On a Monday afternoon in Manhattan, Hudson River Blue had but one goal:
Keeping up with the Bavarians.
We found ourselves at the rooftop bar of Chelsea's stately Refinery Hotel one week ago. From the deck, the nearby Empire State Building stood ready and willing to cast the longest of shadows.
But neither the grand old tower nor the delightful open bar -- PACIFICO ON TAP! ON A MONDAY! -- or so many plates of tuna tartare or Kobe sliders could distract from the main event. No way. Because the big guns from EA Sports were on hand in full force to show off their newest creation, the oh-my-god-it's-almost-here FIFA 17.
EA brought about a dozen Xbox One consoles along so a solid throng of fans could take the prototype for a test drive. I'll forgive the strange number of joystick jockeys I witnessed playing Manchester United vs. Liverpool matches (ugghh) because this game ain't just another edition of the proud old sports sim: FIFA 17 is powered by EA's Frostbite engine, the same bang-bang build used in killer apps like Battlefield 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the upcoming Mass Effect Andromeda.
With enough action game physics to make Industrial Light & Magic jealous, I'd bet even money that this is the year the FIFA series makes its biggest boom yet.
Friend-of-HRB Roger Bennett, the literary Liverpudlian of NBC Sports' Men in Blazers, was the master of ceremonies for the day, and regaled in the scenes alongside the guests of honor: David Alaba and Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich, visiting the city on the team's summer tour, plus JR Smith of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers and a DJ named Zedd who I have been assured is very, very famous.
Smith and Martinez were pitted against Zedd and Alaba in two hard-fought FIFA matches. Both teams played as Bayern, but there was no parity here. No way.
Because Zedd rips golazos like some kind of digital Tommy McNamara.
This isn't to say, however, that Martinez and Alaba don't take their FIFA incredibly seriously.
"Not only with the [Austria] national team but with Bayern, the PlayStation is always with us, or the Xbox," Alaba told me with a grin. "The FIFA game is always on board, so when we're traveling, we have a lot of time to play."
Naturally, I wanted to know whom these two chaps considered to be Bayern's undisputed FIFA champ.
"Juan Bernat," Martinez said with minimal hesitation. "He'll play, like, six hours per day."
This wasn't the first time either of these Bundesliga stars had visited the City of New York. But count them among those impressed by the rapid growth of the local soccer culture since the last time they rolled through.
"We came three years ago, and it was not so crazy like this year," Martinez said. "But it's so amazing, all of the fans in the Bayern t-shirts. In Chicago, in Charlotte, and here, it's amazing. The support over here is getting much, much, much better."
Added Alaba: "You can feel that in the past two years it was growing huge. You can feel that there's more fans out there in the States, and it's great."
That begs the biggest question of all, then: if these guys were as enamored with the American soccer scene as they stated, would they ever consider coming over to MLS one day, after they've snatched every last trophy Europe has to offer?
"I saw Ashley Cole a few weeks ago, and he was saying that he loves it over here. It's getting bigger and MLS is really in a good way," Alaba said. "I'm a player that is not looking in the future, so I'm trying to put my goals in [the short-term] to reach them as fast as possible."
"But you can never say never."
Martinez told me that he'd heard glowing reviews of life in MLS from a couple of fellow Spaniards that NYCFC fans know quite well, David Villa and Andoni Iraola. "You can feel that also the MLS is growing big in the States and the popularity for soccer is growing, so it's great," he said.
Really, the bruising defensive midfielder had just one single reservation about coming to the northeastern U.S.
"Winter-- it's cold here, right?"
Uhh, so, yeah, unfortunately...
But even with the particularities of the mid-Atlantic climate looming as a potential concern, Javi Martinez couldn't hide his love for our city.
"It's always a pleasure to come here. [New York] is, for me, the most amazing city in the world. We are so glad to come here for work."
Well, then! I'll echo Mr. Alaba:
Never say never.