NASL & New York Cosmos Should Wait Until 2014 to “Get This Right the First Time”
I’m not one to shy away from voicing my opinion, particularly when it comes to matters of soccer. But for some reason, my voice in colloquy is much different than it is in writing. I tend to shy away from op/ed pieces here at IMS and instead would rather report the information and let you form your own opinion. There is that occasional topic that will draw me out, suck me in and motivate me to go outside my comfort zone. The Cosmos announcement that they will only play a half season in 2013 is one of those moments.
Of course what I am referring to is a conversation that New York Cosmos’ newly appointed COO, Erik Stover, had with supporters of the club on Saturday in a Q & A with the Borough Boys. I could say supporters of the “team” but the reality is, the Cosmos have no team and therein lies the problem. Stover is stating the organization cannot possibly get a team together in time for the 2013 spring season but will instead play only the second half of the new NASL Split season format and will forgo the 2013 US Open Cup.
“It is nearly impossible to deliver on our primary objective – which is to be a proper soccer club – in three months,” Stover said. “We literally don’t have the ability to sell tickets now. It’s not possible. We don’t have a ticket service provider. We don’t have any staff. We have a coach, no players.”
Stover is just plain wrong. The Cosmos certainly could field a team in that time if they wanted to. Is it the ideal situation? Of course not and it’s not necessarily fair to put the hammer down on Stover, who everyone tells me is a pretty good guy. But he took the job to lead the high-profile Cosmos and with that comes the responsibility that should really lie on Seamus O’Brien who leads the new Cosmos ownership group along with Sela Sport.
Yes, Stover is under pressure as is coach Giovanni Savarese who was just appointed to his position on November 19, but it’s not impossible pressure and it’s been done before. One only needs to look back at recent history within the NASL to see how it was done.
The NSC Minnesota Stars fielded a team in 2010 after announcing they would do in mid December of 2009. That Stars were a start-from-scratch organization after the Thunder folded late that same year. Starting with no players or coach and using the makeshift staff of the NSC, the team played out its first season finishing in 7th place out of 12 teams and made the playoffs with a 11-12-7 record.
In 2011 the Atlanta Silverbacks threw a team together after having a two-year hiatus from Division 2 professional play. Yes, they had the structure in place with a NPSL team and their own stadium. But they went out, found a coach, assistants, and put together a team in time for the season. Albeit not a good squad, but they did entertain their fans for most of their home games, keeping scores close and drawing an average of 2,866 in the process.
The Carolina RailHawks owner Selby Wellman suddenly liquified his team early in 2010 putting the NASL in danger of not being sanctioned. Traffic Sports entered the picture and funded the organization so the NASL could have 8 teams – a USSF requirement for a league. They did retain coach Martin Rennie but the team had to be assembled again from scratch including all new player contracts. They did so and had a team on the field by the spring of that year. Not only did they have a team in place, they actually won the Regular Season NASL Championship with a 17-8-3 record.
Of course this inability to field a team in time begs the question, why did O’Brien and company wait until November to appoint his leading staff? I have no idea and this alone should also raise some red flags. After all, the team was announced by the NASL with great fanfare on July 12 of this year. Why the delay if the organization was serious about playing in 2013, and where was the pressure from the league to get things moving? Perhaps there was pressure or perhaps it was the league itself who pressured the Cosmos to announce early? There are many theories circulating, from pressure by the NASL to announce early to negotiation tactics the Cosmos were using to leverage bigger and better things. Perhaps it was the owners themselves, desperately trying to get rid of the burden of paying for Minnesota – then a league-owned team – off their backs. We will probably never know. What we do know is it took the Cosmos organization nearly 4 months to make their first major appointment.
Whatever the case, the Cosmos announcement that seemed to bring the league so much pride is now biting them squarely in the ass and it’s a legacy issue now left in the hands of new NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson. According to Peterson, he will be in New York this week to visit with the team about this and many other issues. Soccer supporters in the US will be looking to see how he handles this first major issue thrust upon him. But it’s possible Peterson will not get involved at all. He hinted toward that in a statement he made to me last Tuesday at the press conference to announce his appointment as league commissioner.
“I think that’s really a team issue and if there is an issue, and I’m not saying there is, I think after I go up there and get a better feel for where they are in their plans and what their plans actually are, they [Cosmos] will be in a better position to address that,” said Peterson.
To Stover’s credit, rather than making the announcement in a press release, he faced the fire and did so in front of his biggest critics that are most affected by the action of the club, the Cosmos fans. But nonetheless, the announcement is just one of a long string of disappointments for fans of the Cosmos name, says Nick Laveglia, president of the Borough Boys, the Cosmos biggest supporters group. Like it or not, the current ownership group of the Cosmos has to live with the sins of the former ownership group headed up by Paul Kemsley.
“Honestly, I think our fans were upset,” said Laveglia. “It deflated everybody right off the bat. There were definitely some positive things coming from the Cosmos in that meeting and the turnout for the event was great. But I think the fans feel let down again that they [Cosmos] are not going to be ready for spring. Personally, I understand their reasoning. You want to make sure they are putting a good team together on the field. I can understand that and appreciate that as a fan. But given all the letdowns of the old [ownership] group, it seems the fans are sort of going: OK, with that news we are just going to wait and see. Had we not been let down so many times by the Cosmos before, perhaps this would have been an easier pill to swallow. Maybe that’s unfair to the new ownership group but the fans are definitely concerned.”
I have another issue with Stover saying he wants the time to put a quality team on the field. What quality players are going to be available for the team in the second half of the NASL season that starts in August? Most stalwart lower division players and those who were former MLS players and were released by teams in the offseason will already be with established teams in either the NASL or perhaps USL PRO. Teams are already in the process of re-signing players and offering new contracts to new players. Is a player going to sit around and wait to be signed by the Cosmos for a 3-month contract when they can play all season with an established team and be on a 7-month contract? I for one would like to know where all these quality players will come from.
Aside from the Cosmos’ inability or lack of desire to field a team this spring, there are many other issues that permeate this decision to allow a professional sports team to play only a half season while their competition plays an entire season. Yes, I understand that this was approved by the NASL Board of Governors, and I have heard unanimously at that. The team owners might have gotten a bit starry-eyed, feeling the Cosmos brand identity was worth the risk. While there is no doubt the brand name has already brought the league attention, at what price and why was there such a rush to push them into a half season of play? Didn’t the league and team owners sacrifice an awful lot of past good by making such a decision and not waiting until 2014?
Another question that has been playing out in my mind and I am now seeing pop up on message boards and comments is, should the Cosmos be allowed to participate in the championship should they win the fall season? An NASL spokesperson has verified they would be eligible. While I don’t believe that a team coming into play in the second half of a season is likely to win the fall championship, it is possible. And if they did, it seems it would compound the league’s embarrassment as the Cosmos will be playing with an unfair advantage for having fresher players competing in the championship final while others battled through the grind of the entire NASL season.
With this decision the league will now pay the price in terms of credibility both with fans and the media. The NASL already has issues getting the media’s attention with only 8 teams (8.5 in 2013) playing in a league that’s a tier down from MLS. This Cosmos playing a half season will certainly not help this. Two full time soccer journalists, well known to the US soccer public, contacted me within the last week to ask if the league was serious about allowing a team to play a half season. You can imagine their response when I told them I believed that it was true. The league couldn’t afford this sort of mistake and in fact the whole split season will now be questioned as it probably should be.
“Our Scheduling Sub-Committee arrived at this recommendation after an exhaustive review of a number of alternatives and the new format takes into consideration a variety of factors including fan and player comfort in our many warm-weather cities,” said former NASL Commissioner David Downs on September 5, when the league announced the new format. “But the bottom line is that we believe this new competitive format will bring more excitement and meaning to each of our regular season matches for all of our teams throughout the year.”
I’ve heard enough talk from officials throughout the league that I believe the team owners honestly wanted to try this format change. But now some of the league’s supporters and followers will question if the whole idea was contrived to allow the Cosmos a late entry. My point is, the NASL has done an awful lot of good work over the last two years. They have run a league with solid teams who have not folded and the competition has been good. They hired a commissioner who was a soccer guy and a known entity and worked to make sure there was fairness throughout the league. The play on the field has improved and the quality of coaches is good too. League attendance is growing and there are now several savvy new owners in San Antonio and Minnesota. Special events like the league playoffs and finals have been conducted very professionally and even the NASL website continues to get better with more information and live streaming of all its matches.
So why? Why would you jeopardize that image to allow a team in halfway through the season? I’m sure there will be others that know of some obscure and most likely minor league where this had been done before. But I’m guessing the majority of US soccer fans have never heard of such a thing and will feel this sets a very unhealthy precedent.
“What Seamus (O’Brien) has always promised is when we do something, we do it right,” Stover told the Borough Boys on Saturday afternoon. “We will have substance before style. I know the Cosmos of a couple years ago, it may have been the other way around but there really wasn’t a team to support. We want to make sure we get this right the first time.”
Note to the New York Cosmos Erik Stover, Seamus O’Brien and the NASL’s Aaron Davidson as well as the rest of the NASL: If you want to “get this right the first time,” then look no further that Loudoun County and Ottawa. They are waiting until 2014 to enter the league.