Major League Soccer’s playoffs are underway, but for fans of the New York Red Bulls the celebration began last weekend. By beating Chicago on Sunday, the Red Bulls captured the Supporters’ Shield, awarded each season to the team with the best regular season record. Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl joined Bill Littlefield to discuss that achievement and other news from around the MLS.
BL: According to some of their fans, the Red Bulls had be laboring under a curse since Major League Soccer began. What is or was the Curse of Caricola?
GW: The Curse of Caricola, named after Nicola Caricola, an Italian defender who played in the very first game in the history of the New York MLS franchise back in 1996, and scored an own goal — kicking the ball into his own net — in the final seconds of that first game, and New York ended up losing. And that was the Curse of Caricola which dogged the team for years and years. They had never won a competitive trophy and that finally ended the curse last weekend when they clinched the best record in the regular season.
BL: New York’s head coach Mike Petke, at 37 the youngest head coach to lead a team to the Supporters’ Shield, has gotten credit for helping the Red Bull escape what one writer has called “their fabled flakiness.” What’s been so flaky about them?
GW: Well, they’ve had a lot of talent over the years, and they’ve spent money in large amounts for MLS to try and get good players, but they had never won anything. It was just felt like this was a poor imitation of the New York Cosmos, the 1970s NASL team, that had Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and won championships with Giorgio Chinaglia as well. New York soccer fans are kind of spoiled, and the Red Bulls didn’t win anything, so it was a real issue for a long time. Until finally this season they started winning games, and with Thierry Henry as their star player it’s been — so far, at least — a storybook season under Petke, this American coach who came in and has led them to the Supporters’ Shield.
BL: The success of big market teams is important to any professional league. MLB loves it when the Yankees are in the World Series. For years the NBA hoped that it would be Celtics versus Lakers in the finals. Would it be an especially good thing for MLS if their New York team were to win it all this season?
GW: Well I think it helps to have a New York team that’s actually good. That doesn’t mean they have to win the championship every year, but it’s the biggest media market in the United States. I know MLS wants to resonate more in the New York City sports landscape. And maybe the Red Bulls are starting to do that.
They’re going to bring a second MLS team called New York City FC in 2015. It’s owned by the Manchester City owners from the English Premier League, but if the Red Bulls can actually become a team that people want to watch in this city, then that would be a good thing for the league, and I’m sure the league would love to have a real rivalry between New York and Los Angeles. The Galaxy have won the last two MLS championships.
BL: And as you say “potentially,” a real rivalry between two teams in New York. Is that really a good idea?
GW: I think it’s a promising idea in the sense that New York is big enough to have two soccer teams in the first division of MLS. Now we’ll have to see how New York City FC goes about preparing for its first season in 2015 and how that works in a city that — you know soccer’s big in New York, you know I’ve lived here for a little while, and I think there’s a demand there, but people want to see the best, and so it’s going to require New York City FC bringing in some big-name players and maybe the Red Bulls bringing in some additional ones to Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill to match.
BL: Meanwhile, David Beckham seems poised to become the owner of the expansion team in Miami. Has anyone told him that the lowest average attendance in the short history of MLS was posted by the late and not especially lamented Miami Fusion before that team folded 12 years ago?
GW: How dare you criticize the Miami Fusion, Bill? This team actually did fold in MLS over 10 years ago. They didn’t draw all that well. They did play some pretty good soccer for a couple years, but Miami is not a great sports town if you are trying to get a lot of people to come to sporting events, and I think other sports have learned that in Miami. So it’s going to be a challenge for David Beckham if he moves forward with these plans to own an MLS team in Miami, but at the same time Miami is an international city, and if Beckham can use his name and star power to bring in some big-name players that might capture the imagination of some soccer fans down in Miami. They seem to like soccer, but they seem to only want to see Lionel Messi.