Twice on the Scrapheap | New York Cosmos vs. the U.S. Soccer Kleptocracy

Written by Ian Thomson

It’s a little over five years since World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro and Patrick Vieira donned the famous green-and-white kits of the New York Cosmos in a testimonial game for Manchester United legend Paul Scholes.

Former United hero Eric Cantona led America’s most storied team down the Old Trafford tunnel for their first contest in 27 years since the collapse of the original North American Soccer League after its 1984 season. The Frenchman had been installed as New York’s director of soccer with Pele serving as honorary president for the club he led to the 1977 Soccer Bowl championship in his last competitive game.

Emotional fans crowded into Manhattan’s Football Factory pub to watch the Cosmos return. The team they had grown up watching at Giants Stadium or heard tales about from their fathers was back. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber was eyeing a 20th franchise in New York to engineer a rivalry with the operation run by Austrian energy drink maker Red Bull while executives from the lower-tiered United Soccer Leagues were desperate to bring a Cosmos Under-23 team into their development league.

The Cosmos eventually settled on a different route after a change of ownership. Incoming chairman Seamus O’Brien rejected MLS’ single-entity franchise structure that would have curtailed the Cosmos’ ability to tap into the club’s potentially lucrative branding and marketing rights. His choice was to join the recently revived NASL with its more autonomous model.

O’Brien’s decision placed him firmly at odds with the sport’s powerbrokers in the United States. He ignited an all-too-familiar war between rival factions of wealthy owners that frustrates American soccer fans lusting for true competition between independent clubs. There was only going to be one loser given the overlapping of key personnel involved in running MLS and the governing U.S. Soccer Federation. So it appears that the Cosmos, and the NASL, have been consigned to American soccer’s gargantuan scrapheap for a second time.

Tens of millions of dollars have reportedly been spent by this iteration of the Cosmos. Their losses have been widely criticized by fans around the country. That sounds as worthwhile as blaming Royal Dutch Shell for investing in oil and gas developments on Russia’s Sakhalin Island. Both the Cosmos and Shell knew they were entering into murky trading environs. Both banked on the emergence of global practices gaining local traction to benefit their respective businesses. What they encountered instead were hardening kleptocracies.

Comeback fizzles

How quickly things have turned. It was on Aug. 3, 2013 that the Cosmos returned to domestic competition with a dramatic injury-time victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A sellout crowd of 11,929 attended Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium the day after club legend Carlos Alberto Torres had rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange alongside a new generation of players and NASL commissioner Bill Peterson.

Former Spanish national team member Marcos Senna had arrived from Villarreal to add some modern day star power to an otherwise modest line-up. A notable bond formed between the veteran midfielder and head coach Giovanni Savarese during that initial campaign.

The Cosmos raced to a 9-1-4 record to win the NASL’s Fall Season and secure a place in the 2013 Soccer Bowl against the spring champion Atlanta Silverbacks. Hundreds of Cosmos fans made the 1,800-mile round trip to Georgia to cheer their renascent team to its sixth NASL championship overall. Senna fittingly scored the only goal of the game with a spectacular looping shot from 20 yards out.

Playing in a minor league carries a stigma that is a significant barrier for any team regardless of the sport. It’s tougher still to attract attention in a market like New York City that demands glitz, glamour and razzmatazz. Throw in an out-of-town venue like Shuart Stadium in Hempstead, Long Island and it figures that half of the Cosmos’ opening night crowd soon dwindled away.

A key building block in the club’s future ambitions was the construction of a 25,000-seat stadium complete with adjoining hotel, restaurants and retail space. Cosmos-supporting New York civil rights attorney Leo Glickman later discovered that MLS had actively lobbied against the plans. MLS was also discarding its soccer-specific stadium requirement for incoming franchises by allowing New York City F.C., Manchester City’s U.S. branding vehicle, to be plonked down on a farcical playing surface within the baseball diamond at Yankee Stadium. Casual fan interest in the Cosmos was curbed.

League split

Philosophical differences between groups of USL team owners had triggered an ugly split after the 2009 season that eventually saw the Carolina RailHawks, Montreal Impact, Puerto Rico Islanders and rebranded NSC Minnesota Stars jump to the revived 8-team NASL for its 2011 rebirth. Hopes for success were raised when the league added teams in Indianapolis and Ottawa for the 2014 season and in Jacksonville the following year.

Commissioner Peterson reaffirmed his divergent path by expressing his desire for an open league pyramid with promotion and relegation allowing clubs to find their level based on sporting merit. He questioned the validity of U.S. Soccer granting top-tier “Division I” status to MLS and consigning his league to second-best. That decision is inherently conflicted given that USSF president Sunil Gulati was the first deputy commissioner of MLS and served as a long-time advisor to New England Revolution owner Bob Kraft.

The Cosmos continued to fare well on the field after their initial championship success. Savarese’s men thumped the New York Red Bulls 3-0 during the 2014 U.S. Open Cup tournament. Manchester City’s MLS franchise was beaten on penalties in the 2015 edition. Real Madrid legend Raul helped the Cosmos to another Soccer Bowl crown that year before ending his career with the club.

Severe cracks in the Cosmos operation began to emerge recently as the glass ceiling imposed on non-MLS clubs by the USSF remained impenetrable and the NASL began to feel the squeeze from beneath. The third-tier USL’s repositioning as a de facto reserve league for MLS franchises had nearly tripled its membership to 29 teams in 2016 from 11 in 2012. That allowed the creation of regionalized western and eastern conferences and the alleviation of crippling travel costs.

NASL clubs were contrastingly spread from Edmonton in the western Canadian province of Alberta to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Many of these teams are now jumping ship. Ottawa Fury and the Tampa Bay Rowdies will join the USL in 2017. Carolina RailHawks rebranded as North Carolina F.C. last week and announced plans to buy their way into MLS when future expansion occurs. Minnesota United has already made the switch and begins MLS play next March.

Absence of leadership

The departures leave the future of the second-division NASL and its remaining clubs looking bleak, and yet all of this is occurring with little leadership from America’s soccer federation.

Gulati’s unchallenged reign as USSF president since March 2006 has been accompanied by carnage in the game’s domestic structure. The USL has churned through a first division, a second division and a “Pro” division while the governing federation created a second division in 2010 as a truce between divided ownership groups.

Over 20 USL teams have either folded or dropped into the amateur ranks during Gulati’s reign while the NASL has lost its Silverbacks, San Antonio Scorpions and Puerto Rico Islanders sides. Basketball star Carmelo Anthony has since brought a pro team back to the Caribbean island during the 2016 fall season.

Even MLS with its privileged Division I status has lost Chivas USA and seen the Kansas City Wizards fight off stagnation with a rebrand to Sporting Kansas City.

The Cosmos retained their Soccer Bowl title last month. They still hold America’s most recognizable soccer name and an allure that escapes the country’s homogenized franchises.

How those intangibles will next be leveraged remains unknown.