NEW YORK – A familiar name has returned to a familiar place. The New York Cosmos will dispute the North American Soccer League's Soccer Bowl with the Atlanta Silverbacks ( live, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET ). But the time and context are very much different from the last edition of this championship game that featured the vaunted yellow and green New Yorkers.
In 1982, the Cosmos made their fifth Soccer Bowl appearance in six years and would win it for the fourth time. Then, they were one of the world's deepest and most reputable clubs, with Giorgio Chinaglia scoring the game-winner over the Seattle Sounders. But Chinaglia passed away in 2012, some 28 years after the original NASL league and the Cosmos he starred in had done the same.
These new Cosmos -- revived in 2010 and chaotically run by a band of spend-happy Europeans before the Saudi majority ownership nobody knew about stepped in and partnered up with Seamus O'Brien and his mostly American leadership; are you still following? -- no longer occupy the space atop the pyramid. Even if they win on Saturday, they won't be able to stake a claim to being the best side in the United States and Canada, let alone one of the biggest in the world. The resuscitated NASL is deemed a second-tier league, even if it doesn't recognize itself as that, below Major League Soccer . And the Cosmos are newcomers to it, at that.
After years-long flirtations with MLS, the Cosmos seemed a better fit for the much less restrictive NASL model. Its revenue, broadcasting, merchandise and personnel matters aren't orchestrated centrally and teams enjoy far more freedom in determining the sort of club they'd like to be. The Cosmos of today are as ambitious as the Cosmos of yore and plan to build a gleaming $400 million stadium on the border of Queens and Long Island. And they want to sign the best players available, not the best that fit a tight operating budget.
Yet by choosing to take its focus off MLS -- which has since allocated the second New York franchise to a New York Yankees and Manchester City partnership for a $100 million expansion fee and is unlikely to sanction a third anytime soon -- the Cosmos have eschewed the premier domestic league's better-established visibility, underpinned by national broadcast deals and healthy attendance and media coverage.
By doing things the hard way, the Cosmos also get to do it their own way. The question lingers, however, just how much glory there is to be won in the little-known and under-covered NASL.
Still, they are in line to win some. Because of the NASL's quirky qualification for the Soccer Bowl -- the winners of the spring and fall seasons qualify -- the Cosmos made it in spite of only competing half the year. Impressively, they lost just once, going 9-4-1, comfortably winning the fall season by eight points and drawing some 7,000 fans to their interim facility at Hofstra University. So now they face spring champions Atlanta, who had the second-worst record in the fall: 4-4-6.
By NASL standards, the Cosmos, unencumbered by MLS's allocation and payroll constraints, quickly stacked their team with MLS veterans and strong foreigners, led by Marcos Senna, who started in Spain's midfield when it won Euro 2008. On the reincarnated club, several careers were rejuvenated, chief among them one-time American midfield prodigy Danny Szetela, now 26, who hadn't played professionally in three years and was playing amateur soccer after two knee surgeries and a meniscus transplant. "It was my goal to get back on the field and with the Cosmos rebuilding it was the perfect opportunity," he says now.
But for all the relative riches, the Cosmos gelled quickly, too. "Of course, we knew that we have quality, that we have good players on this team," says captain Carlos Mendes. "At the same time, in any sport, you need the chemistry, you need the understanding and you need guys that are willing to work and are down to earth and that's been a huge part of our success. We have talent but we have a good group of guys."
Even if the Cosmos win the 2013 Soccer Bowl, as they probably ought to, more will be demanded from them, courtesy of their outsized history. "The expectation is because of the name and we are aware of that," says head coach Gio Savarese. "But in spite of that we have to build up the club one step at a time, that it's solid and has a good foundation - a platform that is going to take this club to the next level, to be competitive world-wide and to be able to be fundamental again the development of soccer in the United States."
So what's next? "Looking ahead, you'd love to win more championships, to win a US Open Cup and compete in tournaments like that and going abroad and playing tournaments," says Mendes. Next year, the Cosmos will enter the oldest domestic competition, the Open Cup, and presumably hope to ride it to their further aspirations. Because the winner thereof gets a berth for the CONCACAF Champions League -- the other three spots allocated to the United States go to the MLS Cup finalists and the MLS Supporters' Shield winner. Win that tournament and you're into the FIFA Club World Cup. World domination, then, is a possibility, but it's a circuitous route.
Yet the Cosmos strive, their envisioned return to relevancy beginning on Saturday. "The Cosmos 30 years ago were one of the best teams in the world and they were making their history then and now it's us," says Szetela. "Now it's an opportunity for us to make our own history."