The New York Cosmos were always built on hubris as much as a real plan and a reasonable path to financial sustainability.
This was as true for the original Cosmos of the 1970s heyday as it was of the latter-day Cosmos, relaunched in 2010 after a 25 year-hiatus.
The original, high-flying and star-littered Cosmos finally ran out of money in 1984, along with the rest of the old North American Soccer League. On Monday, a story surfaced on the reliable Empire of Soccer website that the much more modest neo-Cosmos were in danger of dissolution as well, along with the rest of the rebooted NASL.
Seven of the dozen teams that took part in that league last season are reportedly either leaving or considering their place in it, quite possibly leaving American soccer’s second-tier circuit with insufficient clubs to retain its sanctioning from U.S. Soccer. But the Cosmos has always been the crown jewel of the league for its relative financial might, impressive stadium plan, ability to attract a few stars and the tangible link it provided to the glory days from four decades ago. Losing the Cosmos will hurt and could very well prove the terminal blow.
As the well-sourced Dave Martinez wrote:
It is impossible to ignore the facts. The team hasn’t taken ticket deposits for next year. The location of their 2017 home venue, still believed to be MCU Park, remains a mystery. Players are being shopped for transfer[s]. Payroll isn’t being met. Staff are being furloughed.
Does that sound like a team that is gearing up for the New Year?
The NASL is conducting a Board of Governors meeting this Tuesday to address the future of the league. And for the first time since its reincarnation, one can only guess if the Cosmos will be a part of that future.
If the Cosmos aren’t dead already, they sound like they’re on life support.
And, if you’ll allow for a personal digression, this realization brought back a rush of memories. In 2010, after what appeared to be an English ownership group – which turned out to be backed by a Saudi Arabian company all along – bought the rights to the Cosmos’ name and history from Peppe Pinton, a flunky at the old club who had somehow managed to finagle its copyright when all else went up in flames, I interviewed Terry Byrne.
Byrne is a fascinating character in his own right. He somehow went from being a London cabbie to Chelsea’s masseur, to England’s trainer, to David Beckham’s best friend, to director of football at Watford, to Beckham’s personal manager, to trying to put on some kind of mega-event in which soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney took part in a gladiator-like competition of soccer skills, to running the Cosmos for its new ownership.
Most of all, though, he was the mirror image of comedian Ricky Gervais. He even sounded a bit like him.
Under Byrne and Paul Kemsley, then mostly known for being an interviewer on England’s version of “The Apprentice,” the Cosmos had spent absurd amounts of money. They bought billboards in Times Square to announce the club’s return and flying in old legends like Pele and Carlos Alberto to rekindle whatever glow might still refract from them.
Byrne spoke of building a similarly star-studded team as the one that featured said Brazilians, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. By then it was apparent that the Cosmos were no longer exactly a lock to join Major League Soccer, as their visions of how to grow their respective products clearly differed. At the Cosmos’ swanky headquarters in SoHo, the walls were covered with mock-ups for the many lines of merchandise they would be selling – under the Umbro brand, no less, while MLS was exclusive to adidas.
Paul Scholes’ upcoming testimonial game for Manchester United would be a good start for the Cosmos. They lost 6-0 with a bunch of guest players who would never reappear.
Eric Cantona, the onetime United legend, had been brought in by then to oversee the soccer side after more than a decade out of the sport. As it happened, I got the first interview with him in a whole day of them. It quickly became apparent that in his time away, Cantona had paid soccer almost no mind at all. He was evasive about the sort of team he actually hoped to put together. And when asked to name some players he appreciated, the likes of which we might see donning the Cosmos uniform, literally the only active professionals he could name were Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Less than a year later, Kemsley and Byrne had sold their share to the Saudi majority-owners and Cantona was never heard of again – until he sued the club for back pay after he was apparently fired for some kind of fracas with a photographer.
Under the direct and complete ownership of Sela Sports, the Saudi group, the club grew more measured and responsible. The team was entered into the new NASL and former Spanish national team players Marcos Senna and Raul were recruited. It made little difference. The team’s venue at Hofstra University was hopelessly unsuitable for a team of the Cosmos’ ambitions and that fancy new stadium never even got past the planning stage. Average attendance failed to reach 7,000 per game in the first season and slipped well below 4,000 in 2016.
The Cosmos, like their league, were going nowhere fast. The club’s approach was heavy-handed in a sport and market that require the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. The execution of even those bold plans was shoddy.
The club may well survive a while longer. But the idea of it, the notion of a return to the pizzazz and star-power of the halcyon long gone by, is already deceased.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.