Almost two weeks ago, , voiced his support for the introduction of a promotion-relegation system into American soccer. It’s been a topic of discussion since the league began: the commercialised, tight-knit safety net of MLS versus the concept of the worst teams, like in many European leagues, being punished for poor performances on the field.
In such discussions, it is arguable that no team has been used as an example more than the New York Cosmos – who it was . Once the free spenders of the 70s and 80s soccer boom in the US, attracting the likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto to The City, the Cosmos currently ply their trade in the North American Soccer League - believed to be America’s second-highest league, in terms of quality, behind the MLS.
Since their self-branded “Reboot” in 2013, though, the Cosmos, who last year clinched the showpiece NASL Soccer Bowl in their first season back, have continued the rhetoric that their primary goal – before MLS speak, before signing big-name stars like the good ol’ days – is to build a solid soccer team. The focus, the club have continued to state, is purely on the .
It is this vision that’s led some to see Season Two of the Cosmos’ Second Coming as, well, the reboot’s difficult second album. With the past so grand and the immediate restart so successful, some are beginning to ask: How do the new New York Cosmos measure success?
When Manchester City and the New York Yankees purchased the final MLS slot in New York, two and a half months before the Cosmos were due to return to the NASL, the realisation hit home that the storied franchise would not be mentioned as a realistic addition to America’s premier soccer league until at least 2020, when the will revaluate its expansion priorities.
For the foreseeable future, then, on-field success for the Cosmos will be measured on two levels: domination of the NASL and perhaps winning the US Open Cup.
The former, a league that itself rebooted in 2009 (kicking off in 2011) and was won by the original Cosmos a record five times, is played in two segments: a spring followed by a fall season. Through a system that lends itself to excitable end-of-season action, the winners of each half, as well as two other seeded sides, go into a four-team playoff; the overall winner, just like with the original NASL, takes home the Soccer Bowl title. (The Cosmos comfortably won last season’s fall period, losing just one of 14 matches, before claiming the title, against Atlanta.)
This season, the Cosmos look likely to claim a place in the playoffs – but performances on the field have been mixed. Having failed to build on the success of 2013 and capture this year’s spring title (won by Minnesota United), it now looks like the “Boys in Green” will make the playoff as either the third or fourth seeds.
“On the field, we must always be competing for championships,” said Erik Stover, chief operating office of the Cosmos, by email. “We’ve had rough patch of injuries and modest results this year but things appear to be coming back in time for The Championship.”
This drop in form has lent itself to decreased attendance figures at Cosmos matches – though one might argue that this could have been expected, given the zeal that surrounded last season’s relaunch, which included Pelé appearances and the addition of the club’s marquee signing, Marcos Senna.
Apart from the league, the second marker of success for Senna and co is the US Open Cup, a knockout-style tournament that is now in its 101st edition. Like the FA Cup, this historic trophy allows entrants from all standards across the country. The competition, the club have said in the past, allows the Cosmos the opportunity to prove that they are the best soccer team in the country, despite MLS’s title as America’s elite soccer league. This continues to be their objective.
In their first outing in the tournament since the Cosmos Mark II was launched, the team managed to claim a memorable 3-0 victory over city rivals, the New York Red Bulls, in front of more than 9,000 home fans. They were eventually defeated, 2-1, by MLS side Philadelphia Union in the fifth round (final 16) – a game in which the Cosmos looked the better side for the majority of the match.
“The NASL showed very well in the Open Cup this year and we should have advanced beyond the Philadelphia match if it wasn’t for some very poor officiating,” said Stover. “That stuff happens in sport, so we just the turn page and continue to work hard.”
Winning the US Open Cup would also allow the Cosmos to also qualify as one of the United States’ four representatives in the Concacaf Champions League, vying against the best the continent has to offer, without having kicked a ball in the MLS.
Talk of such an achievement will have to wait another season, though. And it is such talk that could, based on results alone, point to this season as somewhat of a sticking point for the Cosmos’ on-field ambitions, should they not follow up last year’s NASL title with another crown. They are clearly the biggest name in the league – with the grandest history – so why shouldn’t such high expectations be place upon them?
But perhaps this vision of success is somewhat of a distortion, thanks mainly to players who donned the green jersey more than 35 years ago. People think “Cosmos” and picture glitz, glamour, and grandiose. Almost instinctively, one sees the past screamers from Chinaglia before the tap-ins of present. (Let alone the balance sheets.)
What if the off-field plans of the current regime are just as much of a marker of achievement for the current Cosmos as the on-field razzmatazz of the past? Really, they are still a team in its infancy. The goal, the club have previously said, is not to immediately emulate the original Cosmos’ wild spending and risky-but-instant success; year-on-year growth is the key.
Less than two years since they returned to competitive action, the Cosmos appear to have laid down a solid base for what looks like be a well-run backroom structure. Based on Long Island, their plan is to develop a $400m, privately funded stadium, which would see the team house some 25,000 fans. (Current Cosmos attendance figures, on average, are around 5,000 at the James M Shuart Stadium, at Hofstra University.) Stover, who admitted the process has taken a little longer than they would have liked, said that he still feels the proposals for the plot, in Belmont Park, are “ by far the largest economic impact with no taxpayer funding”.
This private funding will come from finances that the clubs keep very close to their chest – believed to be linked to the Middle East. This may help to explain how the Cosmos have maintained sponsorship deals with household names, such as Nike and Fly Emirates, despite not being in America’s top league. It also means, should they wish to return to the lavish spending of old, the finances may be there, if the competition were to arrive.
Take away expectations of fielding the likes of World Cup winners, too, and you could even argue that the rebooters have done a decent job in putting together a Cosmos roster that seems extremely suited – if a little strong – for the level at which the find themselves. The likes of Danny Szetela, Carlos Mendes and Hunter Freeman appear to be solid, US-born signings; Senna, though never seen as a flair player during his time in Europe, was a smart choice as the club’s main signature, providing stability in the middle of the park over the past two seasons; and upfront, where the team have perhaps struggled most of all, Spanish forward Raúl is all but signed for next season’s push.
And then there is the decision to join the NASL itself: to some, it, like the Cosmos, is still an enigma that will continue to have questions over its long term goals – To challenge the MLS or not? The NASL, in a format that the Cosmos have said suits them, does not have a salary cap in place or designated players like the MLS; hypothetically, there is nothing stopping a team following the model of building a dominant franchise, like Warner Communications did with the original Cosmos.
Before such a team emerges, though – be it the Cosmos or not – perhaps the best the New York team can hope for is a sense of rivalry in a league that, like them, may be taking the Icarus approach, and questioning just how high to reach so soon.
“[Having our current-day expectations based on the past] will always be the case for us and we welcome the challenge,” said Stover. “We will always honour the past and work hard every day to build the club back up to where it once was.”
It is this strange concoction, then – historic names linked to young brands; aims based on the past; and on-field success being the instinctive marker – which makes distinguishing the achievements of Cosmos Chapter Two a little tricky.
Judge the Cosmos on their performances and, though wrong, based on what Pelé’s team did in the past: clinching the NASL title this season (and beyond) should perhaps be the least fans of the famed franchise should expect, given that they also have the financial resources to do so. It may not even be too much to ask for a hint of style in the process.
Looking at the Cosmos’ success off the field – perhaps not even looking at it as the “Cosmos” at all; envisage, instead, “New York’s two-year-old NASL franchise” – and the team – with a sound financial footing, soccer-specific stadium proposals, a strong roster for their level, and a league title already under their belt – seem to be fairly prepared for the NASL-or-bust approach of the next six years.
“The process will take time and we feel like we’ve done well in a short amount,” said Stover. Gauging success – on the field and off – will continue to be realistic. No matter how difficult it is to forget the past.