The New York Cosmos held a Q&A session with their supporters clubs on Saturday, Dec. 1. The affair was held on the second floor of Jack Demsey’s pub, which was packed with more than 100 members of the Borough Boys as well as members of La Banda del Cosmos and other soccer fans interested in the team.
Organized by the Borough Boys, with the support of the Cosmos and Jack Demsey’s, this was the first public event for the Cosmos since their previous management team departed back in October 2011. And fans were eager for any news about the club, which had promised to take them to the very top of American – perhaps even world – soccer with a modest start in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
After a brief introduction from Borough Boys president Nick Laveglia, Cosmos COO Erik Stover stepped up to the microphone, which may very well have predated the original team. He began by introducing his staff, which has grown from three to seven since his appointment was announced last month, not including Singapore-based chairman Seamus O’Brien.
The former New York Red Bulls managing director quickly won over the crowd with his straight-talking, down-to-earth approach. He echoed his earlier pledge that the Cosmos 3.0 would be a “proper soccer club.” He told supporters that the focus was on the product on the pitch and the experience in the stands. It wasn’t about making the Cosmos the most popular soccer brand, producing a sexy fashion line, or even signing big-name players. They just want to deliver a good team and a fun time. And this style over substance attitude seemed to resonate with the crowd.
Stover offered a few specifics in regard to the club’s 5-7 year plan for reaching the top of US soccer. On the academy front, they will take an agnostic approach, meaning that – unlike the previous management team, which adopted BW Gottschee, one of the city’s best youth soccer programs – the Cosmos will work with all of the top youth soccer programs in the city to identify and develop talent.
It’s a smart approach in that most youth soccer programs in New York City, even one as successful as BW Gottschee, have a limited geographical reach. So partnering with a single program means that you are leaving a lot of potential talent on the table. However, at some point the Cosmos will need to base their academy somewhere, and since they don’t even have permission to train their first team anywhere – including at Hofstra University, where they will play their games – there’s still plenty of work to be done on this front.
Speaking of Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, Stover noted that they are working to find a way around the university’s ban on the sale of alcohol at games. One possible solution is that the club would set-up a tent where season ticket holders could enjoy complimentary food and beverages, absorbing the cost as part of the ticket price. He also noted that tailgating was allowed on campus, and suggested the club might actively support that as well.
Vinnie Connors, the manager of Jack Demsey’s, took a moment to offer the pub’s services on those two fronts. He went on to congratulate and thank the Borough Boys, an organization he has watched blossom over the years. Demsey’s and the Borough Boys also announced that they will be running buses from the pub to Shuart Stadium for home games, which was welcome news since getting there by public transportation is a real challenge.
Cosmos legend Shep Messing was also on hand and stepped up to the microphone for the evening’s most emotionally charged moment. Messing reflected on the fact that 40 years ago he attended a supporters meeting for the original team. In contrast to the crowd at Dempsey’s, which had people lining the stairs, he said that they only had 20 people and gathered at a Burger King near Hofstra. Clearly he was moved by the passion and numbers that filled Jack Demsey’s for the kickoff of the new Cosmos. Both he and Stover went on to buy the crowd a round of drinks before departing.
So what’s not to love? Well, Stover also had to deliver some bad news as well. And to his credit, he didn’t bury it in a press release distributed late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.
Confirming the much-feared rumor, he announced that the Cosmos wouldn’t be ready in time to start the 2013 NASL season. Instead, the team would join the league for the second half of the split season, the clausura, in July or August. Technically they’d still be eligible to compete for the league championship, which pits the apetura (first half) winners against the clausura winners in the Soccer Bowl. But they apparently wouldn’t be eligible for the US Open Cup.
This news is not sitting well with fans, who have called it an embarrassment and a disgrace. It’s caused some to make comparisons to the Cosmos previous management team, and even to the New York Red Bulls management. And decorum prevents me from sharing what non-Cosmos fans have been saying about this.
The reason Stover offered for the delay was that the club simply didn’t have time to accomplish all they needed to do – from putting together a respectable team to finding a vendor to print the tickets – and all they want to do – from securing a world-class shirt sponsor to helping the league land a TV deal – before the start of the season. And though the NASL is expected to announce its schedule next week, it’s assumed the season will start in less than four months.
Some wondered why the Cosmos didn’t simply start the season as a grassroots side. If they can’t get proper jerseys made in time, which was one of the excuses cited (and debated), then why not wear the Umbro Cosmos jerseys, or have a local company like FOSA make something for them in the short-term?
Whether out of shock, abject disappointment, or respect for Stover, the crowd took the news mostly with silence. Stover went on to promise a series of events to maintain fan interest until the team joined the league in July or August of 2013. There was even talk of some friendlies, with Galatasaray being mentioned, but that only fueled the comparisons to the previous management team, which fielded a team for the Scholes testimonial at Old Trafford but could only muster a few PDL friendlies for the fans here in New York City.
And that’s surely what stuck in the sides of Cosmos supporters most of all. They were happy to hear talk of a “proper club.” But instead of starting the season on time, like a proper club, they’re getting promised fun events and friendlies. And while citing a lack of staff as one of the reasons the club won’t be ready, Stover announced that they have hired a team historian. Not to mention the fact that newly appointed coach Gio Savarese wasn’t able to join Stover at the event because he was off working as a commentator for ESPN instead of focusing entirely on putting a team together. Understandably, all of this left many of the fans were wondering what the Cosmos priorities really are.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t even the most troubling news to come out of the event. When pressed about the club’s long-term intentions regarding Major League Soccer (MLS) and the league’s proposed stadium in Queens, Stover admitted that the Cosmos may not be destined for an MLS franchise. While fans will surely learn to live with the delayed start to the season, the realization that the Cosmos don’t necessarily see MLS as the path to the top of the US soccer pyramid is only just starting to sink in.
Stover reiterated the Cosmos intention to play soccer at the highest levels, and stated that it is part of the club’s 5-7 year plan to reach the top of US soccer. But if they are not entirely sold on entering MLS, which is what he indicated, then that must mean they believe there is another way of achieving those objectives without being a part of America’s top soccer league.
It’s a scenario I first touched on back in July. Given that the strengths of Seamus O’Brien and Sela Sport are the kinds of things (like TV deals and major sponsorships) traditionally handled by the league in MLS, as opposed to by the individual franchises, might they be interested in trying to elevate the NASL to top-tier status? After all, the NASL doesn’t have restrictions on player salaries and clubs appear to be free to negotiate their own deals with sponsors, making it far more like traditional leagues overseas than MLS currently is. Or perhaps the alternative would be to develop a truly global league of elite teams?
The notion was not popular at the time, and the management team’s unwillingness to fully embrace MLS was dismissed as simple posturing for a more advantageous contract with the league. After all, the first public statement issued by the new management team back in November 2011 made it clear that their intent was to enter MLS: “It is unequivocally the goal of the current ownership to become an MLS team in the most expedient manner possible, and decisions for the club will be made with this in mind.”
Stover’s suggestion that the Cosmos may not pursue an MLS franchise raises the question of how they hope to achieve their lofty goals outside of MLS. Add to that his assertion that the Cosmos hope to negotiate a television deal that will benefit all of NASL, and it sounds a lot more like they are looking to elevate the NASL rather than simply playing hardball with MLS. Besides, it’s hard to play hardball with MLS when you’ve just announced that you aren’t going to be able to field a team in time for NASL.
It will be interesting to see what MLS has to say on Tuesday, Dec. 1, when the league will unveil its plans for the Queens stadium to the public. MLS commissioner Don Garber has repeatedly said that there are a number of groups interested in the 20th franchise in New York City. Most Cosmos fans thought that such claims were simply the league’s posturing to gain a better deal from the Cosmos. But now?
The one thing that was clear to all who attended the Q&A is that Stover is the real deal, genuinely committed to building an entertaining soccer club that fans can be proud of. And you got the sense that he wanted to field a team for the start of the season as much as anyone. Whether or not his efforts get mired by these other issues remains to be seen.
Start dates aside, the biggest concern may be what’s in store for the Cosmos in 2014 and beyond. And before anyone heads too far in any direction, both MLS and the New York Cosmos would be wise to listen to the fans.
The Borough Boys started five years ago with the sole purpose of bringing top-flight soccer to New York City. When the Cosmos stood up in 2010 and said they wanted to be that team, and in MLS, the fans – lead by the Borough Boys – stood up and supported them.
Given that Garber has admitted that everywhere he goes, anywhere in the world, people ask him about the Cosmos, it’s hard to believe that MLS would not select the Cosmos as its 20th franchise in New York City. And given that the fans in New York City want a top-level team playing in the city, it’s hard to believe that the Cosmos would opt to become a Long Island club looking to elevate an entire league in an effort to reach the top-tier of American soccer on their own terms.
With the departure of David Beckham, MLS could use a world-renowned name like the New York Cosmos. As for the Cosmos, I believe their intentions are noble, but the best way to change the face of American soccer may very well be from within, as part of MLS.
For the sake of fans, I hope everyone can learn to play together. In the meantime, Cosmos fans are left doing what they’ve been doing for years now: patiently waiting, and hoping.