Left for dead last month, there’s now a flicker of hope for the New York Cosmos and the very real possibility the iconic club will be back on the field in 2017.
During their Icarian heyday in the 1970s, and then again over the past four years as they set the standard (at least on the field) in an ambitious yet flawed reincarnation, the Cosmos were the straw that stirred the North American Soccer League’s drink.
Throughout both eras, the big names and big wins were plentiful. And toward the end of both eras, the Cosmos struggles reflected the NASL’s. The first time, it was about excess. They overspent, over-expanded and just couldn’t maintain momentum. This time, as the NASL’s second iteration stands on the threshold of oblivion, the Cosmos’ inability to achieve “major league” status—whether it’s venue, attendance or division designation—mirrors in large part that which is dragging down the league.
On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors will take its long-awaited vote on pro league sanctioning for 2017. The growing United Soccer League, which comprises both independent clubs and MLS reserve teams, has applied to be raised from third to second division status. The NASL, which has occupied D2 during its six seasons of play, has lost four teams over the past year (one to MLS and three to USL) and is barely viable. It hopes simply to survive.
And once again, its fate appears to be intertwined with that of the Cosmos—and the Cosmos’ with that of the NASL.
New York won its third NASL title in four years, and eighth overall, two months ago. Trouble soon followed. Saudi investor Sela Sport pulled out, front office staff was furloughed and players were released. The money was drying up and losses of $30 million were reported. Hofstra University kicked the club out of Shuart Stadium, and the league’s future was very much in doubt as Minnesota United moved to MLS, the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies left for USL, Rayo OKC shut down and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and Jacksonville Armada sought new buyers.
Such is the power of the Cosmos, however, that their resurrection would impact the entire league. A source with knowledge of the negotiations told SI.com Thursday that New York City cable TV entrepreneur Rocco Commisso, who played soccer at Columbia University, has agreed in principle to become the Cosmos’ majority owner. Commisso, 67, is the founder and CEO of Mediacom Communications, the country’s fifth-largest cable company.
His purchase is contingent on one very critical variable, however. The Cosmos will play only in the NASL, and the NASL—despite its issues and the USL’s application—must maintain D2 status.
Commisso’s involvement was revealed by a contributor to The Telegraph and by New York website Big Apple Soccer and then confirmed independently by SI.com. Calls to the Cosmos’ office requesting comment weren’t returned.
If the Federation allows the NASL to maintain its D2 status, and waivers would be needed since U.S. Soccer requires a second-division league to field 12 teams in its sixth season, then key dominos will fall. Commisso will purchase the Cosmos, re-staff the front office—sporting director and head coach Giovani Savarese, COO Erik Stover and a handful of remaining employees are keeping the lights on at the moment—and restock the roster in time to take the field this spring.
At that point, the NASL will have seven clubs ready to play: the Cosmos, FC Edmonton, Indy Eleven, Miami FC, North Carolina FC, Puerto Rico FC and the expansion San Francisco Deltas. SI.com understands that those owners collectively would fund the Jacksonville Armada as its sale to two potential buyers is finalized. The Strikers also may play again at some point, although they’re more likely to face a hiatus as new investment is sought.
With eight teams, the NASL could play its 2017 season with the understanding that expansion to at least 12 would occur in relatively short order. There are owners in six markets who are in advanced negotiations with the league: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, Orange County and San Diego.
If the U.S. Soccer board is convinced those expansion teams are imminent and viable and that a reformed NASL under new leadership represents the best option for D2, then the Cosmos will return and USL likely will remain D3. It’s understood that USSF has little to no interest in having two leagues occupy the same tier, even though there’s no bylaw explicitly preventing it.
Commisso appears to be the ideal Cosmos savior. One source called his entry a "game-changer ... [with] tremendous connections in both media and banking." Foreign ownership has done the club no favors—from Paul Kemsley’s bombast to Sela’s detachment and the ties to TV network One World Sports of current investor Seamus O’Brien, who’s expected to remain as a minority owner if the Cosmos survive. The Cosmos’ association with OWS prevented them from being shown on BeIN Sports or CBS Sports Network, to the league’s detriment.
Commisso is an Italian native who moved to the U.S. as a child. He earned undergraduate and Master’s degrees from Columbia, was the co-captain of the school’s soccer team and earned All-Ivy second-team honors in 1968 and 1969. He remains a contributor to the program and the school’s 3,500-seat soccer stadium, which opened in 1985, is named in his honor. Prior to founding Mediacom in 1995, he was an executive at Chase Manhattan, Royal Bank of Canada and Cablevision.
It’s unknown whether Commisso intends to spend big on the Cosmos’ roster or whether he believes MCU Park, a minor-league baseball stadium in Coney Island where the Cosmos intended to play next season, is a long-term solution. What seems to be certain now, as the USSF, NASL and USL maneuver to re-establish the foundation of the country’s pro soccer pyramid, is that the Cosmos have a lifeline. And as a result, fittingly, so does the NASL.