“Sometimes you have a noisy neighbor. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy. You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson
Finally, Mike Petke knows how Fergie felt. The legendary Manchester United manager made the above memorable quote famous five years ago after getting the best of Manchester City in a derby match between the crosstown rivals.
Problem is, it was never as simple as tuning out those annoying guys in light blue. Flush with cash, City were digging their claws into the sporting landscape in Britain – and worldwide – by putting their new riches to work. They immediately signed some of the biggest names in soccer, revitalizing the city’s “second team” and riding their new momentum to challenge United’s previously unchecked superiority as the big boys in town.
Now, City are every bit as relevant as 20-time Premier League champions United. They compete regularly in the UEFA Champions League, enter the 2014-15 season as defending EPL champs and, perhaps most troubling of all for the guys in red, are beating them to the punch for big-name signings.
United, meet your American cousins.
The New York Red Bulls have had the run of the Big Apple since MLS’ inception. They didn’t win a major trophy until just last year, but the former MetroStars always won headlines by chasing the glamor names since Day 1 – for better or worse. From Roberto Donadoni to Branco to Lothar Matthäus to Juan Pablo Ángel to Thierry Henry, New York have aimed for the moon when it comes to splashy signings.
Here come the noisy neighbors. It’s just a fun coincidence that New York City FC are majority owned by Manchester City. But their tactics ahead of their 2015 MLS launch are eerily similar: Blanket the market with light-blue branding on trains and billboards, throw money at world-class players and steal the thunder of the other local team with brash promises of titles and even more big names.
In short, do everything possible to show up the guys who have run unchecked for years.
Even Thursday’s signing of Frank Lampard smacks of a change in the wind. In less than two months, NYCFC have added two big DPs to command the eyes of the soccer public. Flash back four summers ago, it was the Red Bulls who were doing the exact same thing, signing Henry and Rafa Márquez within weeks of one another and grabbing the limelight from the rest of MLS.
NYCFC are the hot new kids on the block. They’re devoting tons of resources to what amounts to a land grab in the Tristate Area, trying to win fans, sell jerseys and cultivate their own youth players right in the Red Bulls’ backyard.
How the Red Bulls respond to this challenge will be fascinating. Times have changed for New York’s first club. Seven years ago, they were the first MLS team to sign two DPs at once. But the days when they and the LA Galaxy competed nearly unopposed for big-name foreign signings is over. As the league has grown, so, too, has the number of clubs with deep pockets, deep-rooted international connections and big ambition to chase star power.
Now, Seattle and Toronto are making the big deals. Portland, Sporting KC and Orlando are making noise, too, and who knows what the financials of Chivas USA’s eventual new owners might look like. That’s to say nothing of the NYCFC project. And you know that when David Beckham finally gets his Miami expansion team off the ground, that’ll be more competition.
How will the Red Bulls keep up the pace? Henry is out of contract after this season; Tim Cahill could go back to Australia to finish his career in his homeland. The crosstown rivals have set up shop and made their intentions known. And RBNY now have competition everywhere.
Will they reload with more big names in 2015 if both of their DPs leave? Will they fight NYCFC for the same players, as reports suggest over Barcelona’s Xavi? Will they reach into their past and bring home high-profile US national teamers like Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore? And most important of all, will they keep restocking their youth academy while NYCFC build their own and ostensibly compete for the same kids?
The Red Bulls are going to have to draw a line in the sand and redefine who they will be next year and beyond. They’re going to have to decide how to keep chugging along as the competition around them grows fiercer, across the league and across the Hudson River.
They're going to be forced to get on with their lives and turn up the TV. Let's see how they do that.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.