NEW YORK CITY -- The first thing I noticed upon arriving at New York Cosmos HQ in Soho wasn't the black-and-white photo of Pelé hanging with Robert Redford, the huge Cosmos logo on the exposed brick wall or even the classic picture of Giorgio Chinaglia.
Nope. The first thing I noticed was the number of employees: six. When I last visited the same Cosmos office in November 2010, at a time when the previous regime was busy lighting $10 million in cash on fire, there were at least 30 employees. The other big difference: When I ventured into the glassed-in back office of the Cosmos chairman, the guy sitting there was Seamus O'Brien, a respected 27-year veteran of the European and Asian sports industry.
People in Major League Soccer, where the Cosmos may play someday, have good things to say about O'Brien. They call him "a real guy." This is in stark contrast to previous Cosmos chairman Paul Kemsley, a bombastic (and bankrupt) Brit who made a lot of unfulfilled promises, besmirched the Cosmos name and, oh yes, essentially set $10 million on fire.
O'Brien and the Saudi Arabia-based Sela Sport took charge of the Cosmos last year, and, after Kemsley's departure, have provided a more realistic approach to reviving the most famous soccer team in U.S. history. On Thursday, they announced that the Cosmos will join the NASL, the second-tier domestic soccer league, in 2013. Reports say that the team will play in Hofstra's modest stadium, and the six employees suggest a heavy dose of restraint.
O'Brien, for his part, is quick to distance himself from Kemsley. "When I say something, it happens, and if it isn't I won't say it," he told me. "We won't say anything we're not going to deliver on, so you're not going to get hyperbole and big, grandiose lunatic statements that might have been the mantra of the past. You're going to get facts and reality."
MLS commissioner Don Garber also vouched for O'Brien when I spoke to him on Thursday. "I have spent quite a bit of time with Seamus and his partners, and I think they're terrific," Garber said. "[Joining the NASL] shows they're serious about being real, that it's more than a merchandising play. It's about being a club and having a team with players on the ground and trying to develop a fan base."
MLS has been clear that it wants the league's 20th team to be a second New York City-area outfit, but the process is an unusual one. MLS owners want to build a new soccer stadium first -- reportedly in the Flushing Meadows area -- and then hold an auction between ownership groups vying to join the league. The idea is to draw an expansion fee of up to $100 million.
It could be at least three years before a stadium is ready, however, and the Cosmos have decided to start playing in Division 2 sooner than that. But O'Brien certainly sounds interested in being that second New York-area MLS team. "We aspire to play at the highest level that we can," he said. "We've had a dialog with MLS. I'm absolutely sure we'll keep that dialog open. We're starting out, and we're going to get it right."
When I asked O'Brien if the new Cosmos had enough financial backing to build their own soccer stadium at some point, he didn't hesitate to answer. "Absolutely," he said. "The way the commercial model works right now, the financing of stadiums is not a major impediment. Leaving that aside, this ownership group has the pockets, big-time, to do it if you need it."
That said, O'Brien cautioned that although the NASL doesn't have a salary cap, it would be "not a very smart business decision" to throw around huge sums of money to sign players for a second-division team (particularly since there's no way of getting promoted to the top flight). But he does want to bring in some recognizable players and a coaching staff that will give his team the best chance to win.
"We just want to start with humble beginnings again, put down strong foundation and then you can build a big house," O'Brien explained. "We're very conscious of our heritage and the past, and we're blessed that we have something pretty unique. We think we've made the right decision for the team."
Kemsley's Cosmos brought on some big names, like Pelé, Eric Cantona and Cobi Jones, and they stoked plenty of buzz, buying billboards in Times Square and convincing
Under O'Brien, things may well be changing. An actual team with real players is coming. Pelé will still be involved, O'Brien says, but the ownership is saying all the right things about being circumspect and earning its way. And if you're a longstanding Cosmos fan from back in the 1970s, this constitutes the first good news you've heard about your team in a while.