By Paul Gardner
So here we go again. The New York Cosmos starting up once more, right where they played over 40 years ago. On Long Island, at the stadium of Hofstra University.
From Hofstra in 1972, it took the Cosmos five years to suddenly hit the big time and become a worldwide soccer sensation. And it took them just five more years to collapse ignominiously into nothingness.
A history that the current Cosmos owners do not intend to repeat. The rise to global fame, that for sure. But not the collapse. Hence the assurances that the growth will be slow and measured and, well sensible, I guess.
So the new Cosmos guys are pretty good at deflating any excessive enthusiasm. For the moment. Last week the new Cosmos Chairman Seamus O’Brien told me “I don’t want the Cosmos to be a hot, passing, fashion trend,” and went on -- calculatedly, no doubt -- to downplay the chances of immediate success for the current Cosmos team: “It won’t happen overnight -- us winning anything -- the odds are against us by such a huge margin.”
But whether that was reverse sales talk or not, it corresponds to reality. On Saturday we got a look at this new Cosmos team as it played its first game in the North American Soccer League -- against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
A pairing that sparked memories. In 1977, the same two teams met at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Quite a game -- 77,691 fans turned up -- then a record for a club game in the USA -- and the Cosmos won 8-3. Nothing like that happened on Saturday -- but of course the comparison is ridiculous. This is a start-up version of the Cosmos, to be compared with the Cosmos of 1972. And I don’t recall the Cosmos filling the stadium in those days.
That’s what happened on Saturday, we were told -- “Tonight’s attendance, a sellout, 11,929!” OK, 65,000 short of that 1977 mark and, actually, an odd announcement anyway, given that empty seats were quite plentiful, and that the University says the capacity is 13,000.
Quibbles. The important thing about Saturday night was that pretty much everything went well. Better, I’ll admit, than I had imagined it would. A beautiful evening, a “sellout” crowd, a terrific atmosphere of enjoyment -- not easy to define that, but you sense it when you’re part of it. And, of course, a 2-1 win for the Cosmos. Earlier, O’Brien had pondered what the Cosmos, at Hofstra, could offer that was better, or at least different, from what the Red Bulls offered over in New Jersey. “Hofstra is more intimate,” he suggested, it’s smaller, more family-friendly. And there are parking lots around it, so we can have tailgating.”
And that was what we got, there was lots of tailgating, there was a feeling of family intimacy, plenty of kids, plenty of people overtly having a good time.
If the quality of the soccer was a problem, it did not seem to bother many of the fans. Of course, that winning goal in the final minute meant smiles all round.
If you want a down-to-earth assessment of the game, it came from the Fort Lauderdale coach Gunter Kronsteiner: “I didn’t see an extremely strong Cosmos team today, but I didn’t see an extremely strong Strikers team either.” True enough -- but somehow irrelevant. The result mattered here -- not so much the three points, but as a confidence booster, to show that the Cosmos are competitive. They managed to do that, and did it with enough audacity to leave the winning goal until almost the last kick of the game.
It needs to be mentioned that the Strikers were the weakest team in the NASL’s Spring Championship, finishing in seventh, i.e. last, position with only two wins in 12 games. There’s plenty of work for the Cosmos to do. We got a team that looked exactly what it is, a team in the making, a team full of uncertainties, with plenty of hesitant play and errors.
Coach Giovanni Savarese made no extravagant claims for his team, describing the game as “a complicated one, as all of them will be in this league. They made it hard for us, but eventually our team started moving the ball more quickly. That was the key for us.”
Savarese has chosen players whom he expects to play skillful, possession-oriented soccer. This was probably not a game to allow them to play that way. Partly because of the Strikers’ rather rustic approach, but mostly because of the Cosmos’ own nervousness.
If there was a disappointment from the Cosmos, for me it came in the performance of their star signing, Marcos Senna. Senna’s undoubted strengths -- his experience, his tackling, his passing and, yes, his playmaking -- are vital to the success of the Cosmos as a skillful team.
More, as an entertainingteam. Something stressed by O’Brien: “This is the toughest town in the world. To mean something in this town, we’ve got to have something that makes us different. We’ve got to have an entertaining style of play -- we won’t survive in this town if we don’t have that.”
Savarese was circumspect after the game: “It’s difficult to put a timeline on this. Patience is the best virtue for us right now.”
Yes, time will tell. But Senna is the key. By coincidence, the day after the Cosmos game, we got a superb display of the very role that Senna needs to play. It came from Valencia’s Argentine midfielder Ever Banega, in his team’s 4-0 obliteration of Inter Milan. Apart from scoring a tremendous goal, Banega was involved throughout the game, on the ball, seeking the ball, passing the ball -- occasionally tackling for the ball. But it was the composure that was so impressive; nothing seemed to require strenuous effort.
It is a role that a team wanting to play a slick-passing game, must incorporate. Banega rarely had to go looking for the ball. It came to him, because his teammates looked for him, and because he always seemed to be available.
To play that role -- which his skills surely enable him to do -- Senna will have to be more involved than he was on Saturday night. I would expect that to happen -- rather than for Senna to fall into a primarily defensive role, which he did as Saturday’s game wound down. Senna’s age -- he’s 37 -- might present a problem (after all, Banega is 25), but that sounds like a problem that he and Savarese will work out.
A Senna-centered Cosmos would surely provide the desired entertaining soccer as the Cosmos start their come-back from what O’Brien called “30 years of stone-cold nothing.”
This was a lively, promising beginning -- an enjoyable evening that ended happily for the fans. We await the first test of their devotion -- August 24, when we find out how many of them return for the next Cosmos home game, against the San Antonio Scorpions.