Commercialization Versus Pragmatism: The Future Identity Of NYCFC

From the moment New York City Football Club was announced as the lovechild of the gigantic brands New York Yankees and Manchester City, I’ve been especially curious about the conflict between commercialism (commercialization) and pragmatism that will inevitably manifest itself with respect to the overall club philosophy and how it shapes the playing staff. What exactly does this mean?

Let me note as a sort of preface that NYCFC is in the most enviable position imaginable. There is a clean slate in terms of roster composition, which is reason enough to be optimistic. We can and indeed must capitalize on the advantages conferred on us by geography.

On the flipside, as history and what we can glean from other New York teams has shown, there is a certain amount of peril that comes with the territory of having your roots in the biggest city in the world. It all stems from pressure, in my estimation. The pressure to succeed instantly on the pitch for fear of not being able to attract fans to fill stadium is almost tangible. This rigid reality of football’s status in this country a niche sport, albeit one that is growing,  is something management has to contend with from the start.

This line of thinking creates an interesting dichotomy which I will expound upon.

Let us first analyze some of the positives of being based in New York City.

Our location alone allows us to enjoy the sort of flexibility most teams would kill for. This is why having a clear vision and plan of attack as it relates to the roster is paramount to the success of this club. Do we want to focus on creating a star-laden roster? Do we go for lesser-known, often younger, players from less glamorous leagues, who still have a point to prove? This is a luxury not afforded to most teams. With all due respect to the likes of Real Salt Lake, David Beckham was never going to be interested in plying his trade there. We have the freedom of building the squad the way we see fit, whereas most teams are forced into being almost subservient to teams such as LA Galaxy and, dare I say it, New York Red Bulls.

NYCFC’s links with the deep pockets of both Manchester City and the Yankees prevent such concerns from ever cropping up. If anything, our ability to take players on loan from our “parent club” will be a big boon for us. We could easily attract designated players of the absolute highest quality and pay their wage packets.

Such players, and the club itself, stand to benefit tremendously from a financial perspective, if marketing potential is properly tapped into. World class players know they stand to improve their brand and name recognition by playing here. The possibilities for endorsement deals and the like are virtually endless.

This carries with it an intrinsic danger.

Focusing on signing players with reputation or who are well known and thus likely to garner media attention and put “butts in the seats”, while an understandable strategy from a business standpoint, could have an ultimately detrimental impact on the club’s success where it matters most – the league table.

A commercially driven mentality often leads to staggering dysfunction and failure. The best teams, those that are successful and endearing to the fanbase, are those which are developed organically, insofar as this can be done. It is often the case, from what I have seen in my lifetime following New York sports, that being based in this city seems to somehow prevent or preclude our management teams from being able to recognize or at least put this philosophy into practice. Their judgment seems to become clouded by the allure of the “big name” without sparing a thought as to how their latest star will be incorporated into the wider schematic of the team.

Take, for example, the New York Red Bulls, our closest rivals. For years, the single biggest reason underpinning their lack of success was the absence of a clear and overarching strategy guiding club decisions. Sure as anything, once the offseason rolled around, you could always count on a massive amount of turnover within their ranks. Masses exoduses from the club and streams of new signings were commonplace. Now, in a capped league like MLS, a certain amount of variation from year to year is, inevitable. However, there exists an upper limit at which turnover becomes excessive, unhealthy, and symptomatic of a deeper problem.

Players must be given ample time to gel and furthermore, staff must be explicit about the way it wants said players to play, identifying the right players, ones capable of playing the desired style and fitting the ethos of the club, whatever it may be.

Before you can have any tangible success, you first have to get the team as a whole pulling in the same direction on the pitch, which is difficult to do, and surely easier when the team is built organically, pragmatically, rather than with commercial interests at the forefront of operating policy.

Case in point, Mike Petke was perceived to be a panacea, finally ending the Red Bulls’, considering the resources at their disposal, comical streak of trophyless futility by bringing home last season’s Supporters Shield. The Bulls tripped at the first hurdle, falling at the hands of the unfashionable Houston Dynamo.

Why did this happen?

As important a reason as any is that Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear has laid a rock solid foundation for his team. He has painstakingly built his side, the core of which has now been playing together for several seasons. Above all, he has created an identity for his club. Under Kinnear, you always know what you can expect from the Dynamo. His teams are always going to be well drilled defensively and thrive from set pieces, while at the same time more than holding their own in the possession game. They will never wow you with flair, but they are a model of consistency and execution.

It is no coincidence, then, that they were able to overcome the Red Bulls, who, though they are the right track, are still some way off the standards set by the likes of Houston in this regard.

In MLS, the formula success isn’t as simple as, “Just get the biggest names  and the rest will surely follow. I mean just look at the LA Galaxy and their success, right?”

For every Robbie Keane, there is a Rafa Marquez.

The Red Bulls clearly did not due their due diligence and did not properly assess Rafa Marquez’s character prior to unveiling him as a marquee signing. Anyone who knew the player before his arrival on these shores could have told you the Red Bulls were courting disaster. When he criticized his own teammates as not being on his level in an outburst that effectively sounded his death knell in MLS, it was predictable to everyone but the Red Bull executives who signed him.

MLS is a completely different beast to any other league in the world and its unique characteristics defy comparison. Players from abroad often underestimate the physical nature of the league and, frankly speaking, the level of commitment needed to be successful here. You can’t just expect to waltz in and light up the league by virtue of your resume. Travel can be grueling. The sheer size of this country ensures that. Temperatures can be extreme. Pitches can be in abominable condition, not to mention not even real grass! The horror of it all.

Because of this, it becomes even more important to not only sign a player for the right reasons, but also the sign the right type of player in particular. Issues such as “how much tread is left on those tires?” are important when it comes to potential signings, but even more pivotal is what is between the player’s ears. How much do they know about the league? To what extent do they know what they are getting into? Do they want to succeed here or just collect a pension? Are they the type who will moan and be like a noxious gas in the changing room when things aren’t going well or their expectations aren’t quite being met?

Relating this all back to the club and the crux of the matter, this is where I, and I’m trying to be as objective as possible here, believe NYCFC to be in stellar hands. Jason Kreis is as close to a managerial savant as you will find in this league. He is precocious and he knows the ingredients necessary to create a winning recipe in MLS.

He has a clearly defined preferred method of playing with his diamond midfield setup.  Although being exposed to new tactical ideas while in Manchester learning from the staff there is a certainty and indeed a benefit, you have to believe he will persist with his tactics, with what he’s comfortable with, and what has proven to be successful in the MLS environment.

Kreis’ experience with Real Salt Lake, crafting them into a perennial MLS Cup contender, has shown that this man has a keen eye not only for players, but for the right type of player. Working in tandem with Director of Football Reyna, Kreis’ acumen will go a long way in ensuring the NYCFC brass avoid the many pitfalls that would otherwise come with working in our market.

I am not advocating that NYCFC shun the prospect of signing any well-known players who would sell shirts. I know the importance of being a commercial success and that it could have long-term benefits for the club and league off the field.

The key is balance. Starting from a tactical framework, building a core and then augmenting that core with the right players to put it over the top. Not necessarily signing the biggest names available. Kreis knows this all too well. One needs only to look at the likes of Morales and Beckerman, who were the lynchpins of his successful RSL sides, to realize this.

I have faith that when it comes time to make a decision, Kreis’ prior experience and Reyna’s knowledge of the conditions of MLS will allow them to stand up to the corporate types pining for a signing for all the wrong reasons. I want to believe that management is pragmatic enough to reap the benefits of playing in New York while resisting the temptation and pressure to throw cash at a problem.

Essentially, I want to believe that instead of being the team that signs Juninho or Marquez, we will be the team that signs a player cut more from the cloth of Morales or Valeri as a DP.

As it stands right now, and a lot can change before the inaugural kickoff depending on who becomes available, Mikkel Diskerud is top of my wishlist. With a side of John Guidetti to boot.

I will go into more detail on potential DP targets in a future article or Chris and I may even do a podcast on the topic once blueyorkcity.com is launched.

What do you think the direction the club should take? What kind of an identity would you like to see NYCFC assume? I have to say, I’d be a lot more then concerned about the direction of the club if it wasn’t already in the capable hands of Kreis.

Thomas Rosu, blueyorkcity

Follow us on Twitter: @BlueYorkCityFC

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