When MLS kicked off its inaugural season in 1996, it launched a team representing New York. The team, very much alive today as the Red Bulls, started life as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. It has been New York’s team, striking up an immediate rivalry with D.C. United, but it has, still to this day, played all its home league games west of the Hudson River.
So, when New York City FC played their first match in 2015, it was an expansion team launching inside city limits to kick off the league’s 20th season. Many of the five boroughs’ most passionate soccer fans weren’t about to switch allegiance from the Red Bulls. But for those fans drawn to NYCFC at the team’s inception, it was the chance, as T.J. O’Toole puts it, “to build a culture out of nothing.”
“It drew a lot of hardcore soccer fans in the beginning,” O’Toole recalls. “But it’s not very often that a team like this starts up in a major city, especially in an iconic venue like we have.”
In fact, O’Toole sees NYCFC’s Sunday opponents – new expansion team Atlanta United FC – in the same place they were two years ago, with supporters’ groups sorting out allegiances, fans collectively coordinating their in-stadium atmosphere, and the rest of the league trying to make sense of them.
In the beginning, NYCFC had one supporters’ group, the thematically-named Third Rail, who launched the day that the team was officially announced in 2014.
“The fans here are as unique as the city itself,” says Rox Fontaine, president of Third Rail. “Everything that is ‘typical’ for NYC is present in the team's fan base, all sorts of cultures, backgrounds and aspirations rolled into a ball.”
Third Rail immediately established a presence in Yankee Stadium’s Sections 236 and 237, taking advantage of the stadium’s unique configuration to be a noisy presence behind the north (left field) goal.
Fontaine characterizes Third Rail as a group that “grown considerably as a group but has actually gotten smaller in numbers” since its first season – in part because a number of other supporters groups have been founded to put their own specific spins on NYCFC fandom.
One group within Third Rail, the family-friendly Light Rail, has been bringing parents and children to the stadium since Year One, according to group leader Jenny Lando. While a number of them gravitate toward the stadium’s designated family sections, they’re making more of an effort to gather together.
Plans are afoot for a first-ever pregame tailgate in a park near the stadium this summer, and they’re also planning an official Light Rail venture training. And, in news that Lando’s particularly happy about, they’ve finally got kids-sized orange scarves for the youngest members of their group.
Not all of the new groups are serious or even official groups. O’Toole heads up the collective of fans in Sections 205, 206, and 207 who have christened themselves Chicken Bucket FC. Celebrating both NYCFC and their favorite Yankee Stadium food offering, the group doesn’t have an official membership count, but that doesn’t mean they’re not serious fans.
Talk to O’Toole for 10 minutes or so, and he’ll expertly opine on matters that show he’s a knowledgeable City fan. Things like the importance of Tommy McNamara and Rodney Wallace to team chemistry (and how bummed NYCFC fans would be if either left the team), how Andrea Pirlo’s ability to “craft expert balls into tight spaces” works well for Yankee Stadium, and how the front office seems to have heeded fans’ calls for an improved backline.
But he’s also got a jovial side and enjoys the Chicken Bucket side of the equation as much as the football side. They were even recently involved in a chicken-eating contest with fans from fellow 2015 expansioneers Orlando City SC at their Yankee Stadium showdown last month, a unique occasion broadcast on MLS Matchday Live.
Oscar Martinez, president of the Latino-influenced and broadly multicultural NYC12, was tapped to be part of the Third Rail board in its early stages. His group came together out of watch parties, and now has a charity component in addition to raising a ruckus from Section 235.
“We raise money for cancer walks, programs promoting soccer to underprivileged youth, and other causes we hold dear to us,” he notes. But they’re about good times as well as good works; their unofficial motto is “Come and have a drink with us.”
Hearts of Oak, taking its name from the Revolutionary war militia led by Alexander Hamilton, is another group with roots in Third Rail that went its own way. The group’s Vice President, Michael Benham, notes that the supporters groups have collaborated well with each other of late, with many of the post-Third Rail SGs operating under the NYCSC umbrella.
He points to last year’s away derby vs. the Red Bulls as something that brought them together.
“We routinely find each other, share chant ideas, and have really grown together and found our little corners of the bleachers," says Benham, “to make sure everyone has space to breathe and express themselves while keeping drama to a minimum.”
All told, the groups have come together to create a gameday atmosphere that they’re proud of.
“What’s great about our home,” Martinez boasts, “is the proximity to the supporters section when the opposing team has to kick a corner and when the away team’s keeper is standing mere feet from the stands.
“Teams need to prepare to play in our space and hear our fans for 90 minutes.”
As Lando points out, more groups mean more coordination is required to determine which group will do tifo each week. And though they note that the front office has been working with the groups, being Yankee Stadium tenants doesn’t give them the flexibility with capo stands that other supporters’ groups around the league enjoy.
Still, though, they’re proud to be supporting a team that’s made the playoffs in their second season, features an intriguing mix of players and draws a diverse international crowd in a city that is literally home to the United Nations.
“We are many but we are one,” Martinez says. “We are the waiters, delivery boys, EMTs, police officers, firefighters, teachers, stock traders and students that drive this city. We love our club as much as we love our city.”