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Analysis: New MLS club faces challenge to make mark in New York

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - For a brief but dazzling spell in the 1970s, New Yorkers fell in love with soccer as Pele and the Cosmos showcased the world's most popular game in a city long dominated by baseball and American football.

Now Major League Soccer hopes that a new team, called the New York City Football Club and formed by an alliance of English Premier League club Manchester City and baseball's grandest club the New York Yankees, can not only recapture that excitement but this time, sustain it.

"This is a transformational development that will elevate the league to new heights in this country," said an upbeat MLS commissioner Don Garber on Tuesday.

Making it work, though, will require not only smart marketing and good players but, in today's sporting landscape, also the right stadium in the right place and an ability to convince the city's sports fans that MLS truly is major league.

Across in New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls, while no flop, have found it hard to attract New Yorkers to take the trip across the Hudson river in big numbers to watch MLS and the new club hopes being inside the five boroughs of the city itself will produce better attendance and interest.

While the Cosmos, with the likes of German Franz Beckenbauer and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia, grabbed plenty of attention, they did so in the now defunct North American Soccer League, which quickly collapsed in debt as clubs spent beyond their means on wages for foreign stars.

MLS has been at pains to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Their ‘single entity' structure with a tight salary cap, just $2.95 million per team, not only creates a parity so that smaller clubs can compete but also acts as a brake on salary inflation.

That has brought stability and allowed clubs to invest in new soccer-specific stadiums and academies but it has had the drawback of limiting the ability of clubs to compete in the global labor market for talent - something that might hamper the new club.

UNPRECEDENTED MILLIONS

While MLS clubs are allowed to sign three ‘designated players' largely from outside the salary cap, allowing the likes of David Beckham and Thierry Henry to move to the league, the average annual salary in the league is close to a modest $150,000 according to the MLS Players Union.

Sheikh Mansour, the billionaire from Abu Dhabi who owns Manchester City, has spent unprecedented millions on players since taking over the club in 2008 but his staff will find a very different ‘transfer market' operates in MLS.

"Regarding the salary cap, we know very well the rules of the MLS and we think we can build a winning team within these rules," said Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano.

"We're going to make extensive use of our expertise, our knowledge, our people. We have very high-calibre people in Manchester City that have been very successful building winning teams".

While the link with City will undoubtedly allow access to a network of scouts and coaches to help the new club, the close association with one particular Premier League club could create some marketing problems.

Premier League clubs, including City's rivals Manchester United, have developed significant fan bases in the United States, including New York, and while they would appear to be a natural core support for the new club, it will be a key task to persuade them they are not supporting an inferior replica of the English team.

Former U.S. international Alexi Lalas, who was general manager of the Red Bulls' predecessors the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, believes the new team will be a success but is concerned about the link with the English club being too pronounced.

"I do question limiting your market and your customers and having to live up to the ‘mothership' within a league with a salary cap," Lalas told Reuters.

"When the compare and contrast with Manchester City occurs, as it inevitably will, they are going to have to say that they are just as good. That is a difficult proposition but that is potentially what they are creating," he added.

TOUGH CHALLENGE

Finding a location to build a modern stadium will also be a tough challenge - MLS has been working on a possible site in Flushing Meadows but the new franchise owners now say they want to evaluate all their options.

While Americans generally may be more convinced of soccer's charms now than ever before, it will still be a battle for the new club to find space in a crowded sports and entertainment market.

The New York metropolitan area has two NFL teams, two Major League Baseball teams, two NBA teams and two NHL teams and while the involvement of the most famous of all those franchises - the Yankees - can only help, the new club faces a crowded market.

"It is not just completion with sports teams, it is competition for the entertainment dollar, there is so much stuff to do in New York," said Lalas, who also says the team will have to live up to the growing sophistication of a soccer public that is familiar with watching European and South American soccer.

"It is a sport that is constantly comparing and contrasting with what happens overseas, it is smart, educated type of soccer audience in New York, they are discerning and they are going to smell if it is authentic right away. Creating that relevancy is the biggest challenge".

(Editing by John Mehaffey)

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