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Home stadium uncertainty is holding back NYCFC

The unavailability of NYCFC’s preferred venues killed any hope for home-field advantage in the first round of the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs

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Nice arena, but it isn’t home.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

The positive vibes restored by NYCFC’s three-match unbeaten run were dimmed a bit by the announcement of the venue for the club’s first home MLS Cup Playoff match. That game will be played in Red Bull Arena, and it will mark a grim milestone, as the single-elimination encounter will be NYCFC’s 20th farcical “home” match played in Harrison, New Jersey since the 2020 season.

Much is made of the competitive advantage NYCFC gain when they play on one of their two preferred fields, the converted baseball surfaces in the Bronx and Queens. Less gets said about the recent erosion of that advantage when three MLS league games were played at Red Bull Arena, and only one of which was a win for New York City.

NYCFC now operate at a distinct competitive disadvantage compared to their rivals, as they are forced to bounce around between home venues more frequently than ever. New York City get no emotional boost from the few thousand fans who go through the trouble to travel to New Jersey and watch their team on their arch-rival’s field.

In fact, the two most significant home matches of NYCFC’s 2022 season to date will end up being played in the stadium most reviled by the club’s supporters. Staging the second leg of the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League in Harrison was bad, and arguably contributed to NYCFC getting knocked out of the tournament. Yet the situation around this first MLS Cup playoff round has the potential to be worse if New York City host Inter Miami, FC Cincinnati, Columbus Crew, or Orlando City at Red Bull Arena and fail to get a win.

At least the midweek dominos fell in such a way that NYCFC are spared the indignity of being matched up with cross-river rival Red Bulls for the first playoff round. If that postseason Hudson River Derby matchup had come to pass, NYCFC was set to play the game in yet another non-Red Bull Arena venue, presumably at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, CT.

A perfect storm of 2022 scheduling complications led to this ugly scenario, but the continued absence of a permanent stadium solution is mostly to blame. The absurd, abnormal winter 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar means the MLS season will end weeks earlier than usual, bringing the start of the MLS Cup Playoffs into direct conflict with the start of the Major League Baseball playoffs. New York’s two baseball teams are very much in those playoffs, thus sending NYCFC back to The House that Energy Drinks Built for the first round and possibly more. The conflicting dates of the MLS and MLB playoffs means there’s the potential for even more highly significant Red Bull Arena “home” ties—though that’s all dependent on the postseason successes of the city’s baseball teams and NYCFC itself.

This home venue uncertainty comes at the tail end of a season that’s seen NYCFC call six stadiums spread across four different states “home.” It’s been a uniquely terrible situation for fans trying to actually follow and support their Boys in Blue. It certainly can’t be a positive for the players, either, who are forced to make the best out of an unsettled stadium situation unique to the highest levels of professional soccer.

Be it New Jersey or East Hartford or wherever else, when NYCFC plays outside of the New York City limits, fans don’t turn out in big numbers, and any hope of creating a lively atmosphere is off the table before a ball is even kicked. The majority of fans of the New York City-based team justifiably choose not to travel far and wide to attend matches that are supposed to be played at home.

It’s impossible to clearly define just how much, if any, negative impact this neverending stadium shuffle has on the on-field NYCFC product. But every other MLS team can rely on consistency when it comes to where their home matches actually get played and the atmospheres their fans usually create in those venues.

This year will see NYCFC play 45 matches at a minimum, which will be the most in club history. It’s the side effect of successes in the Champions League and US Open Cup, and 2021’s MLS Cup win earning the team the right to play in the 2022 Campeones Cup. Next year will introduce more fixtures by way of the relaunched Leagues Cup and its month of Liga MX vs MLS tournament action. The NYCFC squad has been good enough to challenge for multiple trophies, and seem poised to continue to challenge the rest of the top teams across the league and the continent.

Yet only NYCFC face the added complication of not knowing where they’ll even be playing their most important home matches. Seattle Sounders had the benefit of 31,000-plus fans to cheer them on in the first leg of that Champions League semifinal, then more than doubled that crowd size in the final. It’s easy from the NYCFC side of the fence to wonder what might have been had they not existed in this weird stadium limbo, and could rely on regularly getting something close to this kind of home support.

None of this is meant to be a criticism of fans who don’t show up to matches outside the five boroughs. It is well within their right to not attend “home” games held at Red Bull Arena, as they go against everything fans signed up for when deciding to support NYCFC. With zero progress announced in regards to a permanent stadium, the onus remains entirely on the club and MLS to figure out some kind of solution that ends NYCFC’s years-long game of stadium musical chairs. The longer this nomadic existence persists, the harder it becomes to see the club reaching the next level of accomplishment it may seek.