Have the Cosmos reached the limit of their universe?


For those who love a random fact, if each of the five boroughs of New York City were a separate city, Brooklyn would rank as the third-most populous city in the whole of the United States, behind Los Angeles and Chicago, with over 2.6 million people within its borders.  The second biggest borough is Queens.  It was also the birth place of the credit card, the first US roller coaster and Brooklyn Beer.  If you want (and can) live in New York then Brooklyn isn’t a bad spot, as my good friend Luge Pravda can testify.

22806797358_53dda10aea_kAnd testify he did as we headed back from a borefest at the MetLife Stadium where we had witnessed the LA Rams beat the New York Jets by 9 points to 6.  It wasn’t proper football as the conversation went, highlighting our very British view about the game to try and get some audience participation on the train ride.  Alas, everyone seemed to be in a degenerative state of boredom thanks to the last 3 hours of NFL.  Whilst that may have been their weekend sporting highlight, we still had the prospect of watching the cumulation of the North American Soccer League season as the New York Cosmos faced Indy Eleven in very unfamiliar surroundings.

At the start of the season all of the teams in the NASL had to submit venues for all potential dates including the play-offs.  Unfortunately, Hofstra University, the normal home of the Cosmos,  told them nearly a year ago that the stadium couldn’t be used in the second weekend in November.  The club could have rented another suitable venue but it would have been on the off-chance of making the final.  They couldn’t “wing it”.  They had to submit firm details of a venue even though they had no idea whether they would need it.

The club looked at a host of venues, including MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, which is rumoured to be the Cosmos’ next permanent home.  However, they would have to cover up the Baseball diamond at a significant cost, so once again that venue was dismissed.  There’s no news as to whether the club actually approached either the RedBulls to hire the RedBull Arena or New York City, although the costs of hiring the Yankee Stadium would have been prohibitive, as too would have been the Met Life, albeit being the spiritual home of the club.

There was a last-ditch attempt to negotiate the use of Hofstra University again but even with the potential of midweek dates agreed between the play-off teams, the talks came to nothing and the only option the club had was Belson Stadium, a three sided university soccer field, built on top of a car park, which could only hold 2,600 fans, 30% less than the Cosmos’ average home attendance this season.  Hardly the season finale they had planned.

These factors all added up meaning that the venue was really unsuitable for the game, unwanted by the NASL and deeply unpopular with the fans of both teams.  Oh, and a pain in the arse to get to, with no public transport in the vicinity, meaning everyone, which in our case, I, had to drive there.

25349765629_f11437307b_kFor those who have read The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half, you will be very familiar with the Cosmos story in the chapter “Twice in a Lifetime” – if not then I would thoroughly recommend buying it now otherwise the next bit won’t make any sense at all.  It is quite scandalous how their heritage counted for nothing when the MLS were considering a second franchise in New York, and it appears that there is very little chance of them getting an opportunity to join the elite, any time soon.  In February 2014, MLS commissioner Don Garber named three other markets as candidates for the final expansion team that would get the league’s stated 24-team target by 2020,, which did not include New York and on April 25, 2014, he told Associated Press’s sports editors that there would not be a third MLS team in New York, effectively ending any hope on the Cosmos gaining a place back at the top table, on merit rather than on politics, which essentially made the whole NASL Championship a little bit of an anti-climax.  The Cosmos could win the league and the play-offs for the next decade and still not get a look in.

Since my last visit in 2014 the Cosmos had been almost unstoppable. They finished the 2015 spring season unbeaten, finishing in first place, although the second half of the season saw them lose four times and finish in third place.  However, they went on to win the Soccer Bowl, beating Ottawa Fury in from of a NASL record crowd of 10,166 at Hofstra.  The game also marked the final career appearance of Spanish legend Raúl, who had chosen to age gracefully in New York, resisting the offers from the MLS to play with the Cosmos.  They also reached the fifth round of the US Open cup in June 2015, losing to New York Red Bulls over in New Jersey, although in the previous round they did beat New York City 4-3 on penalties in front of 11,940, a record attendance at the James M. Shuart Stadium, a very bitter sweet moment considering the situation with the New York expansion franchise.

This season has seen them go from strength to strength.  Whilst the playing budget was cut, although most of that was down to the retirement of Raúl, they could still boast a squad of 12 different nationals.  They finished the first half of the season in 2nd place behind Indy Eleven, although the two teams finished on the same number of points, the same number of goals scored and goals conceded, with the team from Indianapolis awarded the title based on their 2-1 victory over the Cosmos early in the season. However, in the fall season the Cosmos were dominant from game one, finishing 10 points clear of Indy Eleven in top spot.

The play-offs went according to plan, with both the Cosmos and Indy Eleven winning with ease, interestingly in the case of New York in front of over 5,000 fans at Hofstra, setting up the fourth meeting between the two sides of the season.  As we took our seats we could see and hear the two sets of fans at either end of the stadium trying to generate an atmosphere, which was tough considering the capacity for the 3-sided ground was just over 2,000.  To our right were the Cosmos fans, made up of the Borough Boys, La Banda del Cosmos and The Cross Island Crew, whilst at the far end the travelling Indy Eleven fans made the noise.  Even stevens on and off the pitch it seemed.

New York Cosmos 0 Indy Eleven 0 (4-2 on pens) – Belson Stadium, Queens – Sunday 13th November 2016
It’s fair to say this wasn’t a classic.  It seemed relatively obvious from early in the game that there was little between the two sides and the game would be decided by a moment of magic or madness.  Alas, the game lacked examples of either and was finally decided by some poor penalty kicks by the visitors to give the Cosmos their third NASL Championship in the past four seasons.

During the two hours of football there were only five shots on goal, although the away side came the closest to scoring in the ninety minutes when Nemanja Vuković broke down the left and his cross was met by the impressive Don Smart on the half-volley, which hit the bar and bounced to safety. Despite Cosmos having the most valuable player in the league in the form of Juan Arango, denoted by his Golden Ball award at half time, they created very little in the game.

Full-time merged into extra-time with no real delineation between the stages of the game.  By the time we got to half-time in extra-time it was blatantly obvious the game would be going to penalties.  We did have some late drama when Arrieta crossed from the left to Diosa in the centre of the penalty area. His first touch escaped him, but Diosa stayed with the play, turned and hit a right-footed shot that just skipped wide of the near post.  The final whistle put us out of our misery.

Indy went first in the shootout and Nicki Paterson, a Scot who 16 games with Clyde no less, beat the Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer with a shot inside the far post. Jairo Arrieta stepped up for the Cosmos and smacked his shot off the far post and in. The majority of the crowd gave a heavy breath out that was soon replaced by cheers as Eamon Zayed’s spot kick hit both posts and someone stayed out.  Another Scot, former Elgin City star Adam Moffat coolly slotted the ball straight down the middle and the pressure was on Indy Eleven.

In a somewhat surprising decision, veteran keeper Jon Busch stepped up but blazed the ball high and wide, almost handing the title on a plate (or in this instance a bowl), to the Cosmos.  It was left to Ryan Ritcher to take the decisive penalty for the home side, making the final score 4-2.  Cue the wild celebrations that included a flare or two being set off in the Cosmos fans, leading to panic among the Campus Police (really) who had never had to deal with such an event.

On my last trip to see the Cosmos I said that I couldn’t see what the future holds for them, and two years down the road I still don’t understand where they can go next.  They need to test themselves against better opposition each week, they need their own stadium so they can attract more commercial revenues and of course fans.  Their “once in a lifetime” opportunity seems to have been and gone, so now they are most definitely a very big fish in a relatively small pond.

Two weeks after the game came the news that the NASL may be no more and with it would go any opportunity for the Cosmos to carry on in their current form.  This story may not end here and it is unlikely when it does to be a happy one.

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On the twelfth day of TBIR Christmas – The best things about football in 2014


So here it is – our final award for 2014, despite the fact we are now six days into 2015.  But football is the gift that keeps giving so here is my last offering for this year.  My three favourite moments from my footballing year.

3rd Place – New York Cosmos
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Back in August on a regular trip to New York I got the opportunity to tick not one, but two things off my lifetime wish list.  An opportunity to see the famous New York Cosmos was obviously the main agenda item here (complete coincidence that they were playing in the very week I was over), having grown up reading about the mythical team from the 1970/80’s in the NASL with Pele, Beckenbauer and of course Barrow’s finest, Keith Eddy.  Now back in the second tier of US football, the good times could be coming back, especially after announcing the signing of Raul.  But this wasn’t a night to remember.  A dull 0-0 draw played in a school’s athletics stadium but it was still “the Cosmos”.  And the second thing?  Getting to ride on one of those yellow American School buses I’d seen so often in films.  Oh, and I took a pretty good picture.

2nd Place – Lewes v Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United
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2014 hasn’t been the best year for The Mighty Rooks but for five glorious days back in March we were the best team in the world.  Well, perhaps in the Ryman Premier League anyway, as the top two came to The Dripping Pan and were both dispatched goal less and point less.  Luck?  Nope – I’m putting it down to the fact we (OK, I) scouted them both on a number of occasions.  Being taught how to scout is like being tutored in how to drink a fine wine.  Once learnt, you will never watch a game of football in the same way, unable to make remarks incomprehensible to the people around you such as “look at how the number 9 leads with his left arm” or “the keeper won’t come if it’s 6 yards out”…And I bloody love it.  The warm, satisfaction you get after the team has put in place tactics based on your knowledge and won!  That’s why those two games are so special…we wont talk about Grays or Wealdstone away though.

1st Place – The World Cup 
14268867827_784aff2d77_kFor four years I moan about our elite players, their attitude and generally the beautiful game being corrupted by billions of pounds.  Then, every two years a major tournament comes along and everything is right with the world. I came very close to being in Brazil.  Very close in an all-expenses paid trip to Sao Paolo to write about it, sort of way, but passed up the opportunity and Rookery Mike went instead. We haven’t spoken since.  Due to my travelling schedule I spent nearly the whole of the tournament in various corners of the world.  Germany’s demolition of Portugal in their opening game of the tournament was shared with a couple of hundred German fans in a bar in Singapore at 1am then being featured on local TV.  Watching Australia and then England make their early exits from the World Cup at 5am in the morning in a Melbourne casino, with an endless supply of Coopers Ale or watching the Brazilian demolition in a bar in Eindhoven with a German Hen party.  The actual games weren’t bad too.

Our highlights of 2014 can be viewed here, all in one handy little spot.

So see you all next year – one year older, one year wiser, one year damages by poor performances by our respective sides on the pitch.

Twice in a night time


14872309423_d2ca07abff_zIt’s not often you can tick off two things from your “bucket list” in one evening without it involving whipped cream, a private room at Spearmint Rhinos or Holly Willoughby but last week I managed to achieve it without really breaking into a sweat.  It’s also not often that many visitors to New York would even think of trying to get to see one of the 50 Teams That Mattered (An excellent read from the pen of David Hartrick) in the development of the beautiful game. The New York Cosmos’s impact on the global game we see today cannot be underestimated.  They were the first global marketing machine, realising the pot of gold that was on offer when selling football in the domestic market and abroad not as a ninety minute game but as a two to three-hour event.

The North American Soccer League, formed in 1968, was designed to try to win the hearts and minds of the attention-deficient Americans.  The 1966 World Cup in England had surprisingly fueled interest in the game in the US, coupled with the strange United Soccer League which had seen European teams such as Stoke City, Hibernian, Sunderland and Cagliari imported into the US to play under the names Cleveland Stokers, Toronto City, Vancouver Royal Canadians and Chicago Mustangs respectively.  The concept of Franchise Football was copied straight from the models adopted by the National Football League, Hockey League and Major League Baseball with 17 teams ranging from Atlanta to Vancouver taking part in the first season. The franchise from New York, “The Generals” lasted just one season, playing at Yankee Stadium, thus leaving the biggest city in America without a team.   Three seasons later in 1971 the league accepted an application for a new team, paying the princely sum of $25,000 entrance fee.  And so the legend of the Cosmos was born.

14665808209_1bdf60aab4_zThe NASL still needed to sell football to the North Americans, which was then completely foreign to the majority of them. A number of rules changes were made in those first few years to try to keep the fans attentions.   A clock that counted time down to zero as was typical of other timed American sports, rather than upwards to 90 minutes was standard at all grounds.  In 1972 they implemented the 35 yard line which meant that players couldn’t be offside unless they were in that final zone.  But the most famous rule change was the introduction of the Shootout in 1974.  The US didn’t do “tied” games – the concept that you could play for a couple of hours and still not have a winner was just as alien as referring to underwear as pants or not pouring porridge over bacon for breakfast.  The concept of the shoot out was that a player had a five seconds to score from running from the 35 yard line.  They could take as many touches or rebounds as they wanted but as long as it happened within 5 seconds.

The Cosmos became the NASL to many youngsters like me.  They realised that the way to market the team overseas was to bring in the players everyone knew.  Queue Pelé, Beckenbaur, Carlos Alberto and England star Terry Garbett (of course, Terry Garbett, ex-Watford and Middlesborough star midfielder) arriving to a great fanfare in the city.  For a short period of time, they became the most talked about sporting team not only in New York but also the whole of America.  But just like the dreams created by Pan-Am, TWA and Ronco, the NASL and consequently the Cosmos burnt itself out.  By 1984 the dream had died.  If you want to understand the who’s, the why’s and the wherefore’s of the Cosmos and NASL then grab a copy of Gavin Newsham’s excellent book Once In A Lifetime.

Ironically, the new reformed Cosmos would return to Long Island, forty years after they left in 1973 having won their first Championship (of five) in 1972.  Their home would again be the James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University, some 45 minutes east of Manhattan.  Now you can understand why Andy and me are sitting on one of those yellow School Buses, winding its way through the ‘Burbs of Long Island.  Tick one – Seeing the Cosmos, tick two – a ride on an American school bus. I felt like I was on the set of Charlie Brown, Forrest Gump, American Pie and every other American film, although the fact we were sitting on it drinking bottle of Honkers Ale meant we were probably breaking a thousand laws.

14665803359_bd4ebca731_zIt is fair to say that the announcement of a new franchise to be created in New York City a few years ago set pulses racing in the Cosmos camp.  With the New York Red Bulls actually being camped across the Hudson in New Jersey (ditto the New York Giants and Jets), the opportunity for the re-birth of the Cosmos was never more alive.  The club had been reformed through the efforts of ex-Spurs director Paul Kemsley, ex-Liverpool CEO Rick Parry and of course, Pelé in 2010.  However, without a stadium, a league and more importantly a squad, the only hope the Cosmos had of playing was on FIFA 11.

The significant event in their re-birth was the decision that the Cosmos would be the opponents in Paul Scholes’s testimonial game at Old Trafford in August 2011.  By that time Eric Cantona had been appointed as Director of Football, and although his squad for that first game included the likes of Viera, Neville, Pires and even Robbie Keane (obviously playing for the club he supported as a child), the Cosmos were back.

Alas, the dream of a return to the top tier of US football was dashed in May 2013 when the MLS announced the new franchise team in the city would be New York City FC, a joint venture between Manchester City and the Yankees.  The Cosmos would stay forever in the second tier of US football, ironically now called the NASL.

In their first season at this level the club won the Soccer Bowl.  With the season split into two halves, the Cosmos won the “Fall” championship and then beat the “Spring” champions Atlanta Silverbacks to claim the title. Building on the success from last season they claimed second spot in the Spring championship.  However, it was in the US Open Cup (the US version of the FA Cup without any need for sponsorship from poor brewers) that the club have once again grabbed the nation’s attention.  In their first season in the competition they drew the RedBulls out of the hat and proceeded to smash their richer, more caffeine-boosted rivals out of the park.  They then took MLS Philadelphia Union to extra time before they lost 2-1.

Being in New York for business, it was a 100/1 shot that the Cosmos would be at home (honest) but once I saw they were, I had to be there.  This would be like finding a Bejams or a Berni Inn, a chance to revisit something from my childhood.

New York Cosmos 0 FC Edmonton 0 – Shuart Stadium, New York – Wednesday 6th August 2014
Our big yellow bus arrived at the Shuart Stadium at 7.30pm, kick off time.  Of course, being in America meant that the game didn’t actually kick off at the official time, but some 7 minutes later once the faffing had been completed.  Whilst the official attendance was announced later as 4,524, there seemed barely half of that in the stadium.  With the sun setting over Manhattan in the distance, the majority of the crowd’s applause was reserved for the impressive sunset rather than anything happening early doors on the pitch.

14665737820_72b4396e41_zA handy guide produced by the Cosmos Media Team meant we understood the players from the visitors from Edmonton, with full pronunciation guide (Tomi Ameobi is:- Am-E-O-Be for your information), although every single event that happened on the pitch was announced to the world by the PA.  He didn’t have a lot to talk about though during the ninety minutes as neither team could break the deadlock.

In the first half the highlights were three yellow cards and then the pint of Samuel Adams beer in the Beer Garden (a roped off area behind the Main Stand where we still had to prove we were adults.  The second half  saw the Cosmos try to break down the stubborn Canadians, having fifteen shots although the main talking point was the missed penalty in the 50th minute by the Cosmos when Senna saw his spot kick almost take out a flight departing from JFK.  With the clock ticking down, Tomi Ameobi, the middle of the three Newcastle United Ameobi brothers, put in a two-footed challenge on Szetela which saw him red-carded.

The draw was a disappointment for all involved.  The Cosmos fans including the Borough Boys behind the goal had kept up the beat during the game but even they had to admit defeat in the entertainment stakes.  But football is never about just 90 minutes on the pitch.  The evening was about catching up with old friends over a beer and taking a step back to my childhood and imagining what could have been.

 

Getting the horn


After a long overdue absence from these pages, our Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda is BACK.  And when we say BACK we really mean BACK.  Whilst the Guinness International Champions Cup is talking taking place across the States, we wanted Luge to experience REAL US soccer and tell us had the World Cup effect kicked in yet.  Miami, Seattle, Columbus Ohio?  Nope.  Somewhere even better than that….

IMG_0212Two weeks ago I was supposed to be in Rochester, NY for a client meeting. For those not well versed in non-big US city geography, think upstate New York, near Niagara, next to Canada and you’re getting very warm. Unfortunately, a massive storm put pay to my flight (as I was in a cab on the way to the airport, such is the glamor of business travel) so Rochester and I would have to wait to become acquainted. Fast forward two weeks and I had a rearranged meeting on a Monday. Not wanting to cancel a second time I sacrificed my Sunday to fly up at lunch time and make an afternoon/evening of it. Of course my flight was delayed an hour or so, so by the time I arrived in my hotel in downtown Rochester it was too late to do what I originally planned – hire a bike – so I did what any discerning business traveler does, I reached for the local guide magazine on the desk. Which as usual, was pretty useless, all adverts for golf courses and wedding locations. Unperturbed, I carried on my search and quite fortuitously stumbled upon a soccer (sorry, I have lived here too long, football) match. When I originally told The Ball is Round I think he imagined I was wandering the streets; sorry, stumbled as in web search. Anyway, the Rochester Rhinos were playing the Orlando City Lions, in a USL Pro match. The USL being the third tier of US soccer, below the NASL and the top-of-the-pyramid MLS above it.

The time was 3:15pm. The match started at 4:05pm (of course – and something that causes endless amusement to The Ball is Round himself – US matches never start on the hour, unless they involve the US national team in the small matter of a World Cup for instance, and all because of TV advertising). With no cycling on my horizon, and less than favorable reviews for a local brewery on Yelp, panic set in: I didn’t have a car, didn’t have time to Google local public transport options, so had to hope the stadium wasn’t miles away somewhere. Little did I know I could actually see the floodlights from my hotel room if I looked in the right direction: Google maps confirmed a 35 minute walk (and we all know it assumes you walk at your dear old granny’s pace).

IMG_0213So I set off. My walk took me through a very dead quiet downtown Rochester. Like many US cities, not much goes on downtown as people tend to live in the suburbs. Imagine Brighton being like a ghost town on a Sunday? Exactly, it always strikes me as strange and somewhat eerie. I did, however, walk past a prescription drug deal going down outside a derelict ‘adult’ DVD store though. With a spring in my step – I’m not in the market for painkillers thank you very much – I turned a corner and saw the giant Kodak building looming large in the skyline.

Rochester is/was famous for being home to a select group of companies – not for nothing was it known as the ‘World’s Image Center’ – namely, Kodak Eastman, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox. Of course the smartphone all but killed off Kodak many years ago but subletting their old parking lot, in the shadows of the Kodak building sits the Frontier Field, the home of Triple A Baseball team, the Rochester Redwings. This was a good sign as Google maps was telling me Sahlen’s Stadium, the Rhino’s home, was just behind it.

I got to my hotel room at 3pm. At 3.50pm I was sat in the bleachers with a beer in hand waiting for a team I never even knew existed some 35 minutes earlier. I had a feeling The Ball is Round would be proud of me.

6 things about Rochester Rhinos vs. Orlando City Lions

IMG_0216* All US sports events are proceeded by a rendition of the national anthem. This was one of the best I’ve heard. A young local lass, I’m sure she’ll go far on X-Factor someday. (If you want to hear a bad, and I mean BAD, national anthem rendition, check this one out).

* One player out of 22, the Orlando Number 16 had black boots. The majority wore lime green or orange but fortunately no mixing of the two.

* The hardcore are called the Oak Street Brigade and sit in section 101. There are about 30 of them. They sing the ubiquitous ‘Lets’s go <insert team name>‘. ‘Let’s go Rhino’s’. Original.

IMG_1790* I was not the only Englishman in attendance, 100% guaranteed. Ex Toffee Adrian Heath was here in his capacity as manager of Orlando. American life seems to have treated him well (but at least he was wearing trousers, a shirt and smart shoes. Are you listening ‘Big Phil’ Scolari?)

* The stadium announcer proclaimed 8 (eight) thousand people were in attendance. The place holds thirteen thousand apparently. I would be amazed if there were more than four thousand, maybe less. Look at those stands above!

* Certain parts of the bleachers seemed to go crazier for ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ being played over the PA than some of the football on show. I put that down to being in upstate New York. In New York City it would be Jay-Z causing a merry fervor.

Oh, the match you ask? Well, the first shot on target in anger was in 18th min, with some of neat build up to be fair. Encouraging at this level, but equally the football was in the main also what you tend to get at this level: enthusiastic, probing, energetic, perhaps sometimes what English journalists might call ‘honest’. The match ended 1-0 to the Rhinos, after a 1st half goal. Which I missed – of course I did – as I was outside checking out with some interest precisely what the local legend Nick Tahou Hots food truck was serving called, wait for it, ‘Garbage Plates’. As seen on Adam Richman’s ‘Man vs Food’ a few years back a garbage plate, a local Rochester specialty, is a heart attack on a plate:

So what did I learn about the Rochester Rhinos? Not a great deal, but I will forever be in their debt: just when flying to a new city on a Sunday afternoon for a meeting the next morning looked like a sacrifice too far, up popped a random soccer team I had never heard of, to provide a few very pleasant hours in the sunshine watching a sport I love. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them Rhinos now for sure * (*I probably won’t but you get my drift).

As for the rescheduled meeting, it went very well, thank you. Unfortunately my flight on the Monday evening back to NYC was cancelled due to, once again, inclement weather. Shame the Rhinos weren’t playing back to back matches.