No longer a ghost, New York Cosmos come back in style

The New York Cosmos were just a famous name, a ghost of a team for three decades, but a very successful season back in action has the new Cosmos bullish about their future.
ATLANTA -- For the better part of three decades, the name New York Cosmos was like a ghost, haunting the game of American soccer.

It was still capable of bringing back some good memories for a generation of soccer fans who spent their childhood rooting on star-studded teams here in the United States. The name could still generate responses around the world even more than a quarter century since last taking the field. That is the kind of longevity a name can have when a team transcends a sport the way the Cosmos did in the 70s and early 80s thanks to star-studded squads led by the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

The name is no longer a ghost though. Not after the New York Cosmos came back to life and took the field in the North American Soccer League this year. Resurrected by an ambitious ownership group with grand plans to shake up pro soccer in the United States, the Cosmos capped their first season back by defeating the Atlanta Silverbacks to win the NASL championship on Sunday.

 To get a sense of how well things have already gone for the new Cosmos, you only needed to watch the scenes at the NASL final, where a large contingent of Cosmos fans made the trip from the New York area to Georgia for the match. Those same fans stormed the field to celebrate with the Cosmos players when the final whistle blew and the team had won its sixth championship and first in 30 years.

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“The reality is we’re three months old and we’re ahead of where I thought we’d be,” Cosmos owner Seamus O’Brien told Goal. “Next year was always going to be our focus. This year was always going to be a stepping stone to next year. We’ve got some goals for next year, obviously our first full season. We’d like to host (Soccer Bowl) and the U.S. Open Cup. I want to set us out where we are commandingly as a team and a league.”

The Cosmos are off to a strong start thanks in part to the building of a very strong team featuring a star player like former Spanish national team midfielder Marcos Senna, the kind of high-profile signing previously reserved for MLS teams. With Senna leading a team featuring several players capable of starting in MLS, the Cosmos were able to win the NASL’s fall title, and eventually the Soccer Bowl as league champion.

“This is more than we could have asked for,” Cosmos chief executive officer Erik Stover told Goal. “This is a great first step. We’re very proud of it, but we know we still have more work to do. We have to get right back at it. We’re trying to grow our team and grow our league.”

 The Cosmos’ first season back in action hasn’t received the type of media coverage the club was used to in its heyday, nor have we seen crowds overflowing stadiums to see the team either. What we have seen is the team build a solid first-season fan base, with close to 7,000 fans attending each home game. It is a far cry from the Cosmos’ peak years of the 70s, but Stover is quick to point out that comparing the reincarnation of the Cosmos to the peak years of the original Cosmos just isn’t a fair comparison.

“That was never going to happen and we knew that,” Stover said when asked about the idea that the new version could jump out of the gate and enjoy the success of the 70s. “You’ve got to remember it took seven years for the first Cosmos to sell out Giants Stadium. We have a different vision, but we hope to get back to the top again. We hope to be playing in our own state-of-the-art stadium.

“We know it’s going to take time. The first era of the Cosmos they’re at Hofstra for two years, three or four thousand people, so I think this year was a good step but we have to keep going.”

The success of the Cosmos has helped boost the NASL as it tries to compete with Major League Soccer for attention on the American soccer scene. MLS is the country’s first division of soccer, but being the second division of American soccer isn’t limiting the NASL’s ambitions, and certainly isn’t stopping the Cosmos from having ambitions of being a top team in North America.

“The Cosmos coming into the league was a big deal,” NASL commissioner Bill Peterson told Goal. “It was important to us, there was a lot of international recognition, but I’m more impressed with what they’ve already been able to do in year one than with their past.

“Any time you launch a new club it never goes exactly how you want, and they knew that and approached it professionally. They’re going to play great soccer on the field, they’re going to be a team of the people and it’s going to be fantastic.

“In the rest of the league we’re seeing a great return as well. Attendance is up almost 30 percent, so fans are reacting in a positive way. We just have to keep working hard.”

The NASL is positioned for a big 2014, with expansion set to grow the league from eight teams to 11 with the arrival of teams in Indianapolis, Virginia and Ottawa (with two more joining in Jacksonville and Oklahoma City in 2015).

While it is the second division of soccer in America, the NASL has advantages over MLS with regard to spending on player salaries and transfers. That has helped a team like the Cosmos build a competitive roster so quickly, with several players who could easily still be playing in Europe, like Senna and Ayoze, and with the club set to make even more high-profile signings in 2014.

The comparisons between the NASL and MLS will persist, especially as the NASL grows in size and stature. And especially as the Cosmos draw more and more attention. But that isn’t a comparison the NASL is looking to try and make.

“We don’t compare ourselves (to MLS). There’s no reason to,” Peterson said. “Day in and day out, we’ve got to focus on our fans and our clubs and our players. No one else affects that but us.

“We try to keep our head down and keep working. If we keep doing that, and focus on what we can control, in a couple of years we’ll lift our head up and this thing will be great. We’re making good decisions. There’s a lot of interest in the league. We’ve got to keep being smart in the decisions we make and this thing can go wherever we want to take it.”

Where can the Cosmos go? If the team can continue winning trophies and signing players like Senna, it could grab a strong foothold in the ultra-competitive New York market, where it has to compete with the MLS New York Red Bulls, and the impending arrival of MLS expansion club New York City FC in 2015.

If the team’s most recent championship is any indication, the new version of the New York Cosmos looks capable of sticking around for a while and being more than just a team trading on the history of their famous name.

“There were a lot of cynics and doubters about what we were trying to do,” Stover said. “I think that while we were very successful, we also showed we’re going to play an attractive style of soccer. It’s going to be hard for the people that were on the fence about the Cosmos to stay on the fence.”

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