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From Pirlo to no-go: what happened to New York’s era of foreign MLS megastars? | New York City FC

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New York has always been Major League Soccer’s toughest nut to crack. Many have believed the USA’s most culturally diverse city could, with the right cultivation, become a hotbed for the sport. Yet a quarter of a century, and two franchises, later it’s impossible to avoid the sense MLS still hasn’t grasped the chance to take a big bite out the Big Apple.

For years, the strategy appeared to be a simple one – attract the biggest names to draw the biggest crowds, and the most attention, possible. Thierry Henry’s arrival at the New York Red Bulls in 2010 was considered the most significant MLS signing since David Beckham. The club’s signing of Tim Cahill two years later didn’t catch the imagination in quite the same way, but still underlined an ambition to lure big names from European leagues.

New York City FC picked up the baton by signing David Villa for their expansion season with Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo also playing for the club in its first two years of existence. Since the latter’s retirement in 2017, though, the two rivals have, either by choice or not, steered clear of big money, big name Designated Players.

RBNY’s biggest addition for the 2021 season was Patryk Klimala, a Polish striker who scored just three times in 28 appearances for his last club, Celtic. Sporting director Kevin Thelwell believes the 22-year-old has untapped potential, but his signing won’t draw fans to Red Bull Arena in the same way that Henry or even Cahill did.

Last week saw NYC FC complete the transfer of Brazilian teenager Talles Magno for a near-club record fee. In its own way, this was a statement signing, with the 18-year-old choosing to make the move to the Bronx despite reported interest from several top clubs in Europe (including Liverpool). But few at Yankee Stadium will have seen him play before.

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This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For years, MLS drew derision for its reliance on ageing stars. European fans labelled the competition a retirement home for fading players looking for one final pay check. Some players, like Robbie Keane, proved this impression wrong. Others, like Steven Gerrard, added to the perception. If MLS clubs are now looking to invest in younger, hungrier players, it could aid the growth of the league in the long-term.

Big name signings no longer appear to fit the Red Bull model that has made the energy drinks brand one of world soccer’s most prolific cultivators of talent. RBNY have taken their place in a structure that has a series of satellite clubs feed their best young players (and managers) down the line – see Tyler Adams and Jesse Marsch ultimately ending up at RB Leipzig having jumped on the production line in Harrison. Seventeen-year-old Caden Clark is widely expected to be next on the Red Bull corporate jet to Austria or Germany.

Thierry Henry in action for the New York Red Bulls against his former club Arsenal in 2011
Thierry Henry in action for the New York Red Bulls against his former club Arsenal in 2011. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

As part of the City Football Group (CFG), NYC FC could feasibly establish a similar pathway. So far, though, Jack Harrison is the only player to have earned a move from NYC FC to Manchester City having impressed in MLS. Plus, the winger has still to actually make an appearance for City, instead spending a number of seasons out on loan.

From the moment they were awarded an MLS franchise, CFG insisted NYC FC would operate as a free-standing entity rather than as a sister club to Manchester City and so far, with the exception of Lampard-gate in their first season, they have made good on this vow. This, however, raises other questions. Why were big names targeted early on? And why are they no longer being targeted? What’s changed?

Of course, big names still come to MLS. The LA Galaxy’s signing of Javier Hernández in January 2020 was hailed in some quarters as the league’s most significant addition since Beckham. Last September saw Inter Miami seal a deal for former Juventus and Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín just one month after 2018 World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi made the move to Florida.

Every so often, speculation surfaces linking Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo with a Stateside switch. Only this month, Luis Suárez revealed his desire to play in the United States. These players are rarely linked with the two New York franchises, though. Instead, it’s the two Los Angeles clubs and Inter Miami most frequently put forward as potential destinations. Even DC United, linked with Mesut Özil for a spell, are mentioned from time to time.

New York isn’t any less attractive now than it was 11 years ago when Henry pitched up. The sparkle of the most romanticised city in the States, possibly the world, gives NYC FC and RBNY an advantage when it comes to recruitment – many players wants to live in the Big Apple – but that advantage hasn’t been fully utilised in recent times, at least not in a way that is obvious.

There is no bigger sports city than New York. The Yankees are the most valuable baseball team on the planet, the Knicks are the most valuable basketball team and the Giants are up there among NFL teams. According to the latest estimations by Forbes, though, neither of MLS’s two New York clubs are among the league’s five most valuable franchises.

Neither NYC FC nor RBNY have won MLS Cup. The former still play in a ballpark while the latter still struggle to draw fans out to New Jersey. The creation of a second New York franchise in 2015 was designed to invigorate the USA’s next big soccer city, but there is still work to be done and it appears neither club sees big name signings as part of their strategy to achieve this. The days of stars like Henry, Pirlo, Lampard and Villa playing in New York are gone and they may not be back any time soon.

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