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Coming out of the Cosmos shadow?
by Paul Gardner, August 11th, 2008 7:01AM

TAGS:  mls

We got used to the best in New York. Make that New Jersey -- or, more accurately but more clumsily, make it New York/New Jersey. Whatever, the Cosmos -- and please note that they dropped the geographical reminder, they were just plain Cosmos -- spoiled us.

For about five years in the late 1970s and the early 1980s they put on a show, a soccer show, at Giants Stadium. While it lasted it was magnificent and dazzling ... and then it burnt itself out, and we were left with nothing.

What could one do after that? Was there even the possibility of an encore? Almost certainly not, but the idea itself was alluring, a will o'the wisp that has proved a fatal attraction to all sorts of soccer people -- owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans -- ever since.

The Cosmos -- or a withered, emaciated version of the Cosmos -- died in 1984. Twelve years later -- yes, that's how long it took, 12 years -- they were reborn as the MetroStars. That's what happened, even though everyone involved with the new club was determined that there should be no links with the past, that this was a totally new beginning.

Nice idea, but it never had a chance. The Cosmos legend haunted the MetroStars from Day 1. It drew a huge opening day crowd of 46,800 in 1996, and when those fans saw the truth of the MetroStars, saw that they were a commonplace team, not fit for comparison with the royalty that had been the Cosmos ... most of those fans never returned.

The MetroStars quickly became the RotMasters -- a pathetically poor team, despite a succession of top coaches and top players. Not only did the Rots fail to live up to the daunting Cosmos standards, they failed to produce anything that was even halfway decent in soccer terms. And, of course, they never won anything.

What looked like a lifeline came in 2006 when the club acquired what every ambitious soccer club needs these days: a super-rich backer, the Red Bull organization from Austria. But nothing changed, Futility, as ever, reigned. The Red Bulls soon became the ThredBears. Even the USA's top coach, Bruce Arena, could not exorcize the damaging memories of Cosmos past, nor light the fuse for a brighter future.

Exit Arena, yet another coaching flop in this snake-bitten franchise. Enter Juan Carlos Osorio. And what difference has he made? As of now, not much. The ThredBears are in last place in their division, familiar territory for them.

But life at the bottom brings with it the solace of hope. As things cannot get worse, surely they must get better. And yesterday, with that resounding 4-1 over D.C. United, hope dared to raise its head slightly higher, a little more confidently, than before.

Osorio has been making changes to the NY/NJ RedBulls/ThredBears roster. No big names, but the players being added show signs of something that has not been seen before: they give an indication of style.

All of Osorio's recent signings are Latino players -- two Venezuelans, Jorge Rojas and Gabriel Cichero, an Argentine Juan Pietravallo, and a Mexican Diego Jimenez. Add in Juan Pablo Angel and you have a solid spinal column from defense to forward of Latino players.

Is this style-solidity important? I think it is. Coaches are rather fond of using terms like "we're all on the same page" and "we're all singing from the same hymn sheet" -- they're talking about the necessity of a uniform style, a quick, instinctive understanding among the players: the fundamentals of style.

Given the many false dawns of the Rots/ThredBears lifetime, I'm not about to claim that a single 4-1 win over D.C. is going to change everything. But I do think that there were aspects of that win that looked ... hopeful.

To take but one on-field aspect: No one would question that Angel is a class act. But as a forward, a goalscorer he needs help, he needs a sharp, quick-moving, quick-thinking partner up front -- and he has not had that. Now Rojas looks the part, and the symbiosis between the two will surely also benefit Mike Magee, whose time with the club has so far been stronger on promise than actual performance.

The Cosmos were always able to play with style, oodles of it, because they had superior players who responded naturally and easily to their own innate soccer impulses and to those of their teammates. Within MLS, the overall caliber of play has never reached that level. The Designated Player is a start, but fitting that one superstar into a team of lesser mortals is the tricky bit -- a question of stylistic compatibility.

I'm not suggesting that Osorio's team will quickly become the Cosmos reborn. But one of the key elements in building a team that can play well, consistently well, appears to be in place: playing style. Osorio knows the style, primarily a Latin style, that he wants his team to play. It makes total sense that the style will suit the play of the Red Bulls' DP, Angel -- a Latin player (and like Osorio, a Colombian).

With a defining style there is hope. Without it, the Red Bulls will continue to be what they have been for so long, merely a wildly varied assortment of diverse players. As it happens, that's just what the Cosmos were -- but with a level of talent that transcended the differences and allowed real team play to flourish.

For the Red Bulls, choral play will not come spontaneously because the overall talent level is not there. But with a strong nucleus of players selected -- as Osorio appears to have selected them -- for their style as well as their skill .. . yes, there is hope yet for this sad New York or New Jersey or whatever club.

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