This must be the place: The NYCFC Home Opener

Last year, we were strangers.

We’d seen them on the internet and on television from the peculiar purple confines of Orlando, and we’d tracked them for months, through press releases and rumour. The signing of David Villa. Of Frank Lampard. Of Mix. Of players we’d admired from the international stage, and of players we had only passing acquaintance with. Velazquez? Saunders? McNamara? Who were these guys, anyway? Could they play? Would they start? Would they stay?

Because last year, we were strangers.

And they played like strangers. A backline that brought RJ Allen in from Staten Island, Jefferson Mena from Colombia, and then spent much of the season relying on two kids from Man City’s elite development squad (why have you forsaken us, Angelino?). And then there was the constantly rotating crew up top with Villa – maybe Shelton, maybe Mullins, oh let’s try Tommy Mac; here’s Tony Taylor for a second, and now the fans are chanting for Poku. And sure, there were reasons for their chaos: Injuries, international call-ups, new personnel, the wrong personnel, players out of position, out of shape, out of their ever-loving minds. But it all added up to a collection of athletes who looked like they’d only met moments earlier as they emerged from the tunnel – and you can’t win with players who don’t know each other.

Because last year, we were strangers.

And you had to wonder if they wondered about us. If they wondered who would show up for the home opener in this northern borough? Would real fans come to support a team of “aging Europeans and MLS castoffs”? Would they deign to watch the beautiful game in a cathedral to baseball? ? Would there be any tifo? Would security even know what that meant? Or would the spectators be simply off-season Yankee fans who thought, sure, why not spend a few extra afternoons in the house that Derek built? Or would tourists fill the seats, simply out to see something novel before it disappeared, the way they do for a celebrity star-turn on Broadway or a limited engagement exhibition at MoMA? Hell, would anyone show up at all? And could New York even support two teams, when at times it looked like it had barely supported one?

Because last year, we were strangers.

And I remember walking into our section for the home opener the first time on that cold March afternoon and looking at the others gathered there the way you look at people on a crowded subway car during rush hour and thinking, “Who the hell are these people, anyway? Why are they even here? Will they be here next week? Are they fans or frauds?” And thinking that they were probably thinking the same thing about me.

Because last year, we were strangers.

But that was last year.

Because this year, the team on the pitch has played like a team on a pitch. Sure, there were dozens of new faces and new names to learn (“Brilliant? BrilYAUNT? Bree-yaunt?”), but there was a core that knew each other’s preferences, that had chemistry, intuition, familiarity. There was teamwork between Mix and Khiry, there was anticipation between Villa and Pirlo, there was understanding by Tony and Tommy.

And because this year, the stands were filled with fans, fans who’d started podcasts and supporters groups, official and otherwise. Who filled the internet with their passion and prognostications and pictures of Pirlo and Poku. Who’d traveled into the hearts of darkness of Foxboro, Harrison, DC and Carson and every other corner of the continent to support their team. Who had endured the slings and arrows of a league that cast aspersions on our front office, our team, our pitch, our overlords and on our very selves. Who had experienced the profound disappointment of missing the playoffs, but who had dusted themselves off, picked themselves up, and had come out to join the battle once again.

And because this year, when I walked into our section for the home opener, I was greeted by friends I’d missed since that dismal day last October when the first season came to a crashing end. And my phone was filled with texts and tweets from all over the stadium welcoming me back. And my glass was always full at Stan’s afterwards amidst the hugs and handshakes and arguments and laughter.

And sure, NYCFC have exactly the same number of points going into the third game this season as they had last year. And sure, they let two points slip away against Toronto in the home opener. And sure, Frank isn’t on the pitch, and the backline is still a mess, and the pitch is still a ballpark.

So things aren’t perfect. Like they weren’t perfect last year. But that was last year.

And this year, we’re a team.

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