Cosmos trying to grow soccer in New York
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At first glance it was a scene out of the go-go 1970s, with Pele, Shep Messing and even their old GM Clive Toye in the house, and a roomful of journalists jostling for snapshots and sandwiches at a fancy midtown hotel.
But this was Tuesday, well into the 21st century, as evidenced by Pele, 72, hobbling from recent hip surgery. So the logic behind Cosmos 2.0 would require some explaining for the soccer-uninitiated among us.
Why would a franchise built on a powerful brand name and run by an experienced international executive return to a second-level pro league and play at Hofstra's humble Shuart Stadium -- at the precise moment Major League Soccer was poised to expand further into the New York market?
The reason is independence. Rather than agree to MLS' complex single-entity ownership model and salary cap, joining the NASL will allow the Cosmos mostly to do what they want in building an organization -- and to do so without having spent the tens of millions of dollars required to enter the top U.S. league.
Chief executive Seamus O'Brien said this approach will better serve the Cosmos' aim to integrate themselves into the "global soccer economy" in an age in which, as he put it, "a Detroit car company puts $400 million on a club in Manchester, England, to sell cars in Shanghai, China." (Chevrolet will become Manchester United's jersey sponsor next year.)
O'Brien argued that it is important to "mesh yourself into that" economy. "I have worked in the industry for more than 30 years and been responsible for raising funds for federations all over the world," he said. "I think this league gives us the best chance of doing that."
Well, we shall see.
Expectations on and off the field are modest entering the Aug. 3 opener against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, whom O'Brien called "our historic rivals," a rivalry last renewed on May 8 . . . 1983.
The real story of the new Cosmos and of soccer in New York will unfold over many years. The Cosmos announced plans in January for a $400-million, 25,000-seat stadium on state-owned land in the parking lot south of Belmont Park.
Any updates on that? "It's a political process in Albany, to be frank, and we haven't been given the parameters," O'Brien said. "We're waiting. All we can do is put our best foot forward, which we have done."
Meanwhile, Manchester City and the Yankees are partnering on a new MLS franchise set to begin play in 2015 at a location to be determined -- while facing numerous obstacles to building in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Those teams will join the Red Bulls, now well established in their handsome, relatively new home in Harrison, N.J.
O'Brien insisted Tuesday that New York can support three teams, noting that in England, big clubs live across the street from one another. Perhaps, but they don't have nine other major pro teams in four sports in the neighborhood.
The Cosmos believe they can develop along with the NASL independent of MLS. But the tastiest scenario is that the Cosmos and MLS someday find common ground and that all three teams play each other regularly in the same league, a soccer version of the Rangers, Islanders and Devils.
O'Brien said he and MLS commissioner Don Garber speak regularly and cordially.
"Where we end up in three to five years, I haven't shut the door on anything," O'Brien said. "It might all change. It might evolve. We don't know. That's part of the fluidity. We're going to take it as it comes.
"But in the meantime we're going to build a good team and we're going to build a good business. Because then I know we have a chance of succeeding."
Pele, the Cosmos' honorary president, referenced the glory days when he asked fans to work with him in building the sport here.
"One more time, I ask your help, because we're going to need it," he said. "Football/soccer is the biggest family in the world. I think the United States should be there. We're going to do this."