Thursday, January 15, 2015

Made in Manhattan: The Best Location for NYCFC's Stadium

As an American who roots for City, it's only natural that New York City FC should draw my attention. The club started brightly, recruiting two highly respected figures in the American game in Claudio Reyna (one of the reasons I started rooting for Manchester City back in the day) and Jason Kreis as Director and Head Coach respectively. They signed David Villa, Frank Lampard, and now Mix Diskerud, a quality trio that should have them playing good (and attractive) football in their first season. However, the Frank Lampard debacle has cast NYCFC (and Manchester City, it must be said) in a negative light. Still, in football terms, that is a temporary problem, one that will be solved once Lampard arrives in June. And the potential takeaway from the debacle, that NYCFC will be viewed as second-class citizens by those in charge at City, can be eliminated if the club successfully solves their biggest problem: the lack of a stadium.

Technically, NYCFC doesn't lack a stadium. They are part-owned by the Yankees, and are therefore able to use Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future. But MLS has come around to the idea that soccer teams need their own stadiums: they provide better sight lines, few if any empty seats, and, most importantly, the need to be taken seriously. Better people than me have gone over the NYCFC stadium saga, but due to a combination of poor planning, community opposition, and mayoral regime change, NYCFC sits without a stadium of their own and at last report were considering locations in Queens and Brooklyn. All well and good, but it seems to me that there is a better location for the stadium.

Before I get to that, what would make the ideal stadium for NYCFC? You'd need something that is currently privately-owned, as the current mayoral administration and local communities would be hostile to taking parkland (as we saw in the proposed stadium for Corona Park). You'd need something accessible, and in New York that primarily means accessible via public transport. You'd need something centrally located, to advance the goal of representing all five boroughs and allowing fans all over the city to attend. Finally, you'd need something world-class, something that allows NYCFC to make its presence known as a force in the league, and enhance City Football Group's global reputation. And I think I know a place that would fit all of these criteria.

I was in New York this past weekend with my fiancee, as she had a conference near the UN. We were waiting to catch a bus back to Boston at 1st Avenue and 38th Street. I turned around and noticed a large, empty lot behind me and wondered what was going to be built there, as there was no construction of any type going on. Then I thought to myself, this would be a perfect location for the NYCFC stadium.

My Proposed Location

The property is currently owned by Sheldon Solow, the New York City real estate baron. In 2000, he bought a total of 9 acres on 1st avenue that were vacated by Con-Edison, and planned to convert them into expensive, high-rise apartment buildings. However, his empire has taken a bit of a beating with the recent financial crisis. He has since sold 2 acres of the property and his permits and public approvals to build housing on the remaining 7 acres expired in November 2013. Mr. Solow also has had numerous health problems, is 81 years old, and is in need of cash due to troubles obtaining loans for development. An offer from Abu Dhabi would have to be very enticing to him. Since it is privately owned and empty at the moment, there wouldn't be any complaints about taking over parkland or destroying beloved buildings. And the local community had expressed concern with high-rise development, so a stadium might be a much more attractive option.

In terms of accessibility, it would be pretty hard to beat this location. It's a few blocks away from Grand Central Station, one of the biggest transportation hubs in the city. It connects to subway lines that cross through every borough (well, except for Staten Island) and to rail lines so people from elsewhere downstate and Connecticut can get there. Parking would be a problem, sure, but parking is a problem everywhere in New York. Beisdes, MLS is the sport of the youth, and nothing would showcase that more than a stadium with the ultimate urban location and focus on public transportation. The Barclay's Center functions just fine without dedicated parking, the Portland Timbers stadium does as well; a stadium here would do just fine.

Having the stadium in Manhattan would be about more than ease of transportation though. In a town with multiple teams for every sport, it's pretty obvious that closeness to the city center defines which team dominates the city. The Knicks, who play in Midtown at MSG, are more popular than the Nets, who play in Brooklyn at the Barclay's Center (this is also true of the Rangers and Islanders, the hockey teams who play in those respective locations). The Yankees, who play just across the river in the Bronx, are more popular than the Mets, who play in Queens. There's a reason the Jets fought so hard to get a West Side Stadium and attempt to usurp top dog status in the city from the Giants. Sure, NYCFC could play somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens and still play in the New York City limits. But Brooklyn is Brooklyn. Only Manhattan is New York. If NYCFC really wants to become the team that represents the city, they need to play there.

This location would be good not just for the team, but for the owners as well. Let's not forget that the underlying reasons for all of City Football Group's dealings are the UAE's attempt to diversify their portfolio beyond oil and to engage in a goodwill campaign towards Western nations (thereby shielding them from criticism of their human rights record). That was the reason for their purchase of Manchester City, and more importantly, for their focus on community development with the completion of the City Football Academy. It is why fears that they would build a stadium somewhere over large-scale community protests always seemed far-fetched, as pissing off locals is the last thing they want to do. It is also why this would be a perfect location for the stadium. Seated next to the UN, it would be a remarkable display of soft power, a chance for the UAE to favorably impress the world elite through the global language of football.

I probably should state that I am not an architect, nor a city planner. The plot is smaller than other proposed locations, though a 25,000-30,000 seat stadium can be fit in a space that size (as Craven Cottage proves). City Football Group might balk at the money involved in purchasing the property, or zoning issues may pop up, or a better use for the property may be advanced by the community. Still, if you're going to dream, dream big. If you make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Man City Are Not Favorites

As a City fan, I am of course thrilled that ESPN thinks that City have the edge on Chelsea in the title race and will win approximately 2/3 of the time. However, as a statistician, I am far from convinced that is indeed the case. ESPN is still relying on its Soccer Power Index, an index with flaws so severe it inspired me to start blogging about soccer stats 5 years ago (on livejournal for Christ's sake) and predicted Brazil had a 65% chance of winning the World Cup at one point last summer.

Let's start by saying that this is the best time of the season to compare teams performance. Since each team plays each other in the first half of the year and plays an equal amount of home and road games, their strength of schedule is exactly the same for the first half. Therefore, you don't really have to adjust a team's level of performance at this point, you can just say both City and Chelsea have played equivalent schedules over the first 19 games. Somehow, ESPN doesn't think this is the case. In their description of SPI, they state "By considering how many goals a team scores and allows, and the opposition and location of those games, SPI generates an offensive and defensive rating for each club." Given that Chelsea and City have exactly identical scoring records, it stands to reason that SPI thinks City's schedule has been easier, despite it being exactly the same as Chelsea's in terms of teams played and number of away games. It's not considering away games at the top teams more damaging either, as Chelsea have already played the other top 4 teams away and City have only played 1 of them. And although both teams have played one more game since the midway point, Chelsea played Spurs away and City played Sunderland at home. I don't see how anyone could think City have played a tougher schedule, and I'm skeptical of SPI's projections as a result.

One of the other main problems with SPI is that it continues to look just at goals, and not shots on goal, to inform how well a team has played. In individual games, there are cases where teams put a ton of shots on goal and just run into a great keeper (say, Liverpool against Man United). Then there are games where a team plays terribly but manages to score on their few chances (say, United against Liverpool). Looking at shots on goal lets you focus on the overall team performance more effectively and not just if they got lucky in the box. If we look at shots on goal differential, Chelsea are performing ahead of City, primarily because they allow fewer shots on goal per game. City have benefited by Joe Hart being in great form and stopping a higher percentage of shots than his Chelsea counterpart Courtois, but as we saw last year that may not hold up forever.

Perhaps SPI is looking at momentum instead. After all, City have caught up to Chelsea only recently, maybe they are weighting the most recent results more heavily? Well City have averaged 2.67 points over their past 6 games compared to Chelsea's 1.67, but Chelsea have also played a much tougher schedule. And once we start looking at the shots on goal differential for those matches, Chelsea has actually had a better differential than City over those games, it's just that 54% of Chelsea's opponents shots on goal have resulted in goals, a clearly unsustainable rate. If we adjust it to league average finishing rates, Chelsea would average a goal differential of .96, better than City's .77 over the same span despite playing a tougher schedule.

There's also the fact that City will be more affected by the African Cup of Nations in January, that management places a higher value on the Champions League than the Premier League, and that Kompany and Aguero are still facing injuries. Of course, Chelsea lacks the depth of City's squad, and it's not unlikely that they come back down to earth after their fantastic start. It's quite possible to make a case that City should indeed be the favorites, it's just not possible to make a statistical one.