The New York Cosmos travel to Atlanta this weekend for their first appearance in the North American Soccer League’s “Soccer Bowl” championship game in 31 years.
Much has changed since former Italian national team striker Giorgio Chinaglia’s game-winner against the Seattle Sounders sealed the Cosmos’ last coronation in 1982. The club and the NASL have only recently resurfaced after mounting debts and fading spectator interest prompted their spectacular demise in the mid-1980s.
A stellar cast of world-class talent such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Johan Neeskens symbolized the previous incarnation of the Cosmos. Crowds of over 70,000 occasionally filled Giants Stadium as the glittering New York franchise accumulated four NASL titles between 1977 and 1982 to add to its first triumph in 1972.
Today’s North American Soccer League is a humble eight-team organization serving as the continent’s second division after Major League Soccer. In turn, the Cosmos are a modest first-year start-up trying to build a new fan base. Yet the legacy of yesteryear still saddles the club with a necessity for success.
“We feel more pressure than most teams playing their first season,” the Cosmos’ chief operating officer Erik Stover told The Soccer Observer in a telephone interview.
“Plus the New York market is difficult. You have to win or you’re irrelevant.”
The Atlanta Silverbacks stand between the Cosmos and an instant return to the winners’ circle. Atlanta won the spring portion of the NASL’s split season in July, earning it the right to host the Soccer Bowl at its 5,000-seat Atlanta Silverbacks Park. Temporary seating will raise the capacity to 7,153 for Saturday’s championship decider.
New York joined the league in August in a move that sparked criticism from some American soccer fans fearing that the Cosmos could become the overall NASL champions despite missing half of the season. On the flip side, the late start gave the Cosmos one chance to qualify for the Soccer Bowl.
Saudi Arabian promoter Sela Sport has provided the financial backing for the Cosmos comeback. Emirates Airlines signed up as the team’s inaugural shirt sponsor and the Cosmos have submitted proposals to New York’s Empire State Development Corporation to build a $400 million stadium next to the city’s Belmont Park racetrack in Queens.
Apprehension that the Cosmos’ monetary muscle could destroy the NASL’s competitiveness and trigger fatal overspending by rival clubs, as occurred in the 1980s, has also nagged at soccer fans. Those concerns heightened as the Cosmos embarked on an 11-game unbeaten run to finish the fall season with an 8-point lead.
“We have a modest playing budget in line with most of the NASL teams,” Stover said. “We’re not trying to overspend and run away with it. We need to grow in a sensible way.
“There were a lot of very close matches where we were able to pull out a win. Those extra points have been the difference.”
Former Villarreal midfielder Marcos Senna is a rare recognizable name on the current Cosmos squad. The 37-year-old was part of the Spain team that lifted the UEFA Euro 2008 crown. Senna’s vast experience and continuing influence has been a major contributor to the Cosmos’ rapid progress on the field.
Pele appeared at the team’s temporary home at Hofstra University, 30 miles east of midtown Manhattan, to salute a sold-out crowd approaching 12,000 before the Cosmos’ first game in August. Attendances have since tailed off to an average of fewer than 7,000 as the club’s focus switches to the present rather than the glamour and excess of the legendary Brazilian’s era.
“Our two big goals this year were to be successful on the field and to have good attendances,” Stover said. “I think we’ve proven that.
“We’re on a journey here. This is not about a reunion party. It’s about taking this club back to the top.
“That means building a new stadium, developing a first-rate academy system, playing the best possible soccer that we can and competing for championships.
“As far as the first step goes, we couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Nov. 4, 2013 — Soccer Bowl The Next Step In Cosmos’ Journey Back To Summit
Sept. 7, 2013 — SLIDESHOW: New York Cosmos 1 Atlanta Silverbacks 1