Cosmos will strengthen soccer in US

Back in late 2010, you probably wouldn’t have mistaken the New York Cosmos for a soccer club. The exposed brick walls of the swanky SoHo office rented out by the reincarnated club – which knew a brief and heady halcyon in the late 1970s and has lingered in the mind ever since – were covered from floor to ceiling with merchandise designs. Somewhat tellingly, their clothing lines were carried by Umbro, a brand not allowed in Major League Soccer, the club’s stated destination.

Almost three years and an ownership change on — although you wouldn’t know it from the new management’s literature, which makes no mention of their predecessors and the millions they spent to almost no effect – the Cosmos are playing soccer again for the first time since 1984.

Last Saturday, the Cosmos made their return to the North American Soccer League, which has been revived in its own right. An injury time goal got them a 2-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, another NASL re-tread. The game wasn’t a page-turner. But the gloriously temperate weather had made up for that.

A sellout crowd of 11,929, mostly clad in vintage Cosmos jerseys — Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia — went home happy. In a pregame ceremony, they’d gotten to see Pelé and fellow Cosmos originals Carlos Alberto and Shep Messing — who looked like he’d never stopped going to Studio 54.

Wedged in between his rambling, circular thoughts, Carlos Alberto declared after the game that “if not this year, very soon we’re going to have the same kind of team that we had before.” When some of the world’s best and brightest talent trudged the Giants Stadium AstroTurf, that is to say.

Messing contradicted him, offering a more sensible perspective. “We want this team to be very proud of our history but we don’t want them to be burdened with our legacy,” he said. “This is not magic. It’s one step at a time. Like for us many years ago, it didn’t happen overnight.”

Whatever timeline may prove more realistic, comparisons between the neo-Cosmos and the Cosmos of yore obscure the vision for what the club could prove to be anew: a game-changer. They alerted America to the existence of pro soccer on its own shores at the end of 1970s and they could help move the domestic game forward now, too.

New chairman Seamus O’Brien, who took over a year ago after Paul Kemsley’s shambolic reign, has said clearly and publicly that he doesn’t believe in Major League Soccer’s model and hopes to run the club in a different way.

And he’s free to do so. Because at some point, somebody somewhere labeled the NASL the second division and the USL-Pro league the third division of American professional soccer — both falling below Major League Soccer, of course. But what exactly makes that so is unclear. There’s no promotion or relegation. The USL has settled into that subservient role, accepting invitations to partner up with several MLS teams and act as a feeder system where prospects can mature.

But the NASL has done no such thing. There’s nothing to stop the Cosmos and their peers from expanding to 18 teams by 2018 — as they plan to do — building soccer-specific stadiums – as they plan to do – and becoming a viable alternative to MLS. To compete with the league that is thriving now but stands only a decade removed from the brink of dissolution.

An NASL surge would be rather a good thing for American soccer. Major American sports leagues like the National Football League and Major League Baseball have all faced down upstart rival leagues before usurping their teams or even the entire league. In the end, they were stronger for it. And even if the NASL falls flat, as any professional soccer league in American is rather prone to, the American player will be better off.

The NASL isn’t encumbered by MLS’s morass of single-entity induced rules, caps, regulations and revenue sharing. The Cosmos were free to sign jersey deals with Nike and Emirates. They can spend as they please. They negotiate their own contracts, which needn’t be approved by the league or assorted committees and boards. Which is to say that the NASL teams could happily begin poaching MLS or college players – who have no free agency – and outbid the league on its foreign targets.

Should this come to pass, MLS will have no choice but to relax its stringent salary cap and tighten the preposterously divergent pay scale, which currently runs from some $35,000 to the $8 million in guaranteed money Clint Dempsey will reportedly make for the Seattle Sounders.

Better pay will draw and keep more players in the sport. It will attract better imports. And provided MLS and the NASL don’t over-extend themselves in a would-be competition, American soccer as a whole will be better for it.