Three professional clubs by 2015, a fans’ bar that attracts up to 5,000 aficionados of a busy Saturday and a thriving ethnic park football scene – these are exciting times for the game in New York. On the eve of MLS 2014, Red Bulls, Cosmos and NYCFC are highlighted by US-based soccer blogger Ian Thomson.

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The grapple for the Big Apple

Major League Soccer 2014 kicks off this month with one club from the Big Apple among the 19: New York Red Bulls. But by 2015 there’ll be another, New York City FC – while arguably the biggest name, New York Cosmos, returned to the American soccer pyramid in 2013.

This burgeoning professional scene reflects the Big Apple’s status as one of the world’s most vibrant soccer destinations.

Both currently active New York clubs picked up silverware in 2013. Thierry Henry’s Red Bulls enter the MLS season looking to retain the Supporters’ Shield, awarded for the best regular-season record. Across town, Cosmos are aiming for another North American Soccer League (NASL) crown after their title-winning return to the professional game last year. After the golden days of Pelé, Beckenbauer and 70,000 crowds in 1977, the original Cosmos and NASL folded. After several attempts, the modern-day Cosmos were recently revived along with the NASL, a de facto second flight with no promotion or relegation with the MLS.

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Another challenge awaits. The addition of the glitzy Manchester City and New York Yankees-owned New York City FC franchise to MLS in 2015 puts pressure on the two existing rivals to defend their respective fan bases as well as their trophies.

About three million New Yorkers were born overseas. Many more belong to immigrant families. Public parks throng every weekend with locals representing their communities in ethnic-driven leagues. Meanwhile, crowded bars reverberate to the voices of commentators covering games from around Europe and Latin America.

The Football Factory at Legends Bar in the shadow of the Empire State Building hosts over 30 supporters’ groups from Brazilian teams to Brann Bergen, and New York’s clubs to Newcastle United. Irish barman Jack Keane estimates that up to 5,000 fans drop by on a busy Saturday. Sir Alex Ferguson is an occasional patron during his Manhattan visits.

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Soccer’s popularity in the area stretches back to the late 1800s when migrant workers at linoleum and textile factories across the river in New Jersey, many from Scotland, formed semi-professional teams including the Kearny Scots and Newark Caledonian.

A century ago, warring administrative factions of the burgeoning American game met at New York’s Astor House and the Broadway Central Hotel. The result was the US Football Association – today’s US Soccer Federation, behind the national team going into a seventh consecutive World Cup Finals in Brazil this June.

Europe’s upheavals brought further waves of immigration and New York’s German-American Soccer League boasted strong teams from German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Croatian and Polish communities.

MLS filled the void left by the NASL’s demise. Its original MetroStars franchise in New York was rebranded in 2006 after being acquired by Red Bull. The team plays at the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena built in New Jersey’s historic soccer hotbed, a 20-minute ride on the PATH train from Lower Manhattan.

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Red Bull’s takeover and its perceived lack of community outreach left a sour taste in the mouths of many local supporters that has benefitted the rekindled Cosmos. The arrival of New York City FC adds another dynamic to a fan divide based on personal preferences than geographical, social or religious factors.

New York’s density presents stadium-building issues for its teams. The Cosmos are currently based seven miles outside the city at Hofstra University. Courtesy minibuses ferry fans to the stadium from the closest Long Island Rail Road station at Mineola. A decision from councillors on a proposed $400 million development at Belmont Park in Queens is pending.

New York City FC face a similar short-term stopgap. Yankee Stadium in the Bronx will host the club’s inaugural season while owners search for a permanent home.

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Ian Thomson is a journalist and author who has written for ‘Bloomberg News’, the ‘New York Times’ and the ‘Wall Street Journal’. His first book, ‘Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil’, was issued in 2013.