Ambitious Cosmos hope to continue their climb, but for now, they wait

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The Cosmos have won two of the last three NASL titles. They have stars young and old. They want to privately fund a new $400M stadium. But for now, they are a second-tier team searching to solidify an identity, Christian Araos writes.

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The New York Cosmos continue to scale the mountain in their own way, and their hope is that the lesser road traveled can still lead them to the top.

Always quick to celebrate their right to be unique, the club — instantly recognizable by a name made famous in the 1970s thanks to the likes of Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia — continues to try to push forward commercially and on the field as a second-division NASL club with bigger ambitions.

The Cosmos supply themselves with their own blend of talent. In their haul bag are MLS veterans, La Liga veterans, current internationals from three different confederations, and more U.S. youth internationals. That diverse group seeks to defend last year’s Soccer Bowl title — a second in three seasons — and progress beyond the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16, where the Cosmos fell in each of the past two years.

As the flagship franchise for the NASL, which kicks off its new season on Saturday, the Cosmos maintain their own agreements with league broadcasting partner OneWorld Sports — outside of a national deal with BeIn Sports, which the league announced on Wednesday — and ball provider Under Armour. As part of the new merchandise agreement, Under Armour will not only make the Cosmos match and training kits but actively push them in stores in an effort to match their two MLS neighbors in sales.

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New era, classic look. (William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports)

One player that will don those new green-and-white kits this spring is former Tottenham and midfielder Niko Kranjcar, who signed a contract until the end of the NASL’s spring season. Kranjcar, a former Croatia international,  is a Cosmo because of former New York Red Bulls general manager Jerome de Bontin, who put him in touch with Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien.

"When he left [Dynamo] Kiev I told Niko he should consider the opportunity to come to the States in January, which would also give him the flexibility to move to a club in Europe in the summer,” de Bontin told The Telegraph. “I felt comfortable that the Cosmos would be a good home for Niko - for a few months or a few years.”

Thanks to the NASL’s split season format and no collective bargaining agreement, the Cosmos are able to offer Kranjcar this type of contractual flexibility. The Cosmos are smartly letting Kranjcar decide his future plans, fully aware that they are his safety net.

Signing Kranjcar and former Venezuelan international Juan Arango is the Cosmos’ best attempt at replacing the “irreplaceable” Marcos Senna and Spanish legend Raul, who both retired. Arango is his country’s all-time leading scorer and has survived turf despite being 35-years-old. Like Kranjcar, Arango arrives thanks to close relationships. His fellow Vinotinto teammate is Cosmos head coach and sporting director Giovanni Savarese. Despite the new arrivals, there is a change in the Cosmos’ transfer approach.

“The strategy has changed slightly,” Cosmos COO Erik Stover said in a Reddit AMA. “But only that the B team has given us greater flexibility in signing younger players. We've been very successful with that over the past two seasons. There are only so many Raúls in the world, and it was a huge opportunity for us to have him on the team last year. Juan Arango is certainly an international star, albeit one that has played for smaller clubs.”

The Cosmos shifted their focus on more consistent sources of talent than the international market. They made a splash last year by signing U.S. U-17 internationals Haji Wright and Alexis Velela, but not without controversy. Wright was touted as a coup after he spurned a homegrown contract from the LA Galaxy, where he only made three appearances with the senior team before being released last December.

The Cosmos are at one of the defining crossroads which ambitious clubs so often meet on their journey."

- Christian Araos

New York was never clear about their intentions with Wright until after he left the club and signed for Schalke, fulfilling his own original plans. Savarese then revealed that the club signed Wright to prepare him for “what he will face in Europe,” though the team does not plan on solely being an internship for young internationals heading overseas.

Velela and current U-17 midfielder Eric Calvillo are the next pair of young Americans that will split time between the Cosmos and their B team in the fourth-tier NPSL in a system similar to that seen in MLS clubs operating teams in the third-tier USL — except the NPSL has fewer restrictions. The Cosmos’ interest in MLS rookies Jack Harrison and Julian Buescher is a sign that they’re not afraid to swoop youngsters with competitive contracts.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA Today Sports

Hofstra is a warm but not ideal host. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA Today Sports)

This trend, like the rest of the Cosmos’ plans to compete with MLS, depends largely on the fate of their stadium proposal for a plot of land adjacent to the Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont, just outside New York City limits. A green light from the Empire State Development Corporation, plus $400 million of the Cosmos’ own money would bring a stadium, hotel and a retail and dining complex, club officials say.

“No one has ever done what we proposed to do, to my knowledge, in the United States,” Stover said. “We’re going to pay for all of it. No taxpayer money. We don’t need any infrastructure improvements. The infrastructure exists. We’re gonna build it all, and it’s not only a stadium or arena. It’s a 365 days out of the year entertainment destination and one that will work with the race track.”

The Cosmos face opposition from a pair of local legislators who want the site to be used for retail and affordable housing and three other developers.The wait for approval on the 28-acre site across the Hempstead Turnpike from Belmont Park has passed three years.

A rendering of the Cosmos' proposed stadium.

A ‘yes’ from the ESDC means the Cosmos could break ground within the year.

But if the ESDC says no, then the Cosmos would remain tenants at Hofstra University, where their year-to-year relationship is strained. The school restricts the number of dates Shuart Stadium is available, forcing the Cosmos to schedule games on holiday weekends, renounce hosting rights to U.S. Open Cup games and forget about scheduling summer friendlies.

“For our growth as a club,” Stover said, “forget about the real cost of carrying this over the past three years, the opportunity lost has been big. Trying to grow our fan base, being unable to answer our fans with something other than ‘I don’t know, we’ll see,’ that’s a hard position to be in, and there’s real dollars associated with that.”

A third NASL title does not put them any closer to their business goals — a reality of life without promotion and relegation. The Open Cup, with its pathway to the CONCACAF Champions League, is where the Cosmos look to translate on-field success into a better off-field status. They will likely face one of their MLS neighbors — NYCFC or the New York Red Bulls, like last year when they beat the former and fell to the latter — bringing a chance for bragging rights seasoned with vindication. A run to the tournament’s deepest stages would add more to the Cosmos’ kick as they try to become the biggest player in the country’s biggest market, despite being in the second division.

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There will always be a legacy factor for the Cosmos. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The Cosmos are at one of the defining crossroads which ambitious clubs so often meet on their journey. They look down and see the rest of the second division. Their setup resembles some MLS clubs but many in the first division are in the distance, closer to the peak the Cosmos seek.

Two current internationals — Bolivian forward Yasmani Duk and Kenyan defender David Ochieng — should improve the Cosmos’ chances of including themselves amongst the 16 MLS teams to have competed in the Champions League. To make it there would be the strongest endorsement of their global approach, but that goal remains elusive and ambitious.

It may be possible to become a leading club without participating in single-entity. It is not possible to do so averaging 5,000 people per game, which ranked in the bottom half of the NASL for average attendance last season. After witnessing the successful opening of Red Bull Arena firsthand, Stover believes that if you build it, they will come. It’s a fair place to come from, but NYCFC have four-to-five times as many full season ticket holders than the Cosmos’ average attendance. Albany legislature can’t change that.

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