It should be obvious by now that Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber didn't have a plan for getting a second team into the New York media market. What he had was a single goal, and plan components that shifted repeatedly in pursuit of that goal.
The announcement on Tuesday that the 20th team in M.L.S. -- New York City F.C., beginning play in 2015 -- would be owned by the group who own the English Premier League's Manchester City, along with a surprise minority ownership stake from the Yankees, is ideal given what Garber and M.L.S. wanted in an owner. It locks in place a group who couldn't possibly be better capitalized (yes, when it comes to Sheik Mansour, the word "trillionaire" gets thrown around quite a bit), along with the Yankees, who you may have heard are pretty comfortable themselves.
It also reaffirms Garber's constant flexibility when it comes to making sure he gets what he wants: a second M.L.S. team in the New York market, playing within the five boroughs, and providing the league with a fresh shot at making an impact in the biggest media market in the country.
"To do it in New York has been a priority for us since the league was founded in 1996," Garber said Tuesday afternoon on a conference call, joined by Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees, and Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano. "This is a market that has a rich history of soccer events, an enormous profile."
And Garber, inside of a minute, went on to address that other soccer team, the one that's existed in M.L.S. since 1996 as well. "Most importantly for us as it relates to the market is it provides us with a rivalry for the New York Red Bulls, a team that's here, playing in Red Bull Arena. Rivalries drive the success of soccer around the world."
But it is the difficulties the Red Bulls have had succeeding in the New York market, either on the field or in developing a fan base appropriate for the number of soccer fans in this metropolitan area, that created Garber's desire for a second bite at the apple.
He may be overstating the drive for a second New York team -- after all, it only became something the Red Bulls couldn't veto once the Red Bulls were sold to, you guessed it, Red Bull in March 2006, with the right to veto such a move part of the sale. But ever since then, Garber's remained steadfastly in pursuit of a New York team. Even as the former Metrostars set about building a gleaming new stadium in Harrison, N.J., eventually opening Red Bull Arena in March 2010, Garber spoke of teaming up with Fred Wilpon and his partners, owners of the New York Mets.
"Listen, we can't think of a better owner for an MLS team than the Wilpon family, and to be associated with the Mets, and to work on a project in Queens. Why would you want to do anything else?" Garber said in July 2009, though he acknowledged no longer being in active discussions with them. "We'll definitely talk in the future.''
So the plan evidently had been for a Mets-ownership-backed stadium in Queens. Presumably, that faded when Garber determined that Wilpon didn't have enough money for his own baseball team, let alone a soccer team. By 2011, it looked like the revitalized New York Cosmos would be the ultimate fit.
"We're bullish about the opportunities, whether it's with the Cosmos alone or partnering them with others," Garber said in March 2011. And once the Cosmos were purchased by Sela Sport, the combination of existing soccer brand and lots of new money appeared to be a perfect fit.
But the desire of the Cosmos to control their own stadium project eventually ran headlong into what Garber determined was the best course of action: get a stadium deal in place, and draw the best possible owners once it was settled. Thus began M.L.S.-to-Queens, a multi-year marketing campaign to get a stadium deal approved at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
It is impossible to overstate how often Garber, at every turn, spoke about the stadium. Who would own the team? Eh, maybe the Cosmos; probably not, though. That would come. The stadium was the thing.
"There's a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land and our ability to lease that land to build a stadium," Garber said in December 2012. "I do believe that we will resolve that shortly. I can't put any timetable on that, but we are at the finish line."
Garber even made it sound like if the stadium wasn't built in Queens, he'd look at other markets altogether. "It needs to get done so that we can move on with our expansion plans," Garber said at the Red Bulls' home opener in March. "I'm not going to put any timing on that but we've got to finalize our expansion plan. There's a lot of activity in Orlando and we've got to figure out where that fits in with our expansion timing."
Now, with this announcement, four weeks after Garber put a "four-to-six weeks" timetable on a final deal, a deal is final. Sort of. The multi-year focus on a stadium first, owner second has been reversed. And it is impossible to imagine luring a better-financed ownership group, short of Garber awarding the franchise to an actual bottomless pit of money.
So where will they play?
Tuesday's announcement of a 2015 league start date pushes the reality of N.Y.C.F.C. ahead of the most optimistic timetable for the stadium project in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Garber had spoken of a 2016 open; many believed 2017 was more realistic.
There was no pretense of team and stadium opening as one; in the press release, M.L.S. describes plans "to play in an interim home." And Garber, speaking about the stadium in the past tense in Tuesday's conference call, said: "That's why we worked so hard on that. But there's a lot of work that still needs to be done by Man City and the Yankees to get out in the community and meet with folks and then perhaps look at other options." He went on to refer to the team's eventual home as "Queens or better places."
This is not to say the stadium deal is dead, necessarily. In fact, bringing Randy Levine on board, a man who shepherded through the Yankee Stadium plan through city and state government so fast it probably caused local opposition to organize more quickly for the M.L.S. plan, could be part of an effort to bring the stadium deal, as-is, to completion. Levine and the Yankees certainly have a stake in it, though Levine declined to say how much of one.
But even if Garber's Queens stadium gambit has failed, Tuesday marked huge progress for him. And it is the kind of progress he couldn't have enjoyed if he'd simply stuck to a single path for achieving his goal of a second New York team in M.L.S. He may not be at the finish line just yet, but now he has some allies with enough money, cache and contacts to get him there.
What happens at that point, to the new team, to the Red Bulls, to a city that hasn't taken much notice just yet, and to the league as a whole? That's anyone's guess.