Once the Times Square billboards came down and there was a halt to the bombastic promises and distracting photo ops with retired greats -- once the New York Cosmos stopped clinging to a past impossible to replicate and embraced a more honest and pragmatic future -- a pretty good soccer team emerged.
"Anything we say now, we're going to back up with our actions," Cosmos COO Erik Stover told SI.com. "Ultimately, that takes on a sort of grassroots approach. Whenever we run into skepticism, it's fine. We take it for what it is, we state our position and we go about our business. And I think we've shown that all we want to be is a proper soccer club."
That skepticism is the result of the Cosmos' audacious, two-year commitment to style over substance, which ended when Stover and club chairman Seamus O'Brien took over in the latter half of 2012. The approach changed, but the criticism persists. There are plenty who will demand an asterisk if New York defeats the host Atlanta Silverbacks in Saturday night's NASL championship game (7:30 PM ET, ESPN3.com), because the Cosmos played only half the 2013 season.
The second-tier circuit awards a berth in the Soccer Bowl to the clubs finishing atop the standings after separate spring and fall campaigns. The Cosmos skipped this year's first round robin while assembling a roster and then won the fall title with a 9-1-4 record.
Skeptics argue that New York gained an advantage by avoiding the rigors of a full season. Stover and coach Giovanni Savarese might counter that they would have preferred to start in 2014. But they bowed to the wishes of a league that needed both the visibility the Cosmos bring and the eight-team minimum required for U.S. Soccer sanctioning. They then lost only once in 14 matches -- not bad for an expansion team playing seasoned opposition.
Some skeptics also maintain that New York held fast to tradition and simply outspent everyone. After all, they signed Marcos Senna, a Brazilian-born Spanish international famous for his exploits at Villarreal. But Stover insists Senna was the "exception" rather than the rule and that the Cosmos are built for their modern reality -- a nascent league and an 11,929-seat stadium at Hofstra University, where the average attendance this fall was 6,859.
"It's not in anybody's best interests to [significantly outspend the competition], especially in a league that's growing," Stover said. "We're very much in line with the rest of the NASL. In fact, there were several NASL players in the beginning that Gio wanted to go after that we ultimately didn't get, and it's because we weren't spending more. There were three or four players on other NASL teams, and we just weren't going to go as high as people were asking for. I think we've stuck to that. We will continue to try to follow that model and we'll see what changes."
The Cosmos started local with the December 2012 signing of former New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew defender Carlos Mendes. Savarese added more former MLS journeymen like Hunter Freeman, Danny Szetela and goalkeeper Kyle Reynish. The coach took a flyer on Diomar Díaz, a 23-year-old Venezuelan who has tallied five goals in 12 games, and several other relative unknowns. Savarese built a good NASL team, not a juggernaut. Only two of the Cosmos' nine wins came by more than one goal.
"We've gotten performances out of players like Sebastián Guenzatti [a Uruguayan midfielder who attended high school in Queens], Diomar Díaz, and these were guys that nobody really ever heard of," Stover said. "Gio found them, and he's cultivated them and he's made them better."
Mendes, who grew up in Nassau County, said he signed with the Cosmos because it allowed him to return home and because of his faith in Savarese. The son of Portuguese immigrants who embraced the original Cosmos when they arrived in the 1970s, Mendes understands the romance of the past.
"You talk about history and tradition, some of the greatest players in the world played for this club," Mendes, 32, told SI.com. "That's not what we're trying to be. Writing a new future and hopefully playing some attractive soccer and start winning championships again, we realize what the logo means. But we're never going to be the old Cosmos or these great players that played here. For us it's about hopefully making the fans in New York proud, whether it's new fans or older fans that do remember the Cosmos."
If New York defeats Atlanta (10-9-7), it will consider the title its sixth. The trophies won in the 1970s and early 80s reside in the club's SoHo office. It's a past worth celebrating.
But the distinction between those championships and the one at stake Saturday is clear. This is a new league, albeit one with an old name, and a new era. The Cosmos will have to find their way without the likes of Pelé and Beckenbauer and without MLS, which selected the Manchester City-New York Yankees NYCFC partnership as its New York City expansion team. That's fine with Stover, who said he is excited by the freedom afforded by the NASL. The Cosmos will own their brand and player contracts. They'll be free to participate in the global transfer market and to pursue touring and marketing opportunities abroad. They'll take their shots at MLS, and hopefully their local rivals, in the U.S. Open Cup.
The club and its Saudi investors still intend to construct -- and pay for -- a $400 million mixed-use development at Belmont Park anchored by a 25,000-seat stadium. The Cosmos are waiting on New York state officials for approval. Stover said there is no established timeline.
But he isn't worried about whether a "minor league" team will be able to attract local fans, especially in such a competitive market, or whether his club will be overshadowed by the Red Bulls and NYCFC. The Cosmos no longer are the establishment. They're the alternative. They'll embrace the competition, and Stover has resolute faith that Saverese will assemble a team that honors its predecessors. Even if it's not as flashy. Whatever happens, the past will remain just that.
"We don't know what the future holds here. There could be promotion and relegation, there could be two leagues that are viewed as equal, we don't know," Stover said. "All we want to do is build the best possible club we can. And we believe if we do that then the conversation will change."