By Paul Gardner
Back in 1984, when the North American Soccer League was sinking rapidly toward oblivion, there was talk, or there were rumors, that the New York Cosmos were not about to be dragged out of existence by the failing league. The Cosmos, so went the stories, would continue to exist -- as an all-star team that traveled the world playing exhibition games.
We never found out whether that was a good idea or not. FIFA quickly stepped in and let it be known that they would not give their approval for such a setup. As I recall, the FIFA position was that for a club team to play exhibition games against other (FIFA-approved) club teams, that club had to be playing a full schedule of games in a FIFA-approved league.
There could be no such thing as an independent, unaffiliated club. FIFA regulations would not allow a soccer version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
End of story ... until today, when the New York Cosmos take the field in Manchester, England to play a form of exhibition game against Manchester United. The occasion being the testimonial game for ManU’s Paul Scholes, who is retiring.
Considering that the Cosmos are in the same position that threatened them in 1984 -- i.e. not having a team playing in a pro league (actually they’re worse off, as they don’t have a team at all) -- you might wonder just how this game fits into FIFA requirements.
Well, now, as it happens, the Cosmos do have a team. Not in MLS, this country’s top league. Nor is it in the 12-team USL-Pro league -- which promotes itself as “the strongest, most sophisticated and most experienced North American men’s professional soccer league below MLS." The Cosmos team plays in the fourth tier of American soccer, the Premier Development League. This is an age-limit team, an under-23 team. It is also an amateur team, and it plays its home games on a high school field because the NY Cosmos do not have a stadium of their own.
So, what is being billed and hyped as ManU vs. NY Cosmos, is really ManU vs NY Cosmos Amateur Under-23s. Well, not really. A bunch of over-age players will be appearing for the Cosmos. In case you haven’t seen the list of these players, here it is: Brian McBride, Brad Friedel, Gary Neville, Wayne Bridge, Patrick Vieira, Fabio Cannavaro, Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Nicky Butt, Dwight Yorke, Robbie Keane.
Not one of whom has even the remotest connection with the Cosmos, either the old or the new version. But eight players from the Cosmos under-23 team will be on the roster, so that will help maintain the notion that this is a regularly functioning Cosmos team, and that the Cosmos are heavily into youth development. After all, the London Daily Mail says of the Cosmos team that it “crucially” includes these eight “homegrown under-23 players,” and the ManU website identifies them all as “Cosmos under-23 players.” But I have to tell you that a moment or two of checking (on the Cosmos website itself, of all places) reveals that at least four of them are over 23 -- a 25 year-old, two 26-year-olds plus a 31-year-old goalkeeper.
Whatever. They are the players who will feel more like the guest players; they will not be playing under their usual coach, Giovanni Savarese; the coach for this special occasion, this weirdly hybrid Cosmos assembly, is the club’s Director of Soccer, Eric Cantona. A guy who is wildly famous in England but who means little to New Yorkers, and another guy who anyway has absolutely no historical connection to the Cosmos.
Actually the notion that the Cosmos under-23 team satisfies the requirement that it should be part of a league set up, that also looks a bit shaky. This is what the USL website had to say on May 4 this year: “United Soccer Leagues announced today that New York Cosmos U23 will field a team in the Premier Development League (PDL), and will become a full member for the 2012 season. New York Cosmos U23 will play a limited exhibition schedule against PDL competition during the 2011 season, and will not be eligible for the playoffs or the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.”
An “exhibition schedule” for a team that, being excluded from the playoffs, will not be eligible to win the league? At the very least, that does not sound like full membership of the league.
Of course, no one should be puzzled that the first major manifestation of the reborn New York Cosmos should take place in England. The club is run by four Brits and they -- typically of soccer-Brits in the USA -- are more interested in impressing their buddies back home than in Americanizing their outlook.
This whole extravaganza in Manchester, dubious in concept, equally dubious in its execution, is regrettable. Because there is surely a place waiting in American soccer, particularly in the hearts of New York fans, for a reborn Cosmos. The ultimate aim of the new Cosmos must be to secure an MLS franchise. An aim that will not be helped by an image of a Brit-pseudo-NY-Cosmos that takes the field in England as a phantom team, stuffed with -- of course -- current and ex- EPL players.
As an MLS team, the Cosmos could give the city something that is totally lacking from the New York Red Bulls (a team that, in everything but its name, is a suburban New Jersey operation): The Cosmos could be, must be, a team with a real local New York flavor.