NYCFC may be the best team in Major League Soccer, but in the larger New York sports landscape, the club is often treated like an insignificant middle school chess club. How else can you explain the reigning MLS Cup champions playing their 2022 home opener 3,000 miles from home?
Since its inaugural season, NYCFC has been a bit of a vagabond. Most of NYCFC’s home matches are played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, but the New York Yankees are always given priority and the field isn’t exactly built for soccer, with cramped dimensions making for a less-than-ideal product. As a result, the New York club has also played home games in Queens at the Mets’ Citi Field, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, plus a match apiece at Coffey Field in the Bronx and Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
NYCFC will add one more home stadium to the list in February: Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, about 2,800 miles from the Bronx.
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) January 11, 2022
NYCFC, which won its first MLS Cup in December, opens the 2022 season with the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 against Costa Rican club Santos de Guápiles. The first leg will be played on Feb. 15 in San Jose, Costa Rica, not in Guápiles because Santos’ Estadio Ebal Rodríguez is not a Concacaf-approved venue. The return match — NYCFC’s home leg — cannot be at any of the club’s first three picks for a match.
Neither Yankee Stadium nor second-choice Citi Field are a Concacaf-approved venues, which isn’t really a surprise considering they were built for baseball. In the past, NYCFC has gotten around this by playing Champions League matches at Red Bull Arena. This year the rival venue is unavailable because of stadium and pitch renovations.
The solution was to fly the team across the country to play in LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium. Why? Because NYCFC opens the MLS season four days later against the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.
“We’re extremely proud to compete in the Concacaf Champions League following our triumph in Portland to win our first MLS Cup Championship last season,” NYCFC CEO Brad Sims said on the club website. “This club belongs on the biggest stage possible and although finding home venues for the home legs of any Champions League matches are challenging to us, we are excited to compete against the best teams in North and Central America for another piece of silverware.
“It is frustrating that this home game will be played on the other side of the country. However, with our season opener at LA Galaxy only a few days later and our inability to play at Yankee Stadium or one of our alternative home venues, we felt that this arrangement gave our club the best possible chance for two positive results that week as we look to do well in SCCL and begin the defense of the title.”
Let’s be real: This move sucks for fans in New York. But it makes a lot of sense.
If you can’t play close to home, you may as well play somewhere that will give you a competitive advantage. Los Angeles gives NYCFC a competitive advantage by getting rid of an extra cross-country flight, with the club able to stay a few extra days in Southern California, where the weather will most likely be much nicer than in New York. And LAFC and NYCFC feel like they’re made for each other: Two newer clubs in the nation’s two most populous cities who decided against picking an actual team name and instead slapping FC on the end of the city.
And it’s not like LAFC will be needing its stadium that week. The club failed to qualify for the Concacaf Champions League for a second straight year after reaching the final in 2020. (The other U.S. clubs in the competition are New England, Colorado and Seattle.)
It would be great for NYCFC to actually have a Concacaf-approved stadium of its own. The best club in MLS should not be relegated to playing home games 3,000 miles away from home. But land is at a premium in New York, and for now this is the best solution to a dumb situation.