By Peter Schwartz
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2015 was shaping up to be a historic year for soccer in our area.
The Red Bulls were coming off the best back-to-back seasons in franchise history while expansion club New York City FC had been creating a lot of buzz with the signings of international stars David Villa and Frank Lampard.
But the Red Bulls angered their fan base by firing popular head coach Mike Petke, while NYCFC misled everyone about the Lampard “loan” to Manchester City, and that led to both teams earning red cards from the media and fans.
While all this was going on, the Cosmos — a franchise that captured the imagination of this area in the 70s and 80s — just went about their business in trying to re-establish themselves as a soccer power.
“I think it all starts with having a good owner,” said Cosmos chief operating officer Erik Stover. “We have Seamus O’Brien as our chairman, and he has provided excellent leadership and vision for our staff, front office, sporting department and players.”
After a 29-year absence, the Cosmos returned to the pitch in 2013 and won their sixth NASL Soccer Bowl. Last season, they fell short of their goal by losing in the semifinals to San Antonio in overtime. Back in their heyday, the Cosmos did not deal with losing very well.
Fast forward 30 years and nothing has changed.
“It was a disappointing result,” said Stover of the playoff loss. “I was thinking, ‘I hate this business and I don’t ever want to do this again.’ But you get to the offseason and you can’t wait to have another day.”
The offseason has provided plenty of productive days for the Cosmos, but the biggest one ended a courtship that started during the 2014 season. Just like decades ago when they brought in the likes of Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer, the Cosmos made a huge splash with the signing of former Real Madrid star Raul.
The striker attended a game this past season to check out his potential future club, and he immediately created a buzz. When he was noticed by fans sitting in a suite, chants of “Raul Raul Raul” echoed throughout Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University.
Raul is going to do a little bit of everything for the Cosmos. Not only will he boost the club’s offensive output and ticket sales, but he’ll also be involved in the creation of the Cosmos Youth Academy.
“I think he’s your prototypical Cosmos player,” said Stover. “He has tremendous ability. He’s world recognized. Aside from scoring goals and helping us win a championship, his most important impact will be with our youth development system. Obviously he’ll have an impact on ticket sales, but it’s not as simple as signing a guy and everything is going to be fine and we’re going to be sold out every game.”
Selling out the 11,929-seat Shuart Stadium on Long Island is one thing, but the Cosmos have their sights set on filling a proposed 25,000-seat stadium as part of a $400 million privately-financed complex to be built next to Belmont Park.
So far, there has been no answer on the proposal from the New York State Economic Development Corporation.
“I think a decision is overdue,” said Stover, who oversaw the construction and operation of Red Bull Arena when he was the managing director of the Red Bulls. “I don’t think that anybody involved would have expected that something like this would take so long.
“We don’t have any expectations about when an answer is going to come. We remain patient.”
If the answer is no, the Cosmos could possibly look for a stadium site elsewhere.
But for the time being, Hofstra University is Cosmos Country, and local soccer fans will be treated to a terrific club in 2015. In addition to Raul, the Cosmos have improved their roster with the signings of Adam Moffat and former Stony Brook star Leo Fernandes, on loan from the Philadelphia Union. They also signed two-time NASL Best XI midfielder Walter Restrepo, who was previously with the Soccer Bowl-champion San Antonio Scorpions.
The team has also locked up sporting director and head coach Giovanni Savarese to a contract extension.
“He is, I think, the personification of the modern Cosmos,” said Stover. “I think we’d be lost without him, particularly in this early phase of bringing the club back.”
Another phase in the Cosmos’ growth occurred last week, as the club announced that it is putting a team in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a developmental league recognized as the fourth division of American soccer.
New York Cosmos B will be part of the club’s academy system, but it will also give younger players on the first team a chance to play in reserve matches.
All of this comes two years after the Cosmos’ reboot started with a plan to establish a “proper” soccer club.
“Over the past two years, we’ve done everything that we’re capable of doing,” said Stover. “Obviously we would have liked to win two championships. So far, so good. But we have a long way to go to establish that mission statement.”
The Cosmos won’t be battling the Red Bulls or NYCFC head-to-head unless they meet in the U.S. Open Cup, but they are already beating them in the court of public opinion. The organization has worked diligently to not only bring back the once-storied franchise, but to restore its place as one of the most recognizable clubs in the world.
It’s been an offseason of nothing but smiles and cheers from Cosmos Country, a far cry from what Red Bulls and NYCFC fans have had to endure.