes so remarkable is that it's "constantly refined" by stepwise alterations, individual contributions from as many cooks as possible. European seeds are an excellent place to start, but without the development of indigenous forms NYC will remain little more than a "dead arm of the European Church." This warning implies a need for patience, but it also implies, like the soup analogy, a need for the participation of whoever is at hand, the making-local of something that would otherwise remain foreign.

The supporters groups are fast-tracking a lot of this development, but they make up a vast minority of supporters—even though they end up defining much of the fan identity in the media. Other voices have to, and will over time, be heard, because although this cultural development is remarkable and admirable, there's only so quickly it can happen and really be called "culture." In other words, it's not just a question of a culture imposed from without or arising from within: it's also possible (and dangerous) to have a culture imposed from within. What's behind the recent mockery of the allegedly club-supplied song sheet is, I suspect, the justified distrust of manufacturing something that is supposed to be always half-spontaneous. I find nothing more tedious than the supposed "songs" themselves except the endless conversation surrounding it, so I won't belabor the point, but a real culture is going to happen organically or not at all.

***

Muddying the waters of all this is the much newer idea (in comparison to Catholicism, anyway) of cultural authenticity, which you have to consider the corporation as well as the nation-state if you're going to understand. This week's gleefully engaged pre-derby banter is a peculiar specimen, because it enacts one of the most intuitively authentic aspects of our fan culture so far while also taking on authenticity itself as a topic. NYCFC and the Harrison Red Bulls have made quite a meal of the rivalry, with Harrison likely to fill much more of their stadium than usual and NYC already opening the 300-level seats almost two months in advance of the match. However profitable it is, though, the anticipation is real, and so is the personal investment in the match itself for the fans and, I assume, for the team. Whether it's thought of as a derby or a subway series, this kind of rivalry is immediately comprehensible, something everyone involved has a stake in. But it's taken on the extra weight of how "authenticity" is even defined, with both teams making some claim of their own right to to represent the city they (only nominally) share. Newness and European affiliations have been enough for many to condemn us as inauthentic, while our rivals suffer from not quite living in the place they claim to represent. Which will end up as the "real" New York team, and what the hell does that even mean?

To begin answering it, you have to weigh more than the organic and imposed culture I'm talking about above. Just as important in this case are the relative effects of international and corporate affiliations. To put a finer point on it: Which is the less authentic, the club with ties to a European club, or the club that gets itself confused with a brand? NYCFC has taken a lot of crap for being Man City B, but an organization just as global as City Football Group and tons gaucher grazes across the river. In considering what goes into an identity, consider the difference between ownership and branding. The Harrison Red Bulls might have among the most authentic club cultures around if their badge hadn't been shellacked over with a logo. As it is, it's like the surface of Latour's thousand-year soup is a liquid layer of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. If we can learn from Seattle now to foster a vibrant culture by embracing local roots, we can learn from the Red Bulls the danger of accepting corporatization.

Of course, I'm enacting some of that rivalry myself at this point. But who can blame me? The one thing I know is that I've made my choice like all the supporters on both sides of the rivalry. And even though I recognize that the point is the rivalry itself rather than which side of it you're on, my partisanship remains absolute. In sports, unlike in life, it doesn't have to get more complicated than that.