|ESPN.com: Schaerlaeckens||[Print without images]|
HARRISON, N.J. -- The Mets played a big game against a division rival on the same night. They filled Citi field to about 85 percent of its capacity. The Giants and Jets would face off Monday. Plenty of tickets remained for that one too. But the game between the New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday? Sold out.
Last weekend, the most coveted ticket to any sports event in the greater New York City area was the one granting admittance to an MLS game. Tickets had sold out three weeks in advance.
While also speaking well for the inroads the league is making with soccer fans, it said even more about the cachet these two clubs have accrued, emerging as the league's first real powerhouse teams.
In a hard-fought, up-tempo game in a boisterous Red Bull Arena, the teams democratically claimed a half each. Los Angeles looked the more fluid side in the first half, in which striker Edson Buddle cleverly slotted away the go-ahead goal in the 10th minute; New York claimed the vast majority of chances in the second, although failing to convert, giving L.A. the win. The game got a considerable injection of quality from the designated players on show: Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel for New York and Landon Donovan for Los Angeles. More of the same would have flowed from David Beckham's feet, were it not for an injury.
And while the big names populated the field, the luxury boxes were lined with several more. NBA players Tony Parker and Ronny Turiaf had come to cheer on their countryman Henry and Eva Longoria came to cheer on her husband Parker. There were even whispers that Kobe Bryant was in attendance.
"It's great," Donovan said of the rowdy atmosphere unfolding before legitimate A-listers. "The league's been wanting this for a long time. And the more games like this we can have the better.
"Anytime we play New York now it's going to be a big game."
Indeed, New York and Los Angeles are well into the process of carving their names into the league's hardware. L.A. is first place in the West and came within a penalty kick or two of winning the championship last year. New York is second in the East and was in the 2008 MLS Cup final.
And although this competitive polarization flies in the face of the paradigm of parity that the league has pursued, it is nevertheless a positive thing. Leagues with a few high-profile, dominant teams tend to fare better in terms of attendance than those that are unpredictable. Fans, research shows, either clamor for the quality of play and drive for championships on offer at a giant club, or, conversely, the David-versus-Goliath feel of supporting a minnow.
"I think it's important for bigger and smaller clubs to emerge," said Red Bulls general manager Erik Soler. "You can't possibly have 20 good teams in the league. The big cities will have to have the biggest and best teams. That's where the media attention is and the big focus is."
"I'm not a parity guy," said New York defender Chris Albright, a 12-year veteran of the league. "It's healthy to have the Yankees, as much as I hate them. It's healthy to have the Patriots there for a while in the NFL. It creates an allure and it creates a draw and a lot of people will gravitate towards that team and a lot of people will hate that team. And any motion at either end of the spectrum is good and keeps the fans interested."
And for the money Austrian energy drink-maker Red Bull has invested in the New York franchise, it expects to do no less than match Los Angeles as the league's budding juggernaut.
"It's totally uninteresting for me to leave my family and friends back in Europe and be a small club in the league here," said Soler. "We are here to do whatever we can to become big, strong and better than all the others. I'm sure we'll develop into the powerhouse on the eastern coast."
"It's a long-term process," added Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. "But it looks good."
In addition to being amid the country's media hubs, having the biggest clubs in New York and Los Angeles is also sensible because of their easy sell on foreigners. "I think sometimes the bigger markets do have a little bit of an edge," said Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. "When you think about the big-name players, Henry, Marquez, Beckham, you have to look at where they've gone: they've gone to the coast and the big cities. These big markets can provide the big city experience and sometimes better facilities."
And, ultimately, a bit of enmity between two of the biggest sports towns in the nation simply makes for a good show. And a good show is good business. "In any sport, if New York and L.A. are going good, the league is going good," said Albright. "And I think that's a dream rivalry."
"A New York-L.A. rivalry is very important," echoed Donovan.
This league now officially has one.