By Paul Gardner
It hardly comes as a surprise that the so-called New Cosmos group is in turmoil. The high-flying Paul Kemsley, the hyper-Brit who has been telling everyone that the rebirth of the New York Cosmos which he was supposed to be engineering “is going to be huge.”
Not for Kemsley it’s not. One has watched with impotent amusement as Kemsley has spent a lot of money and made a number of flashy moves -- all of them hugely questionable in terms of promoting the Cosmos image.
Now Kemsley has suffered a huge come-down, the fate of the classical high-flier Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, melted his wings and ended up plummeting into the sea.
The people who have been financing this strange venture -- they are, I believe, from Saudi Arabia -- have had enough of Kemsley’s extravaganzas and extravagances. To take the most obvious examples -- a huge billboard in Times Square, visible for a few days, and immediately forgotten; the signing of Eric Cantona as the club’s Director of Soccer -- someone with no connection whatever with the Cosmos and, anyway, not exactly a big deal in New York; to which was added the decidedly bizarre appointment of Cobi Jones as Cantona’s associate director; and the farcical appearance of a “Cosmos” team to play in Paul Scholes’s testimonial game in Manchester -- a team made up mostly of one-time guest players.
With Kemsley gone, it is not yet clear where that leaves the whole operation. There had already been a falling out among the original group of three Brits who started the whole thing, with Carl Johnson, co-founder of ad agency “Anomaly,” dropping out of the picture.
The Cosmos quickly got themselves involved in youth development -- at least this had the feel of a genuine soccer move -- though the unpredictability and the long-term nature of youth soccer seemed ill-suited to the hustling, all-action, celebrity-oriented style favored by Kemsley.
Deals were signed with two youth clubs: Los Angeles FC on the West Coast, and Blau-Weiss Gottschee in New York -- two of the best clubs in the country. The L.A. deal ended after one year, but the Gottschee partnership is still functioning, perhaps the only part of the Cosmos that is healthy.
There is little reason to doubt that Kemsley, with his garish style, has been a drawback for the Cosmos when it came to what was the key part of the team’s rebirth: getting it accepted into MLS as the league’s 20th team in 2013 or 2014.
Kemsley’s background in real estate has involved lawsuits, and it’s clear that MLS Commissioner Don Garber has never regarded Kemsley as someone he wants to do business with. Garber has always hedged when asked for his opinion on having the reborn Cosmos in the league. A typical answer was: “They need to believe in the MLS system, which is not about one team dominating everybody else, like the Cosmos did 30 years ago. If they don’t believe in our system, we won’t sell them the team.”
That was the way Garber tended to talk when the Cosmos name came up. How much would the franchise cost? Considering that the most recent expansion team, the Portland Timbers, paid a reported $40 million, it seemed likely that the new figure would be around $60 million. But Garber came up with $100 million, which looked to many like a greatly exaggerated figure designed to deter the Cosmos group.
Earlier this month, Garber stated flatly that the Cosmos might not even be an option for the 20th franchise. Responding to that, the Cosmos vice chairman Terry Byrne chose to ignore the snub, and to point out that the Cosmos had been doing a considerable amount of research aimed at solving one of the key requirements for any new MLS franchise: a stadium. In the New York area, that means a considerable expense of building soccer-specific venue.
Byrne stated that viability studies had been done, including one for a stadium on Randall’s Island, but it had been found to be too costly. He added that, “We are willing to work with other ownership groups to build a stadium.” No doubt.
Byrne than added “Randall’s Island has always been our emotional favorite -- as the birthplace of the New York Cosmos.”
Wrong. The Cosmos were not born at Randall’s Island. The team played its first season (1971) at Yankee Stadium, then moved to Hofstra University on Long Island for the next two years. The Cosmos were already 3 years old when they moved to Randall’s Island in 1974.
A slapdash error on Byrne’s part, but one that brings to the surface all the doubts about the credibility of the Cosmos group. My biggest doubt about this whole affair, right from the start, was that the management group consisted of three Brits. The only one who had any prior experience of American soccer was Terry Byrne, David Beckham’s right-hand man at the Galaxy.
It has been my experience, during many decades of involvement with the sport in this country, that when Brits start organizing soccer matters, they are likely to fail -- simply because of an inability to adapt to American ways and a strong desire to impress their fellow Brits. That the first -- and so far only -- appearance of a reborn Cosmos team should have been in England emphasizes the point.
What next? We wait to find out what impact the latest “ownership group” seeking a New York franchise will have. This one is led by Chuck Blazer, soon to be quitting his job as the Concacaf General Secretary, along with former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing and former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin.