Originally posted November 4, 2010.
by Jason Davis
In the universe that is New York City's soccer culture, gravitational pull is not a matter of new stadiums, flashy signings, or success on the field. It's a matter of history.
Twenty-six years after their final match, and 15 years after an MLS franchise started across the river in New Jersey, the New York Cosmos still hold sway over the city and region. The legacies of Pelé, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, and the phenomenon that the club created during the late '70s and early '80s remain burned into the conscious New York-area soccer fans; despite opening a new arena, signing a pair of highly paid stars and having a real chance at a title, much of the soccer buzz in the city revolves not around the Red Bulls, but around the possible revival of the long dead Cosmos.
The new organization, led by former Tottenham Hotspur board member Paul Kemsley, has a plan. The ultimate (stated) goal: become an MLS expansion franchise in 2013. This isn't a fantasy bet on Betfair - there are real plans underway to make this dream a reality.
To that end youth academies are in place on both coasts, one in New York city and another in Los Angeles, with an eye towards developing professionals. New Cosmos gear is out, courtesy of Umbro, and executives are talking about holding "inspirational" games in 2011¹. Financing is reportedly in place for a Cosmos stadium in Queens (though no site has been chosen), and the greatest player the game has ever seen has returned to his old club in an honorary capacity. Sprinkle in a bit of clever marketing and strategic acquisitions (like Copa NYC, a local tournament that will be re-branded), and it's apparent the Cosmos are full steam ahead on retaking New York's soccer hearts.
With the media attention surrounding the Cosmos revival in a city that has still not forgotten them or accepted the MLS attempt to replace them, one could imagine Red Bull fans being somewhat resentful. Their club has been around for 15 years, after all, and with corporate ownership finally sending resources in their direction, more attention should rightfully be on the team that already exists.
As three Red Bull fans tell it, however, it's not that simple. The Cosmos name can't just be wished away, and the complicated nature of New York's soccer passion comes with a certain set of realities. From how a new Cosmos incarnation might be received, to accepting that some Red Bull fans will switch allegiances, the attitude fans of the current New York MLS representative ranges from circumspect to downright hostile.
Mark Fishkin, lifelong New York area resident, host of the Red Bulls-focused podcast Seeing Red² and correspondent for Around the League³ explained how the Cosmos still command attention.
"Even though the Cosmos haven't kicked a ball in 26 years, the brand has a massive following in the New York area. There's tons of warm and happy feelings for the club, especially since the release of 'Once in a Lifetime.' As successful as RBNY seems to be, the club still seems to lack a real connection to the soccer market."
Fishkin has been a MetroStars/Red Bulls season ticket holder since the earliest days, and recognizes the problems the team has had making that "connection" with the New York area. While he's not particularly resentful of the Cosmos buzz, he does rue the timing of their prospective return.
"As a fan and supporter since 1996, there's a part of me that feels that RBNY should have three or four more seasons to build their brand without an in-market competitor. Support for (the Red Bulls) has been so tenuous through the years, and now, just as the club seems to have their stuff together, to have the Cosmos enter the market is bad timing on a celestial scale."
The American sports media, including those based in New York, are still learning how to cover the game according to Fishkin, a situation that results in their choosing to rely on background stories and the business of soccer rather than events on the field. The attention the Cosmos are getting, years away from actually fielding an MLS team should they manage to reach their goal, is a reflection of that.
"In terms of Cosmos coverage, I'm not resentful," said Fishkin. "It's exciting and draws more attention to the game in New York. Let's face it, the guys behind the new Cosmos have built a palpable buzz about them. (Red Bull) as we know, do things 'differently' in every way, including marketing."
Success, or a decided lack of it in the case of the Red Bulls franchise, is a factor in the continuing pull the Cosmos have over the city contends Erik Abarca, an original fan who bought his first season tickets for the then MetroStars as a teenager growing up in New Jersey with money he earned from a part time job.
"(The Cosmos brand) resonates bigger than Metro/Red Bull primarily because they actually won trophies with world class players while Red Bull has just recently added two world class players. I don’t see it changing because I feel the brand will continue to hold its weight - on the other hand, I believe Red Bull’s indirect goal was to convert former Cosmos fans into RBNY supporters."
Led by the likes of Pelé, Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto, the Cosmos had both glamor and success; the Red Bulls have only just added elements of the former, and have yet to find the latter. The basic differences in the way the NASL did business then and MLS operates today is a contributing factor to a lower profile, and there's a real sense that the MetroStars/Red Bulls have mostly failed in their attempts to "convert" fans formerly attached to the Cosmos because of it.
Nostalgia plays a notable role in both perception of the Red Bulls and the excitement surrounding the new Cosmos; the name, colors and personalities attached to Kemsley's organization are a draw because they remind those that remember the NASL of the pinnacle of soccer in the region. A sense that the MLS team was a poor replacement for the Cosmos kept many from embracing them.
For Red Bulls fan Tim Hall, nostalgia is a poor excuse.
"I think the Cosmos are for the same people that like all of the new baseball stadiums built to look like old baseball stadiums. Guys who are fans of 'Turn Back The Clock' night. People who can't let go of the past, who are convinced that the old way is better. When they were children, they saw stars like Pelé and Chinaglia and built them up in their minds like superheroes, like we all do with our fathers and our favorite athletes. Soccer in America was almost a counter-culture movement, and is revered by the people who lived through it the way I look back on the birth of the grunge rock scene: an awesome time where we rebelled and we knew better than everyone else. What the people clamoring for a return of a Cosmos franchise need to realize is this: you can't go home again."
Just exactly where "home" will be for a new Cosmos franchise is an issue Red Bull fans point out as a potential stumbling block in the path to revival. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has made it clear the League would like a team based in New York City itself, and the Cosmos leadership claims to have stadium financing in place⁴; but with the City's notorious red tape and a plot of land yet to be secured, Fishkin has his doubts.
"Supporters of the new Cosmos are jazzed about the prospect of a stadium in Queens, but to date there's little evidence that a soccer-specific stadium is viable or affordable there. If the Mets' Wilpon family gets involved, the story changes for sure, but if the new club has to start play outside the city limits - New Jersey, Long Island - for me the whole concept falls apart. Red Bull Arena took a decade to go from idea to reality. How long will an SSS in NYC take to be realized?"
Those who have chosen not to embrace the Red Bulls, perhaps most notably the grassroots supporters group the Borough Boys⁵, have long claimed that the Red Bulls - first at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford and now at Red Bull Arena in Harrison - are simply too far from the core of New York soccer fans to be their team. Conceivably, the Cosmos would fill the void.
But, as Fishkin noted, the idea of the Cosmos as "New York's Team" is strange considering that the original team won their titles while playing at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. With the new Cosmos identifying the New Meadowlands as a possible temporary home, the label seems somewhat ill-fitting; resentment on the part of the Red Bull faithful would be natural should soccer fans from Long Island and Queens travel to New Jersey to watch the new Cosmos after years of refusing to do so for the Red Bulls. While geography plays a role in how New York-area soccer fans would treat the new Cosmos, it's obvious much more is at play.
Attrition from the ranks of Red Bull fans is certain should the Cosmos reappear as competitive team. Abarca seems resigned to the eventuality, and understands some of the possible reasons.
"You do have old Cosmos fans out there and because they felt as if they had no other choice, they became RBNY fans - now that they may be back, there is a good possibility they will go back to being Cosmos supporters. I view those fans as case by case. If they were old Cosmos fans to begin with then I guess it’s cool to go back, but if they were never true Cosmos fans and decide to jump ship then I view those fans as fakes who were never really RBNY supporters or even true passionate soccer fan(s)."
A Cosmos-inspired exodus could spell disaster for the Red Bulls, who are still working to create demand in their new venue after years of inhabiting an attendance-deflating American football stadium. "Splitting the market" is an issue with which MLS seems unconcerned, and the thinking goes that a local rivalry would benefit both the teams and the League in the long run.
Fishkin sees the idea of an in-market rival for the Red Bulls appealing despite his concerns with timing. Abarca is enthusiastic, while Hall wonders if it's wise to place another team in the area with the Red Bulls short of sellouts.
Said Hall, "It would be good for the league to have that sort of local rivalry. But RBNY aren't selling out every game, is it worth it to fracture an incomplete fanbase?"
Those concerns are valid, but with Garber adamant about a second New York franchise, there's an air of inevitability to it all. If the Cosmos are able to acquire the funding necessary to pay the League's expansion fee and their stadium plans in Queens get off the ground, Red Bull fans will be forced to come to terms with sharing New York.
The new Cosmos owners have at their disposal a rich, if admittedly brief, history. Kemsley and his team of investors and directors are leaning on that history, with the requisite legendary names in tow, while pushing forward towards a new New York Cosmos. Without the ability sign the kind of superstar talent they amassed in the days of the NASL, only time will tell if they can recapture the magic of the original Cosmos or the hearts of soccer fans in New York.
For their part, Red Bull fans are left to ponder why their team remains overshadowed by a team that exists only in name. A healthy dose of skepticism augmented by their understanding of the New York soccer market has at least two of them surprisingly calm. The possibility of a natural rival, perhaps one the Red Bulls could be expected to dominate in the initial years, makes it more palatable.
Even the idea losing a few fans to the new Cosmos is taken in stride, though Tim Hall has his own view on potential ship-jumpers.
"I would view anyone who (switched to the Cosmos) as my mortal enemy and the scum of the earth. It's not just a sports team issue, it would be a direct personal slap in the face to me."
Whether a new incarnation of the Cosmos would draw from New York's eastern reaches, a base of Euro-focused fans, or simply those nostalgic for the days of Pelé and Beckenbauer, a buzz surrounds them. What that means for the Red Bulls and their fans may ultimately determine if New York becomes a thriving two-team market, or a city split between the "old" and the "new" to the benefit of neither.
Resigned, hostile or otherwise, dyed-in-the-wool Red Bull fans know that New York remains enamored with the Cosmos. Though Fishkin, Abarca, and Hall would love to see their club get more recognition, they recognize that the bigger soccer is in their region, the faster the sport will grow in the United States. In the end, a new Cosmos could push the game to new heights.
"I can’t wait for the New York Cosmos to join the league because I think it will take our league to the next level faster from a global standpoint," said Abarca. "Our league is already reaching new heights every year, and will continue to do so, with or without the New York Cosmos."
1. "Cosmos Interviews pt. 2", This Is American Soccer
2. Seeing Red! The New York Soccer Roundup
3. Around the League
4. "Leonard: Cosmos hope to become 20th franchise in MLS", NorthJersey.com
5. "About Us", BoroughBoysNYC.com