After a thrilling match in Columbus last season, the Campeones Cup is heading to New York City. Even if the hosts, NYCFC, are one of the league’s newest franchises, having started play in the 2015 season, the beautiful game still has plenty of history in the Big Apple. From the nation’s first professional league, playing more than 100 years ago, to the colorful tenures of legends of the game like Pelé and Thierry Henry, New York has played an integral role in the growth of soccer in this country.
While there had been fitful attempts to start professional soccer leagues in the United States as early as 1876, the first year in which those efforts really got off the ground was 1894, when the American League of Professional Football played its only season. Befitting New York being a hotbed of immigration, and full of fans of the game, two teams, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, took part that season. Despite the two averaging nearly six thousand fans to their games at the Polo Grounds and Washington Park, the league folded after just one season, with the Bridegrooms finishing as undefeated champions.
After several failed attempts to start a successor to the ALPF, one finally came around in 1921. The original American Soccer League, which operated for more than a decade, included more than a dozen different New York-based sides over the span of its existence. Teams like the Hakoah All-Stars, Queens Bohemians, and Brooklyn Hispano represented the diversity of the city, and even if teams from New England had more success over the course of the league’s history, New York’s status as a cultural hub and a first part of call for many immigrants meant that the game maintained an important status in the city’s sporting scene.
The Great Depression, however, spelled the end of the ASL, which had drawn crowds comparable to the NFL at its peak. A successor with the same name struggled to gain a foothold in the country’s sporting imagination, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that soccer once again rose in the nation’s consciousness. With England having become the first English-speaking country to have won the World Cup, NASL (North American Soccer League) saw a top flight re-established in the US.
With 24 teams and a national television contract, NASL was the big time at last. And no team embodied this more than the New York Cosmos. Backed by Warner television, the team played a Giants Stadium and averaged nearly fifty thousand fans at its peak. It also added a certain sprinkling of stardust to the league, signing legendary players such as Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and of course, Pelé. With the Brazilian in the fold, the Cosmos won five titles and proved that soccer could be every bit the equal of the US’ other biggest sports while embodying the vibrant and diverse culture that has always defined the Big Apple.
With the retirements of the Brazilian and others, however, soccer’s star waned. While indoor leagues continued to draw decent crowds, NASL folded in 1984, leaving the country without a major league ahead of the US hosting the World Cup in 1994. This was only a brief spell without the game, though, as MLS started play in 1996 with then team. Despite some early struggles, the league is now comprised of 28 teams, with many of them playing in newly-built soccer-specific stadiums.
While New York City proper lacked a team, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, later the New York Red Bulls, continued the tradition of bringing in some of the biggest names in the game, signing players like US national team goalkeeper Tony Meola and the former AC Milan midfielder Roberto Donadoni. Their early years lacked success, but the arrival of players like Juan Pablo Ángel and Claudio Reyna brought a run of conference titles, with former Arsenal star Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez among the team’s key players.
MLS continued to rapidly expand, and it was eventually announced that New York would become the second city to have two MLS side, with NYCFC starting play in 2015. The team’s links to Manchester City saw them bring in a succession of established European stars in the team’s early years: Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa all turned out at Yankee Stadium in the team’s first few seasons. It wasn’t until last season, however, that Ronny Deila led the team to their first title, beating the host Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup Final. With that win, NYCFC earned their place in the Campeones Cup. Now, the rich, vibrant tradition of soccer in New York City will continue as the MLS Cup champion takes on one of Mexico’s legendary teams, 2021 Apertura and 2022 Clausura champion, FC Atlas. Join us for all the action at Yankee Stadium on September 14!