Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said the building of a soccer-only stadium in Queens for New York City FC will help the league tap into the Long Island fan base and could lead to a minor-league team on the Island.

“It will open up the Long Island area, which is a big soccer hotbed,” Garber said. “I think there’s minor-league opportunities there for us. We should be thinking about Long Island for MLS Next Pro.”

That is the league’s minor-league development system that started in 2022 and now has 27 teams. Both NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls have teams in MLS Next Pro, with NYCFC II playing home games at St. John’s Belson Stadium and Red Bulls II at Montclair State in New Jersey. MLS Next Pro is sanctioned as a Division III professional league by U.S. Soccer. 

Dylan Nealis, who grew up in Massapequa and plays for the New York Red Bulls, thinks expansion of MLS Next Pro to his home town can give Long Island soccer players a boost.

“To have that on Long Island would be huge to give these kids the accessibility and for them to see what it takes to be at that level,” Nealis said. “I think the more you are exposed to that level and that kind of talent, the more your dreams and aspirations will kind of align with it as well.”

“[The new stadium] is a gateway opportunity,” Garber said. “New York City can be a gateway to the east.”

The 25,000-seat stadium, scheduled to open in 2027, was approved by the New York City Council in April and will be located next to Citi Field in Willets Point.

New York City FC stadium across from Citi Field gains initial approval. NewsdayTV’s Ken Buffa reports.
Credit: NewsdayTV; NYCFC

The privately financed $780 million project will give a permanent home for NYCFC, which has played its home games at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx since the team began play in 2015. They also have hosted home games at Citi Field, Belson Stadium and at Red Bull Arena, home of the area rival New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey.

Garber, speaking last week at a meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors in Manhattan, said the stadium was a project the league had been working on for over 10 years.

“We had a close relationship with Mayor Bloomberg,” Garber said. “That almost led to a stadium in and around that same spot. It was delayed for many years with the DeBlasio administration.

“Mayor Adams leaned right in. There was new ownership with the Mets and Steve Cohen, and his group and our NYCFC group worked closely with the city to reimagine Flushing and the area around Citi Field. That project will transform Major League Soccer. To have a start-of-the-art, near-billion-dollar facility with mixed-use and affordable housing as a centerpiece of what the future of Major League Soccer can be, it’s going to be a game-changer for us. But it took a long time.”

Long Island has produced multiple players who have reached MLS, including two currently on the Red Bulls in brothers Sean Nealis and Dylan Nealis. Sean, who made his MLS debut in 2019, is a defender and one of the team’s vice-captains, and Dylan is a defender who joined the Red Bulls in 2022 after beginning his career in 2020 with Inter Miami.

“It seems like a great idea,” Sean said about the possibility of an MLS Next Pro team coming to Long Island. “It can help them visualize their goals and their dreams and they can realize it in their own backyard.”

Long Island high school coaches agreed.

“You can’t appreciate the pace they play on TV compared to live, you just can’t,” Glenn boys soccer coach Lou Hanner said. “Just seeing the pace and technical ability they have live is so different. And for these kids to go somewhere to watch a semi-pro team play on Long Island, that would be awesome.”

Long Island already is home to one minor league soccer club: the semi-professional Long Island Rough Riders have played since 1994, but currently compete in USL League 2, below the official American professional soccer pyramid. The New York Cosmos, dormant since 2021, also played on Long Island in the latest version of the NASL, considered a Division II league before its closure in 2017, as well as the Division III NISA in 2020-21.

Matthew Burke, who coached both Nealis brothers at Massapequa and is still the head varsity coach, said he enjoys going to Red Bulls games but that the commute to Red Bull Arena can be exhausting.

“I love going to Red Bull Arena, I think it’s one of the best venues around to see a game so we try to get out there as much as possible,” Burke said. “But it’s difficult because it’s a pain in the neck to get to, but that stadium itself is awesome. I love it and if they gave them something like that in Queens next to Citi Field is going to be great.”

Hanner also appreciates a soccer-only stadium being built closer to home.

“I can tell you, I’m not as likely to drive out to Yankee Stadium for a game, but I’ll certainly drive to Queens,” Hanner said. “It’s certainly a lot easier when you live out east.”

MLS signed a 10-year deal worth a reported $2.5 billion with Apple in 2022 for exclusive rights for regular-season games as well as tournaments such as the Leagues Cup. Lionel Messi, who joined Inter Miami in July 2023, has helped increase interest in MLS both in the U.S. and across the world. Having a more local presence also could drive MLS interest on Long Island.

“Almost everyone I talk to has a team in Europe they support and that’s always their first response when you ask them who’s their favorite soccer club or team, which kind of stinks,” Dylan Nealis said. “So hopefully we can change that, and a club being built on Long Island would definitely help that.”

Burke believes seeing some of the most talented players in the world playing on Long Island can help make others’ dreams of playing professionally seem more realistic.

“There’s a lot of talented kids on Long Island,” Burke said. “There really is a ton of talent here and I think that would make it a little more realistic for them to see it right here in the backyard. I see nothing but positives really from everyone on the Island. We could take a lot of good things from it. I’m hopeful.”


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