It's that time of year again.
Although it may seem hard to believe, the winter is finally ending. Soon enough, Irish American New Yorkers will join folks from many other backgrounds and flock to the Bronx.
There, they will congregate in a sporting mecca, indulge in some peanuts and Cracker Jack, and cheer on some of the world’s best athletes.
That’s right, it’s almost Opening Day at Yankee Stadium for the…New York City Football Club!
What, you thought I was talking about the actual New York Yankees? Well, sure, we will also be welcoming the Bronx Bombers back soon enough. The Yanks – minus future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, Irish on his mother’s side – open up their 2015 campaign on April 6.
But before then, we are presented with a very interesting experiment, the newly-formed New York City Football Club (NYCFC), with an Irish-born coach and a roster packed with Irish American talent. They will open their first season at Yankee Stadium on March 15 when they play the New England Revolution.
The NYCFC will spend the summer playing at the big ballpark in the Bronx right into October – and thus reigniting a debate that has raged on and off for years between the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic.
This time of year, Irish American sports fans are generally looking forward to the return of baseball, the so-called national pastime. In the New York area, for the first time in years, the Mets actually have a chance to have a better year than the fabled Yankees. Both teams have Irish Americans who have been selected to past all-star teams, including Mets second basemen Daniel Murphy and Yankees catcher Brian McCann.
But for many born in Ireland, baseball is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dreadfully boring. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what a fair number of Irish Americans would say about football.
No, not the Super Bowl kind of football. I mean, of course, soccer.
Don’t look now, but the New York area has not one but two soccer teams in Major League Soccer. The NYCFC is hoping to initiate an intense rivalry with the Red Bulls, whose home is across the water in New Jersey.
But can a soccer club on the pitch in Yankee Stadium actually excite Irish Americans?
Well, there is certainly enough Hibernian flavor on the NYCFC roster.
Dublin-born Aidan Byrne is a member of the NYCFC coaching staff, which is led by head coach Jason Kreis. Byrne, who is also head soccer coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, played collegiate soccer at the University of Rhode Island and Mount Ida College in the 1990s. He currently holds the position of physical performance coach with the NYCFC.
On the pitch, Yonkers-born Irish American Ryan Meara is just one of NYCFC’s goalies with Irish roots. Meara attended Fordham University and comes from a family with deep ties to another heavily-Irish institution – the FDNY.
“My grandfather was (a firefighter). My dad and my uncle are still firefighters in the city. It’s just something that’s always been in my family. If I wasn’t playing soccer, that’s probably what I’d be doing,” Meara recently told New York magazine.
Meara is joined in goal by Akira Fitzgerald, who is just your typical Irish/Japanese American. Fitzgerald was actually born in Chiba, Japan, to a Japanese mother and Irish father, and played college soccer at Wake Forest.
Rounding out the Irish contingent for NYCFC at mid-field is another New Yorker, West Nyack native Thomas McNamara, while New Orleans-born Patrick Mullins will be handling duties at Forward.
Obviously, NYCFC is banking on the New York area’s soccer-loving immigrant communities, as well as the excitement generated by the last World Cup. There is also a built-in regional rivalry with the Red Bulls.
But there is really a much bigger question here. Will Irish Americans set aside their love of baseball – not to mention basketball and hockey, which run their playoffs and championships in the spring – and embrace soccer/football like their cousins across the Atlantic?
Only time will tell. Play ball!
* Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com.