As excited as I am about the prospect of having the New York Cosmos back, I’ve been reluctant to write about it. And, to be honest, the reason is because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a better title than Leander Schaerlaeckens’ ESPN article Twice In A Lifetime (a line originally used by Jack Bell in The New York Times). But having watched the Cosmos Academy East’s U18 team play their season opener, I just had to share…
FAMILIAR COLORS RETURN TO THE FIELD
This weekend I had the pleasure of witnessing the new New York Cosmos, in the form of the team’s new U18 Cosmos Academy East squad, take the field competitively for the first time in 25 years. A product of the Cosmos’ acquisition of the Blau Weiss Gottschee youth soccer program, the U18 side played host to the South Central Premier Soccer Club’s U18 team from Branford, CT.
One of the oldest and most competitive youth travel programs in New York City, BW Gottschee has always produced quality teams at all levels. However, the Queens-based program is distinguished by its reputation as the club for players serious about pursuing the game professionally – or at least seeking a college scholarship. As a result, a lot of the top talent from other local travel teams eventually migrate to Gottschee’s U16, U17, and U18 ranks. Though most of the kids who took to the field in Cosmos colors came up through the Gottschee program.
The game was played out at Aviator Sports, a very Brooklyn version of Chelsea Piers located at historic Floyd Bennett Field on the shores of Jamaica Bay. Frankly, I think it would have been easier to get to Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. And the exposed site was pummeled by arctic winds on that late November afternoon, which made the modest fanfare – including a samba percussion quartet trying to keep things lively on the sidelines – seem a bit out of place. It was a delightfully miserable experience, much like watching Portugal crush North Korea 7-0 in a cold Cape Town downpour this summer.
As the game got underway, the Cosmos quickly emerged as the stronger side. They didn’t always hold their shape well, and there were one or two weak links, but overall they were a talented team that played well together.
Right away one player stood out from the others: #15, 18 year-old Moriken Sangary of the Bronx. Small in stature, Sangary prowled the pitch like a panther. And he moved effortlessly with the ball.
The opening goal came from #7, David Diosa, a 17 year-old from the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. Taking advantage of a strong wind, Diosa lofted a high corner kick that dropped like a rock at the far post. But, as if a gust of wind was blown across the city by the ghost of Steve Ross, the ball suddenly floated in just under the crossbar – South Central’s Cech-helmeted keeper unable to deal with it. The New York Cosmos took the lead in the 12th minute, 1-0.
Heading into the brutally cold wind, South Central only had one shot in the first half. The Cosmos continued to work the ball well, particularly in the middle of the field. Their biggest weakness was an inability – or perhaps unwillingness – to play the ball wide, except for the occasional fast break. Given their 4-3-3 formation, this had to be frustrating for the coaches.
After a quick thawing inside Aviator Sports at the half, action resumed out on the artificial tundra. Around the 57th minute (forgive me, but it was too cold to take notes), South Central tied it up at 1-1 with an amazing shot from outside the box. But the Cosmos answered five minutes later, with Sangary beating the keeper to all ball in the box, putting his team back in the lead, 2-1.
Maybe I’ve watched too much New York City high school soccer, but the Cosmos kids looked quite good on the ball. They were usually the first to get to a loose ball and shielded it well. They were also good at poaching it from their opponents.
But it was South Central who struck next, getting a scrappy equalizer around the 74th minute. Three minutes later, Sangary once again beat the keeper to the ball, this time lifting it over his head to make it 3-2. And that’s how it finally (and mercifully, for those of us on the sidelines) ended, in the 95th minute, with the New York Cosmos earning a victory in their season opener – and their return to competitive soccer.
But where do we go from here? Are the New York Cosmos really back? And will they actually field a team in the MLS someday?
THE COSMOS LEGACY
The New York Cosmos were a team that transcended the power of the sport here in America, at a time when soccer was still an outsider. Backed by entertainment execs and boasting a star-studded roster, the team became not just a successful sports franchise but a cultural phenomenon, as captured brilliantly in the 2006 documentary Once In A Lifetime.
Having grown up in rural upstate New York in the 70s, the New York Cosmos were the closest thing I had to a home team. When I was 10 or 11, my dad took me to see them take on the Rochester Lancers, on a field that wasn’t much nicer than the one at Aviator Sports. But I got to see Pele, Shep Messing, and other legends play.
He also bought me the obligatory Pele/Cosmos lunch box, which sadly disappeared years ago. But I still have the program from when we went to see the Cosmos play my favorite European side at the time, FC Koln, at the Meadowlands. Growing up in the 70s, playing soccer was never cool. But the Cosmos gave us a genuine taste of what could – and should – be.
While many of us look back at that era with some nostalgia, there are some in the modern American soccer community who almost demonize the NASL. They blame the league’s demise on the Cosmos’ extravagant spending for star power. And it is true that the Cosmos, like the Yankees did in MLB, started a “talent race” in the NASL. But it wasn’t the race to sign big-name players from overseas that sunk the league as much as the league lacking a sufficient fan base at the time to support such hefty spending.
Back then, soccer was still an anomaly in America. True, in their heyday, the original Cosmos used to draw 75,000 fans to the Meadowlands, including plenty of celebrities. But soccer was merely a fad at the time, a suddenly popular curiosity in an era when experimentation was the norm.
Today, soccer is the most played sport in America. With the possible exception of LA Galaxy games, fans aren’t turning out to see celebrities. They have a passion for the game, either from playing it as children or watching their children play it. The have a connection to the game, an emotional investment. And any business person with an ounce of marketing sense will tell you that’s like striking gold.
Which is probably why a team of investors decided to finally wrestle the rights to the Cosmos from Peppe Pinton. The global marketing firm Anomaly, which has pursued a natural extension of services into the world of business development, partnered with Paul Kemsley, an English real estate developer who served as vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur.
Having started the project in July 2008, acquiring the rights to the name in October 2009, they formally announced their intent in August 2010, using honorary president and spokesperson Pele. Since then, the management team has expanded to include Terry Byrne, who has done everything from massaging the English national team to serving as the director of football at Watford, which is the position he now holds at the Cosmos. Rick Parry has also signed on, brining his vast experience as the chief executive at Liverpool as well as the EPL, where he was instrumental in helping shape it into the league it is today.
While the Cosmos have been clear about their intention of fielding a professional team in MLS, that does not appear to be their primary objective – at least not right now. Instead, their focus is on creating opportunities for more kids to play soccer, and helping those kids develop into marketable soccer talent. Which may sound like kind of hollow drivel you’d expect from such an enterprise, but these guys are serious about it. And, when you look at their approach to building the club, developing local talent is the key.
BUILDING A CLUB INSTEAD OF STARTING A TEAM
As the new management team are quick to point out, they are taking a very different approach from the original Cosmos formula. Instead of acquiring aging superstars to generate publicity and fan interest, the new Cosmos will build its team from the ground up, which is why their partnerships with BW Gottschee in New York and LAFC in Los Angeles to create a formal Cosmos Academy is so important.
MLS insists that it will cling to its arcane salary restrictions and designated player limitations, ensuring that we will never see top-class talent like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo playing for an American club (which would be truly depressing if it wasn’t so silly). So the Cosmos are focusing on developing homegrown talent. And, believe me, there’s plenty of work that can be done to improve the way we interest kids in the game, instruct them how to play, develop them as players, retain that interest through adolescence, and give them a realistic and recognizable path to play professionally.
Even though it is a few years away from fielding a professional team, the Cosmos have already invested more than $1 million in youth soccer. According to ESPN, that’s twice the annual budget of DC United’s Academy, arguably the most successful in the MLS.
In addition to youth academies on each coast, the Cosmos have expressed interest in running a youth league in New York City. This could prove to be a challenge, given the current dominance of the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League. However, with the wide range of talent in the city, some of the better travel teams have formed elite leagues for select age groups that play teams from around the region, or joined Jersey-based leagues that do the same.
And there is plenty of talent to tap in New York City. In 2008, two U10 teams from Manhattan met in the final of the US National Futsal Championships, even though neither side had competitively played futsal (most of the competition came from teams around the country who do). The challenge has been – and will be for the Cosmos – getting those kids to stick with soccer as they get older, and getting the kind of coaching, training, and playing experience that will develop them into world-class players.
To achieve this, the Cosmos have brought on board Giovanni Savarese and Teddy Chronopoulos as directors of the Academy East & West, respectively. With their experience, combined with the successful youth programs they have partnered with, the Cosmos aim to take player development to a new level.
For starters, the Cosmos Academy will be free, which opens up opportunities to many more children whose parents cannot afford the cost of travel teams in New York City, which can be as much as $1,600 annually. The Cosmos plan to add staff to the programs to support and expand elements such as skills training, conditioning, and mentorship.
“We try to look at successful academy programs worldwide and look at all the best practices while adapting them to the US players and US market,” explained Giovanni Savarese, director of the Cosmos Academy East. ”We are trying to emulate the 4-3-3 systems that have been successfully used by both present-day Barcelona and the Dutch National Team of the 60s and 70s – giving players in the midfield more possession and interaction and the ability to create.”
BUILDING A FANBASE
Building the team from the ground up also mirrors the organization’s approach to marketing the club. Instead of heavy fanfare, it has relied more on grassroots marketing. It’s always hard to bring back a successful brand. But instead of bringing the Cosmos back to New York City, they have focused on creating a demand throughout the local soccer community to have the Cosmos back in New York City, a strategy that will surely prove more successful given the uniqueness of New York’s cosmopolitan market.
To approach the New York City soccer community, it seems natural to begin with the recreational and instructional programs for young kids, which frankly aren’t necessarily a critical audience since there isn’t as a strong a commitment to the game – from child or parent – at that stage. But those programs feed into the area’s robust youth travel soccer programs, like BW Gottschee. The travel teams ultimately feed the public and private high school leagues, which lack the quality and focus of the travel programs but are favored by many youth players for social factors – a hurdle the Cosmos will need to overcome.
And then you’ve got the adult recreational leagues, which come in both the indoor and outdoor varieties. Ranging from Asphalt Green to Zog Sports, they offer everything from corporate teams to over-40 squads. The Cosmos already acquired the top local amateur tournament, Copa NYC.
You can also find regular pick-up games in most major parks every weekend, weather permitting. The other target-rich environment is the pubs that broadcast matches, where you’ll find a strong following for foreign sides but a fanatical love for the game that’s worth trying to tap.
If the Cosmos target the travel programs, they’ll get the kids who have a serious interest in the game as well as the most fanatical parents. The adult recreational leagues and select pubs offer direct channels to the adult soccer community, crossing ages and ethnicities. This will give them a strong fanbase, generating revenue from apparel to – eventually – ticket sales.
The only misstep in their plan may have been bringing Giorgio Chinaglia back into the organization. Now I will be the first to admit that I have never met the man, and my memory might be clouded by the film Once In A Lifetime, but Chinaglia is to the New York Cosmos what Kajagoogoo is to 80s music – a pin that instantly deflates one’s nostalgia. Of course, acting as the team’s “International Ambassador,” primarily used for overseas appearances, this may indeed be a shrewd effort to keep your friends close and your notoriously outspoken former players even closer.
JOINING MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has publicly stated the league’s desire to have a second franchise in New York City. While there are other New York-based teams interested in being that franchise, the Cosmos have already stole the show, using their grassroots marketing campaign to capture more interest than the New York Red Bulls have ever enjoyed in this city.
MLS’s contractual obligation to the New York Red Bulls for market exclusivity ends in 2013, which would make it the earliest the new team could join the league. And MLS and the New York Cosmos have both cited this as their entry target. Of course, if Garber cannot get the league on an international calendar by then, the 2014 season might be even better – given the interest that summer’s World Cup will surely stir. Plus, it would give them more time to construct a stadium.
Stadium? Yes, the Cosmos already have the $40 million ante needed to join the league, so the only real hurdle left is building a stadium. And, surprisingly, financing the project probably won’t be the biggest challenge. That will be finding a suitable location in New York City willing to let them build a stadium. And hopefully they will do better than the remote spot they chose for their first Academy East game.
Given that the Wilpon family, which owns the New York Mets, has expressed interest in an MLS franchise, there’s a chance that a deal may be struck to utilize some land in the Willets Point redevelopment, near the new CitiField in Queens. The location should be ideal, offering a quick subway trip for New Yorkers as well as easy access for those driving in from the soccer hotbeds of Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut.
Plus, such connections should help expedite the construction, which – with the extended delays involved in building Red Bull Arena – already seems like a longshot for the 2013 season. But maybe I’m just a little jaded by living next to the Second Avenue Subway project, which is now scheduled to open two years after the sun supernovas.
If a 20th franchise is indeed awarded to the New York market, MLS is expected to make that announcement in March or April of 2011, around the start of the next season. Assuming the Cosmos get the nod, they will then need to get a stadium built in less than two years – or face the unpleasant reality of playing their first season in Giants Stadium, or even sharing the Red Bull Arena.
For their part, the New York Red Bulls have been incredibly congenial. I certainly wouldn’t be, having invested heavily in a franchise that, after eight seasons and a brand new stadium, will suddenly become the ugly stepchild around town. But the truth is that New Jersey is such a hotbed of soccer that there will be plenty of interest and support to keep them healthy, even when the Cosmos join the league as New York’s “true” team.
And, unlike the Cosmos, the Red Bulls have done everything wrong when it comes to courting New York City’s soccer community. Though they have finally made it easier for New Yorkers to get to games, with Red Bull Arena a simple train ride away, they have never seriously reached out to the city’s youth programs or adult leagues. Clearly that is a mistake the New York Cosmos aren’t going to make.
As for the kids who beat South Central Premier Soccer Club this weekend, one or two of them could end up playing for the Cosmos when they do field an MLS team in 2013. And, if the club is successful with all of its player development initiatives, they might also produce players on the US’s 2018 or 2022 World Cup squads – kids that are already in the Academy’s U10-U16 ranks.
Time will tell. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Moriken Sangary. He’ll be 21 when the Cosmos join the MLS. And 22 when the US heads to Brazil 2014. Nothing is certain, of course, but I’ve never been so optimistic about the course of soccer in this country as I am now.
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