As Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber spoke Tuesday about the league’s gleaming new soccer-specific stadiums in Austin, Cincinnati and Columbus, a glaring fact loomed over his words — MLS Cup 2021 nearly was set for a baseball stadium.
Had Real Salt Lake upset the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference final last week, New York City FC’s Eastern title would have brought the league’s showcase game to Yankee Stadium.
"I’m convinced NYCFC would’ve sold out Yankee Stadium," Garber said during his state of the league news conference. "So we would’ve had an incredible crowd and it would’ve been a good environment."
City fans aren’t getting the chance to prove Garber right this year. NYCFC will visit the Timbers at 3 p.m. on Saturday with a chance to claim the club’s first championship. It’s also an opportunity to capture the attention of a crowded sports market starved for a winner, but one yet to reward its two MLS clubs with remarkable attendance or viewership.
Ahead of the biggest match for a New York soccer team since the Red Bulls lost to the Columbus Crew in MLS Cup 2008, Garber said he believes NYCFC’s success will help the club make inroads toward establishing itself in the local sports landscape while searching for a permanent home.
"I think that you’ve got to have success on the field and you’ve got to have relevance," said Garber of NYCFC’s place in the city. "It’s difficult in markets where you’ve got more than 10 professional sports teams, as you know, but I think the team is making progress."
After a regular-season split between the Bronx and Red Bull Arena, NYCFC reached MLS Cup by first beating Atlanta United in front of 25,267 at the Stadium, followed by results on the road over the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union.
"I think getting into their first MLS Cup has done wonders for them, and I hope to see that pay off in season tickets for them next year, their television ratings on YES and the contribution to the national rating."
Those season tickets, of course, would be for Yankee Stadium plus a few trips to Citi Field. Garber had no updates on a long-term stadium project but expressed his faith in the club’s leadership to eventually make it happen.
"The situation in New York continues to evolve," Garber said. "The ownership group is focused, they continue to work on a variety of different opportunities, you’ve read about those. There’s no secret to what both their challenges are and what their opportunities are."
In discussing NYCFC’s struggles, Garber cited the long journey D.C. United took to build Audi Field, its first soccer-specific stadium after spending two decades in a decrepit RFK Stadium.
"I’m not saying it’s going to take that long with NYCFC, but we’ve got to get it right," Garber said. "It’s not easy to build stadiums in large cities, and New York is the largest in our league. So I’m confident in time they’ll be able to have a stadium of their own. I hope I’m still commissioner at that time."