Multiple reports of Fort Lauderdale unable to pay players on time, followed by new reports of ownership looking to sell the team, a continuous flow of soap opera drama involving Rayo OKC, and most recently a scare that Ottawa Fury was looking to join USL, save an announcement on the new Canadian Premier League (rumored to be starting in 2018), along with Tampa Bay. Minnesota is making the jump to Major League Soccer, and expansion beyond San Francisco Deltas remains a mystery. At the same time, the Deltas told The Telegraph that they still back the league with firm confidence, and Commissioner Bill Peterson mentioned being in talks with with four potential ownership groups based in the US and the Middle East.
With the league being surrounded by uncertainty, and news about the future causing severe whiplash depending on what day of the week it is, one has to wonder what the future would look like for our boys in green if the NASL were to cease operation.
When considering potential options, three things were considered. How would this move affect the club long term? How would it affect the potential stadium? And how would it affect the Cosmos ability to become the best American soccer club?
United Soccer League (USL)
The third-tier United Soccer League has been making a push for second division status with the United States Soccer Federation. While the NASL currently is the only league holding D2 status in the US, a bump up for USL could provide a quick and fluid option for the Cosmos and other NASL teams, should the NASL cease operations. Despite being in a partnership with MLS, USL roster rules are pretty lenient in allowing the teams to build up their team without permission from an overseeing body or a salary cap (which would only be an issue if you are looking to push it), and teams own the players’ contracts, not the league. They follow the same rules on foreign players set by USSF, so current NASL rosters could make the switch easily. The Cosmos would be able to build their roster as they please, allowing them to continue their quest to be the top dog in the US, but there is that one pesky aspect: USL is in a partnership with MLS.
It remains to be seem how USL changes its structure in order to meet the D2 requirements and what will become of the D3 level on the pyramid, but there is clear evidence that moves are being made with something bigger in mind. The recent changes in ownership for teams like Arizona United SC and Orange County Blues, along with the news that the Austin Aztex and Wilmington Hammerheads FC will sit out the 2017 season, point to the idea that USL is looking to make the jump. Even with Austin and Wilmington sitting out, USL has 30 teams contracted to play the 2017 season, but only 16 of the teams currently meet the USSF standard for D2 stadium capacity (5,000) and it’s unclear how many ownership groups meet the financial requirements for a second division. The MLS-owned clubs should pass the financial test, but those teams’ stadiums are currently below the capacity threshold. If they were to play in the team’s main stadium, which are all currently D1 level, it would be a simple fix, but begs the major question, how far up the USSF “pyramid” should MLS B teams be allowed to play?
A league consisting of all the top independent soccer clubs definitely has some appeal for the Cosmos. A New York State rivalry with the Rochester Rhinos, regional match-ups against some of the other historic American clubs like Richmond and Charleston, and the chance to play against some of the new ambitious clubs trying to make a name for themselves, like FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC, definitely would be appealing, but the league immediately loses flavor if it were to be filled with visits from teams whose names do nothing to hide what they are, like Orlando City B or LA Galaxy II. While B teams are filled with solid player options, and may even feature a recovering MLS star or former NASL regulars, the league would still be labeled a reserve league. Watching the great ambitions of the Cosmos being dumped quietly down the Hofstra locker room drain for a future of playing MLS reserves would be heartbreaking. It is hard to see the stadium gain any ground on the idea of playing reserve squads on a regular basis, and it is more likely that the team would share a venue with other teams, as they do now, and like other current USL teams do as well.
If the new and improved USL D2 league were willing to step up to the plate and offer a full slate of independent teams with no MLS reserve sides involved, the league could become a safe option for the club’s future. It’s safe to say that most of the remaining NASL teams would also make the switch, and benefit from the new regional rivalries they would have. Better rivalries provide more attendance, which provides better sponsorships, and even potentially better TV deals. Instead of BeIN playing Fort Lauderdale and Rayo OKC in an empty Lockhart, they could play Miami FC taking on FC Cincinnati in front of 25,000 fans. The Midwest and Mountain regions provide more viewers for the league, and an Orange County, San Francisco combo offers a strong footprint for future West Coast expansion. If the league of independents were able to act and play like a D1 league stuck behind a D2 label, the chances for stadium approval would also increase. Definitely some intriguing aspects to be considered.
But USL may not even end up being an option for the Cosmos. First reported by our friends at Midfield Press, their sources have mentioned that USL may have already made a decision as to whether or not the league would accept a Cosmos application to join USL and the answer is no. The stance most likely has something to do with the Cosmos having ambitions larger than being a D2 level club. If most of the teams in the league are unwilling to take on the financial burden of a club that wants to appear more D1 (and the top team at that) than D2, then it does make sense for the league to deny entry of a team that would raise the cost of winning and thus raise the operating costs that are so appealing to USL owners. To be fair, if the majority of USL teams are content operating at a D2 level while still enjoying the regional benefits of independent neighbors, which is part of their appeal, that seems like a league the Cosmos would not enjoy being a part of in the first place.
Still, with the uncertainty looming around both leagues, there is nothing anyone can do but just wait and see how the chips fall. For now, the Cosmos currently sit in first place in the NASL Fall Season, and look primed (albeit a bit thin) to win another league title. Meanwhile, there has been relative silence, outside of some interesting moves by USL clubs, when it comes to whether or not that league looks to make the jump to D2.
Piggybacking on another American sports landscape that has had plenty of experience with teams changing leagues and divisions on a regular basis, college football could provide inspiration for an additional option for the Cosmos, should they decided to keep the team’s dreams alive without having to play MLS reserve teams. Playing as a professional team, free of league affiliation, could let the team maintain its goal of becoming the top US soccer franchise, without having to deal with MLS.
A move to independence wouldn’t be without difficulty. The stability of playing in a league, and the promised opponents a league provides, would be gone. On the other hand, the Cosmos would be free to schedule anyone available. This benefit goes both ways. We’ve seen the Cosmos play friendlies in front of large crowds against teams in China, Cuba, and El Salvador, and play preseason friendlies against fourth-division teams on high school football fields, like the Ventura County Fusion. There is no secret that the draw of watching Raul play in person was a major part of the impressive draws and having a well known player like him would be necessary, but the attraction of a “final world tour,” could also help draw the necessary talent.
Playing independent of a league should still allow the Cosmos to play in the US Open Cup through their Open Division qualifying option. As long as they follow Cup roster rules, the Cosmos would be free to participate, though they would likely have to first win the Open Division knockouts and enter in an earlier round against other pro teams. The Cup gives them a solid slate of games over the three month schedule, which would be useful when other teams are in league play. Of course, winning the Cup also would allow them to participate in the CONCACAF Champions League, which secures even more competitive match-ups for the team. They could then top it off by participating in the International Champions Cup, a competition that was without American teams, despite being played in the US. Between those competitions, along with the preseason friendlies of American and European clubs occurring at different times of the year, the ‘Mos would definitely stay busy.
Imagine if the team had started this year using all seven foreign player spots on aging European stars, some of whom had been linked to the Cosmos in the past. Rostering players like Buffon, De Rossi, Riquelme, Eto’o, and Di Natale, just to name a few, could certainly draw large crowds all over the world, giving teams and cup organizers a reason to invite the Cosmos. Despite their age, these players have also shown they would still have enough left in the tank to compete against MLS squads in the Open Cup. Pairing these stars with older USMNT players, as well as up and coming American players who aren’t looking to commit their first few years to MLS (like Haji Wright, Alexis Velela, and Eric Calvillo), would also give those young players a chance to learn from some of the world’s best, and be placed under the spotlight in countries around the world. The Cosmos could act as both a springboard for young talent as well as give aging stars a chance to enjoy their legendary status one last time.
Packing their own stadium with these exhibition matches would provide a good selling point for their stadium bid. Instead of wondering whether or not their NASL attendance would increase in their own venue, the team has plenty of evidence of international clubs drawing well for friendlies here in the States. A team full of aging stars could arguably make them the top club in America for the time being, but it would limit their potential to maintain that position if MLS clubs were to expand on their roster rules in the future, which they certainly will. The team could quickly find itself as little more than a final stop before retirement, and fan interest could quickly disappear with the lack of a league title to play for, but independence does provide a stop gap until there is more clarity in future domestic options, hopefully something built around teams like the Cosmos and Miami FC with billionaire owners who are looking to make American super clubs.
A move to independence would definitely take some preparation beforehand. The two part tango of securing enough friendlies and cup invitations with the promise of having superstar names on the club’s roster, and having to do so without currently having those big name players under contract, would be difficult. The team would then have to immediately turn around and sell those friendlies and cups to those big names to ensure that they would confidently join the team. Things could potentially go sideways rapidly. The team could quickly lose prestige and risk becoming the soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters instead of keeping themselves on track to be the greatest soccer team in America. At the same time, seeing a roster full of world soccer stars surrounded by upcoming and former American talent competing regularly against some of the world’s most popular and prestigious clubs would definitely raise team’s own image over the short term and internationally.
Major League Soccer (MLS)
I’m not going to get into detail about the relationship history involved between the New York Cosmos and Major League Soccer up to this point in time. It’s safe to say that the Cosmos perceived plan to crash MLS’s party hasn’t quite gone as we have hoped or anticipated in 2010, and that a Cosmos-free MLS has done alright without the Cosmos. Would the Cosmos be playing their own stadium had they taken the MLS route? Who knows, but if attendance is the issue, it’s hard to deny the following MLS teams have. With almost all MLS clubs playing in their own stadium, it might suggest they would have gotten their own home, but NYCFC, the team who was given the spot in the league instead of the Cosmos, haven’t gained any traction on ever leaving Yankee Stadium in their short existence.
The league is stable enough that they currently are asking $200 million for their upcoming expansion bids. That’s right, $200,000,000.00 is the price you have to now pay to join the MLS cool kids club, and business groups are willing to make that investment because of the value they obtain in return. That price is also likely to continue to go up as they round out the final spots. Ignoring some of the finer details about whether or not MLS would allow for three New York(ish) based teams, with Cosmos ownership stating their willingness to foot the $400 million stadium bill on their own, at least on the surface it shows that the funds are there. Maybe team ownership is putting all of its eggs in one, world class stadium basket (because of the continuous source of revenue that the stadium and surrounding complex would become), but even if the stadium has to stay on hold or just continues in limbo indefinitely, at least Team Plastic has shown us that filling another pro stadium would be a real possibility. Maybe the Mets ownership would be willing to jump in on the Cosmos MLS bid, similar to the Yankees with Man City Lite, allowing the Cosmos to play at Citi Field for the foreseeable future. This may also give them a fast track to the plot of land where Shea Stadium once was as the home of the Cosmos new world class facility.
Alternatively, that $400 million could be put towards another use, the fan favorite idea of the Cosmos buying the rights to Red Bull. They already have a stadium in Red Bull Arena, and it would be nice for the league to move past a corporate team. Red Bull owns several top tier clubs across the globe, but with RB Leipzig recently being promoted to the Bundesliga and FC Red Bull Salzburg having established themselves as one of the top clubs in Austria, the brand could be interested in selling the American outfit and using the profits to help promote their European sides to greater heights. It is not uncommon for rumors of NYRB being for sale to come and go, and while a Cosmos and takeover and re-brand may not be the best way to get the club into MLS, it is still an option. Still, a Cosmos owned stadium and a three team rivalry series with NYRB and NYCFC would be preferred by most followers of the club, should they take the MLS route.
Obviously MLS has some quirks that make it unappealing. First and foremost, the team would have to give up the rights to the Cosmos brand. They would have to give up their sponsorship with Under Armour to be fitted into an adidas template (although it would be idiotic of adidas not to give the Cosmos their own custom design). MLS would get a chunk of all Cosmos merchandising sales, although they would increase significantly compared to what they are doing now and over the last few years, and the team would lose a lot of say in how the brand is to be marketed.
Roster rules have been cited as part of the reason the Cosmos had some hesitance to join MLS in the first place. The discovery process, blind draws, and allocation order make it difficult for teams to build rosters according to their preferences, and those mechanisms are used in an attempt to create league parity. Forced parity helps for overall league stability, but it would affect the Cosmos’ ability to establish themselves as the top dog, when they otherwise would be able to. The salary cap and designated player rules also limit the team and how it can be structured. The hard cap of $3.4 million (combined with the league funny money and Garberbucks to actually come out around $4.5 million) and the limit of only having 3-5 players on the books who can make more than $475k can inhibit ambitious teams and limit their appeal to premier players. If the Cosmos wanted to use all seven foreign player spots on players worth $1-2 million, or even $500k, this would not be allowed, which would inhibit their ability to field the best team possible. Based solely on rumors and leaks, it seems the Cosmos and a handful of other NASL teams are already financing their players similarly to MLS teams, at least in overall spending. The Cosmos’ roster from the Spring Season would likely have been comparable to the upper half of MLS teams in terms of total spending. Although one aspect of MLS that would add some appeal for the team’s stability is that MLS pays for roughly $6 million of each teams rosters, leaving the team responsible for the additional salary given to designated players. Where the team lacks the ability to build super teams, they are given stability and lower operating expenses.
Truth be told, the single entity structure was used to help MLS get off the ground, and the league has really stepped forward by leaps and bounds over the last few years. The majority of the league’s teams have their own soccer-specific stadiums, or have plans to build them in the next few years. They have TV deals with major networks (thanks to their affiliation with Soccer United Marketing), and sponsorships that help the league continue its upward trend. The league seems to be cautiously looking to drop the single entity structure, or at least allow the teams more autonomy. It was rumored that league owners and the league office were ready to significantly increase the salary cap, an option that was passed on by the players in favor of free agency. The league seems to have still given the players some slack with the implementation of additional funny money, which was not outlined by the last collective bargaining agreement, in an effort to pay better players a higher salary and keep them from leaving the league. This helps raise the overall level of play in the league, and attract more stars. Garber also noted in a Facebook Live interview that there was discussion about allowing teams to seek out their own kit sponsors, like they allow with the jersey sponsor on the front of the jersey, and ending the $200 million league sponsorship deal with adidas after 2018. These options sound promising but, for now, are nothing but rumors.
If MLS really is looking to become one of the top leagues in the world as they claim, it would be difficult for the Cosmos to be a major competitor in the American soccer while being in the current NASL landscape. Some claim that MLS is only posturing with its claims of becoming a world soccer power, but it would be naive to think that the businessmen who own and operate the teams of the league haven’t taken notice that the revenues of the Big Four leagues overseas are upwards of six to ten times that of their American competitor, and even rival three of the four major American sports, behind the behemoth that is the National Football League. Should MLS make strides to become a world power, the Cosmos brand and their ambition would still be an attractive asset.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where Jordan explores what the international options could be for the Cosmos in the absence of an NASL.