In bringing back the New York Cosmos after a 29-year absence, many within the organization believe the magic of the most celebrated team in American soccer history would return eventually.
No one expected it would take just 90 minutes.
The rebooted Cosmos defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in dramatic fashion at Hofstra’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday in the club’s first regular season game since 1984. In front of an announced sellout crowd of 11,292, the Cosmos’ Alessandro Noselli found the back of the net in stoppage time to give the club an improbable 2-1 victory in its North American Soccer League opener.
On a night where the club celebrated its storied past by honoring famed Brazilians Pele and Carlos Alberto, Shep Messing and the late Giorgio Chinaglia, the new Cosmos picked up where the world-renowned team left off.
“The Cosmos never left in the hearts of many people,” Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “[The Cosmos are] something very special in soccer in the United States and globally it’s an important name. Now seeing it come back is an exciting moment, especially in Long Island where it started.”
Trotting out the Cosmos legends, with Pele arriving on the field with the grace and fanfare usually reserved for royalty, was a bridge to the present.
Now with Legends Night and a victory behind them, the Cosmos revival is the first step toward what promises to be a brave new future in New York soccer.
Though the Cosmos were long rumored to become a Major League Soccer expansion club, they will play in the NASL, the second tier of American professional soccer, for the foreseeable future. For now, the club will call Hofstra home, but the Cosmos have submitted a proposal to build a 25,000-seat stadium at Belmont Park.
In May, MLS announced New York City FC, a joint venture between the Yankees and English Premier League club Manchester City, would begin play in 2015 at a to-be-determined site. Already well established in MLS, the New York Red Bulls opened up their own soccer-specific stadium in Harrison, N.J., in 2010.
New York once regularly drew more than 40,000 fans a game at Giants Stadium to see Pele and Chinaglia dominate the NASL before dwindling attendance numbers led to the eventual demise of the old Cosmos. Nearly 30 years later, is the city capable of supporting three soccer franchises?
“If Qatar can hold the World Cup then New York can have three teams,” said Shep Messing, former Cosmos goaltender and current New York Red Bulls commentator. “New York is a big enough place with enough fans for three teams to find their fans, but they are going to have to earn it.”
The Cosmos still have to overcome a few hurdles before they can replicate the club’s glory days. While Cosmos chief operating officer Erik Stover said the team harbors no ill feelings toward the MLS, the club and American soccer’s top league haven’t spoken in months. Though the Cosmos remain committed to the NASL, the club has ambitions that extend beyond the city limits.
“Clearly these Cosmos aspire to be on the top of the pyramid in the United States,” Messing said. “There are many different routes to get there. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.”
Even before the club returned to the pitch, the built-in brand recognition placed the Cosmos among the soccer elite. In June, the club announced a sponsorship deal with Emirates, which puts the corporate name of the airline across the chest of the Cosmos’ 2013 jersey. Prestigious European clubs Arsenal, AC Milan and Paris Saint-German also have similar deals in place with Emirates. Last week, the club signed a broadcast and syndication rights contract with One World Sports, a network that has 2014 World Cup rights, as well as contracts with European powerhouse clubs Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Locally, Cosmos matches will air on SportsNet New York.
While the NASL operates without a salary cap, Stover said the club wasn’t looking to make a big free-agent splash to draw attention and speculated that the club was spending around the same on players as its NASL counterparts. The Cosmos’ biggest offseason acquisition was midfielder Marcos Senna, a European champion and former Spanish national team member. The roster also includes a slew of former MLS players.
Even with the financial flexibility of the also recently rebooted NASL, the talent level of the league doesn’t measure up to MLS. The Cosmos name can only bring the team so far.
“Even though there’s a history, it’s a new age. To be a part of that from the beginning was really important to me,” said Hunter Freeman, who spent last season playing for MLS’s Colorado Rapids. Freeman was swayed to join the Cosmos because of his ties to Stover and a handful of former teammates that signed with the club. The defender has embraced a return to the area, having spent time with the Red Bulls in 2007, and is optimistic that the Cosmos can be influential in changing the soccer dynamic in New York.
“In New York there’s always pressure and everyone’s always going to have expectations,” Freeman said. “That’s what I like about this town. We have to be patient.”
Follow Chris Longo on Twitter @east_coastbias.