In New York Soccer Rivalry, Cult Figures Outnumber Championships

The soccer pedigree of Mike Grella, right, wouldn’t qualify him as a star in Major League Soccer, but Red Bulls fans sing his praises.CreditTodd Kirkland/Associated Press

By Leander Schaerlaeckens

The banner was as much a fixture at games as Mike Petke was during every one of his 11 seasons as a player and coach with the MetroStars and, later, the Red Bulls. Whether at Giants Stadium or later at Red Bull Arena, it was always there, game after game, staring back at him when he looked up into the supporters’ section. “Petke rocks,” it read.

The banner stayed on for a while even after his controversial firing as the team’s coach two years ago, a testament to the connection that Petke, a hard-nosed defender and then a fiery coach, retained with the Red Bulls faithful.

“I had and have a tremendous relationship with the supporters that I played and coached in front of for all those years,” Petke said. “The main reasons are I was always true. I was never fake. I was just myself.”


In 23 combined seasons, Major League Soccer’s two New York teams have together fielded six players who have competed on World Cup-winning teams yet have produced no M.L.S. championships. They have, however, developed a knack for creating cult heroes. It has become a quirk of the New York soccer market that the most committed fans of each team have seemed to gravitate reflexively not to the expensive foreign stars imported specifically to draw in crowds but more to the solid but otherwise unremarkable players who fill in the gaps around them.

Red Bulls fans unfurled a banner in 2015 to protest the sudden firing of Coach Mike Petke, a beloved but unspectacular former player.CreditJeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Think Petke, not Pirlo. McNamara, not Matthäus.

Historically, that might be because many of the big names did not deliver on expectations. At times, a few of them didn’t seem to care whether their teams won or lost. Lothar Matthäus, a World Cup winner for Germany, phoned it in during his brief tenure with the MetroStars, spending much of his time clubbing in Manhattan or vacationing in St.-Tropez when he was purportedly rehabbing an injury. The former France star Youri Djorkaeff was spotted on television attending a World Cup game when he had told the club he was visiting his sick mother. Mexico’s Rafa Márquez seemed to go out of his way to annoy, or at least avoid interacting with, the Red Bulls fans.

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More recently, across the river at New York City F.C., Frank Lampard lingered with sister club Manchester City for half a season longer than planned, missing the start of the team’s inaugural season and damaging a relationship that never truly recovered. Andrea Pirlo and Mix Diskerud did arrive, only to disappoint, and then disappear.

To fill this affection vacuum, fans of both teams have created their own favorites. First there was Petke, whose accent and attitude underlined his Long Island roots, and later players like the largely pedigree-free Mike Grella. At N.Y.C.F.C., jerseys in the stands honored the lightly used (and now departed) Kwadwo Poku as well as the scrappy but opportunistic midfielder Tommy McNamara.

Early this month, McNamara, who entered the league with a mullet and became recognizable (and renowned) for his long locks, cut his hair short, to the consternation of both fans and teammates. The decision — revealed in a tweet hours before a game — was of no consequence to McNamara. “I just wanted a change,” he said this week.


But the sudden shearing caused a stir on social media, an over-the-top reaction that spoke clearly to how fans connect to him, something that he admitted surprised him. “I mean, it’s just hair,” he said.


Coach Mike Petke applauding fans after the Red Bulls won a playoff series in 2014. “I never felt like they were cheering for me more than I was cheering for them,” he recently said.CreditLuis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

To supporters whose local soccer fandom itself makes them outsiders, especially in a sports city like New York, the roots of the cult-hero status some players enjoy may lie not so much in their talent, but in the understanding that they are just as devoted to the team as the fans are.

“They know what we’re like,” said Steve Ferrezza of the Red Bulls’ Empire Supporters Club. “They really are one of us. I guess you could call them working-class heroes as opposed to a Rafa Márquez or a Thierry Henry, who have been stars all over the world. It feels like it’s more of a paycheck for them than living and breathing for the club.”

To fans like Ferrezza, one of the charms of M.L.S. is broad access to appreciative players who many times hail from — and retain links to — similar social and economic backgrounds. The Red Bulls’ newest prodigy, for example, the 18-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams, has quickly won the fans’ favor for his strong play. But it helps that he was raised an hour up the Hudson River in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and attended Red Bulls games as a fan long before joining the club.

Petke, who went to high school on Long Island and was drafted by the MetroStars out of college, said he felt a similar connection. “I considered myself very identifiable with them because I supported the club like they did,” said Petke, who now coaches another M.L.S. team, Real Salt Lake. “I never felt like they were cheering for me more than I was cheering for them.”

Relationships were forged. Petke recognized longtime fans. As a rookie, he said he once felt too tired to sign autographs for fans after a loss, let them know and walked on. “I took two steps and my dad’s hand was around the back of my neck,” Petke remembered. “I never made that mistake again.”



Tommy McNamara, right, has become a fan favorite at N.Y.C.F.C., a team built around high-profile signings like those of David Villa and Andrea Pirlo.CreditJulie Jacobson/Associated Press

That same season, a MetroStars fan named Ilan Lev tracked Petke down on the AOL Instant Messenger service on behalf of his younger sister Orly. They were both rabid fans, and Orly had been in and out of the hospital with Crohn’s disease. Would Petke send her something he had signed, Lev asked? Feeling that wouldn’t be enough, Petke instead showed up in person with an armful of gifts and without any club representative to manage (or publicize) the visit.

Petke maintained a relationship with the Levs for the remainder of his time with the club, involving them in various team activities from time to time. “Just out of the kindness of his heart,” Lev said. “He got nothing out of it.”

Grella has a habit of turning up at Christmas parties for Red Bulls fans. “Hanging out with us,” Ferrezza said. “Drinking a beer like he’s just a normal guy.”

N.Y.C.F.C. fans expressed pride at similar personal connections with their local heroes.

“The guys like McNamara and R. J. Allen appreciate the fans just as much as the fans appreciate them,” said Ben Glidden, a member of N.Y.C.F.C.’s Third Rail supporters group. “They’re not as untouchable as the guys like Pirlo and Lampard.”

“Guys like Pirlo and Lampard get butts in seats,” Glidden added. “They’re a great marketing platform for the team. Guys like McNamara and Poku, they’re not the ones getting people to the stadium. But they’re the ones making you fall in love with the team.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D5 of the New York edition with the headline: A Rivalry Revolves Around Cult Figures, Not Championships. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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