On the Red Bulls' website, fans can order tickets for an upcoming home date against the San Jose Earthquakes. As if the prospect of seeing Chris Wondolowski and Steve Lenhart weren't enticing enough, the fine folks in the Red Bull Arena ticket office will toss in a poster of a menacing Thierry Henry, if you buy a ticket package. But it's not just any old stock Henry action photo; this is a black-and-white close up of the French star, captioned with the bold statement "New York Is My Home."
I can hear the ticket office phones buzzing from here...
Clearly, the goal of the poster is to convince ticket-buyers from NYC that the team, despite playing home games in New Jersey, is a New York team.
The NYRB is a team fully aware of how big a deal it is for them to be a big deal. Think Kim Kardashian walking down the red carpet (OK, anywhere) or Hulk Hogan putting his ear up to hear the crowd noise he was paid to generate. That ability to be famous is partially why they are famous. But they are also keenly aware that being good is worthless if people don't see what you're doing. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, are trying to be famous for being New York, except that they can't seem to do the New York-y thing and win a championship. In a sense, they are trying to coordinate being good and being seen at the same time.
If New York fails yet again to win MLS Cup this season, they will no doubt slink back to Harrison, New Jersey where they will promptly be asked questions that focus on why they aren't making more of a fuss about the fact that they didn't win it all, instead of questions simply about why they didn't win it all. Again. Hans Backe will be questioned, or fired, or both. GM Erik Soler, a trained psychologist who probably gets a kick out of this abstraction of his team, will likely also be working on his resume if the Red Bulls fail. And the soccer community at large will spend another offseason wondering WHEN New York will ascend to their rightful place in the MLS hierarchy, instead of wondering HOW they will do it. Same as last year, and every year before it.
The Drinks are hardly the first team to deal with this frustrating circular introspection - nearly every team in a major media market with more than one newspaper or sports radio station has to answer questions that often drift from pure X's and O's. In fact, you could argue that in the internet/blog/podcast era, almost every team, whether they are aware of it or not, has a subculture of fans that care as much about how dedicated their team is to winning as they do about how often their team wins.
Meanwhile, here sits Columbus, happily slogging through the same amount of MLS campaigns as the MetroStars/ Red Bulls. Sure, there are corners of the internet that will try to cast doubt on Robert Warzycha's motivations for a particular tactic or substitute, even if the team wins (I've been guilty of heaping onto that pile from time to time). But by and large, the pressure the Black and Gold feel is more in line with the pressure most of us assume exists in the mind of a pro sports athlete - the "simple" inward desire to perform at the highest level possible, coupled with the external expectations we fans put on them to represent the team by playing well. Absent is that third level - an intense microscope being focused onto whether or not the team is living up to the identity they've as of yet been unable to live up to.
The Crew, by contrast to New York, can create their identity as they go along - from being "America's Hardest Working Team" to being a foul-taking, set piece-finishing machine, as they were in 2008, to their current incarnation, which seems to pride itself on making things ugly and having a great deal of depth-adding role players. Even if fans question the Crew's ability to win a championship this year, their disappointment/anger can at least be calmed (for now) with the memories of the 2008 triumph, which fittingly came over New York.
Delivering a championship to the fan base goes a long way; now the question isn't if the Crew can ever win MLS Cup - it's if they can ever win it AGAIN. Huge difference.
I doubt most Crew players go home at night and fret about whether they "looked" like the Columbus Crew are supposed to look. Win, lose or draw, they can still primarily focus just on the result.
Maybe Red Bulls players can keep it that simple as well. But their home, according to the posters, is in New York. And in the Big Apple, hardly anything is simple.