Field of Schemes Too: Rise of the NeoCosmos

In the movie The Candidate - the quintessential treatment of the American political process - there's a scene where the title character, played by Robert Redford, is meeting with a smarmy, back slapping union boss who, now that Redford's campaign is surging, is all of a sudden anxious to be best pals with him. He tells Bob that he thinks the two of them have a lot in common. Redford pauses, looks him in the eye and says "I don't think we have shit in common".

That phrase came to mind late last summer after the brass at MLS and a NeoCosmos delegation led by President Seamus O'Brien met in New York to see if they could work out an amicable arrangement which would allow the Coz to join The United States of America's First Division Professional Soccer League.

They almost immediately came to the conclusion that if possible they had even less in common than Redford and his erstwhile ally.

Because despite the title of "Commissioner" which Cohiba Don wears with justifiable pride he is, at its most basic, the CEO of a company called Major League Soccer L.L.C., and his portfolio consists of steering a mutually beneficial cooperative path for 19 equal partners and not, as most of his peers have it, riding herd on a collection of independent competitors.

The latter is of course exactly the kind of league O'Brien needs to be a part of, and it's exactly what MLS is not now and will not be in the foreseeable future, if ever.

(Image from WrongSideofthePond)

So the relationship between the two sides, which many people assumed was like a cheap, sweaty, booze-fueled frat party romance, now looks a lot more like a strip poker game where no one is wearing underwear.

In this case - not unlike the morning after the aforementioned romp in someone else's bunk bed - the loser may soon be walking home cold, shame-faced and rife with regret while the winner ends up dictating the course of professional soccer in New York and, possibly, the rest of the US as well.

Of course it's entirely possible - maybe even likely - that both sides knew nothing would come of it and the whole thing was a kind of Kabuki theater staged for our benefit. Maybe they both just wanted to be able to say that they had tried.

The Don knows that in order to launch their nefarious campaign the NeoCosmos need the legitimacy of a first division league, but in order to join MLS you have to agree to be one of the many, an equal partner with 20 other guys. The league simply cannot allow one team to be run totally independently of the others.

Any other arrangement effectively ends the whole structure - legal and corporate - of Major League Soccer. It's really that simple. How do they give the NeoCosmos a pass on the rules and not grant the same deal to, say, the Galaxy or the RedBulls or the Sounders when they come asking?

In short, MLS won't ever give the CozPlay Boyz what they want, simply because they can't.

As for the NeoCosmos, they figure that MLS needs their name and (supposed) glamor and can't afford to let them go their own way since, if they succeed in establishing themselves as "America's Global Team©" then NOT having them in MLS severely damages the league's credibility. It would mean, among other things, that MLS Cup is a competition to see who the second best professional team in the US is.

As Shep Messing told a writer a couple weeks back, "MLS would be foolish to let the Cosmos get away" (to which I can only reply that it would be even more "foolish" to listen to a single word Shep Messing has to say about anything but that's a topic for another day).

Which might be a problem if someone believed they could actually become "America's Global Team©" as a member of the NASL. NeoCoz GM Eric Stover and O'Brien want everyone to believe this but there's no way they even believe it themselves.

(Note to any NASL habitué who can't wait to hop down to the comment section of this page and inform us all that a) NASL will end up replacing MLS as the US First Division, b) US Soccer will be forced to name NASL as a Co-First Division and/or c) MLS and NASL will end up effecting a merger: I can pretty much guarantee that this will subject you to mockery of the cruelest sort and I will not save your stupid ass. I'll stand aside and let your intellectual betters carve you up like a cheap ham)

Put simply, a wildly successful NeoCosmos return could leave MLS playing second fiddle, something that a young league fighting for attention and legitimacy in the US (not to mention the world) sports market simply can't afford. O'Brien most likely figures that in a few years Don Garber will come crawling on his hands and knees begging him to join his puny little outfit. He'll play hard to get, making Don wash his car, clean out his gutters and service his ugly sister and then graciously accept. On his own terms.

It will be fascinating to see, in the coming years, which one of them played their cards right.

Anyway, the two sides "reached an impasse in negotiations" which as we've seen was not a particularly long journey, and the NeoCosmos almost immediately signed on with the minor league NASL v2, who were thrilled beyond words at the opportunity to be used like bus station hookers by O'Brien and his Saudi Oil backers.

The NASL thinks that having the NeoCoz join their league proves their relevance. I think it proves the exact opposite.

They're undoubtedly excited by the prospect of having THE NEW YORK COSMOS!!! OMG!!!!! help them pack places like The Rowdie's Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete (capacity 7,227) and Atlanta Silverbacks Park (5,000).

Which they very well might. In season one.

They'll also get local media to wake up and notice that they exist for once; stuff like THIS will appear the first time the CozBoys come to town.

But not the second.

And it's not because the NeoCosmos will be so utterly dominant that the locals won't want to watch the ugly carnage. Looking at the players they're signing up - Kory Veeder, anyone? - most NASL sides will somehow manage to survive the ordeal, and not by parking the bus and holding grimly on for 90 minutes. Won't be necessary.

(NeoCoz Chief Apologist Eric Stover told a reporter the other day that the team they're assembling is as good as any MLS team. He knows this because they're picking up a lot of ex-MLS players. Or, put another way, he feels that the way to be better than an MLS team is to hire a bunch of players that MLS teams gave up on)

No, the problem is that people aren't stupid, and after you've run some ads about THE NEW YORK COSMOS!!!! HISTORY!!!! TWICE IN A LIFETIME!!!!! accompanied by old photos of Pele and Giorgio, and people show up and sit in the seats, they'll quickly realize that they've been had.

Instead of Der Kaiser and Carlos Roberto they'll see a bunch of guys they never heard of. Mick won't be there. Steve Rubell won't be doing lines of coke in the Men's room. Nobody will even be sporting a mullet or a porn stache or wearing embarrassingly short pants.

What they'll see instead is a second division soccer match. Maybe even a good one, and there's not a thing wrong with that. But if good, solid second division soccer was a big seller in the US, they wouldn't need this circus to sell tickets and they wouldn't be playing at Al Lang Field.

Of course the alternative scenario is that the Saudis pony up the money to bring in a bunch of long in the tooth foreign stars.

I call this The Washington Generals plan, where the existing NASL teams take turns getting chumped off in front of their home fans. Maybe they'll do the "Bucket of Confetti" gag and the "Ball Hidden Under My Shirt" routine too. The kiddies will love it.

You're telling me THAT'S what NASL fans are looking forward to? A season long circus show where the home team gets pantsed in front of a sellout crowd? Wowie-zowie, sounds like fun.

In fairness, there's a third vision - extremely popular in some circles - whereby the other NASL sides, feeling pressure to try and compete with The New York Cosmos, spend a bunch of money they don't have in order to sign expensive foreign players.

Call this "The Party Like It's 1979" scenario. If a league called the NASL spends itself into bankruptcy in an effort to keep pace with the New York Cosmos, "Twice in a Lifetime" will make an irresistible headline. I call dibs.

Which brings us to early this year when, in the wake of Major League Soccer's rollout of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park proposal, the NeoCosmos got themselves a big media splash with an out-of-left field proposal for a $400 million soccer development of their own complete with restaurants, shops and the rest of the stuff that these proposals always include so that they can claim the project will add "50,000 jobs" and generate "$800 bazillion in taxes".

It would be located on land owned by The New York State Economic Development Corporation (they took it over in lieu of back taxes a while ago) adjacent to the Belmont Park Thoroughbred track in Elmont NY, which is around ten miles from the Corona Park site and just outside the New York City line.

In other words, it's on Long Island.

It's the ultimate irony; if they somehow ended up with an MLS team there instead of in Queens, then there'd STILL be no Major League Soccer outfit in New York City.

They also released what is unquestionably the greatest piece of stadium porn in the history of the genre.

If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth a look. On so many levels, it's just wonderful:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzjIjRxshGQ#!

Is that some great stuff or what?

It shows just how terrific it will be to show up and watch Pele and Chignaglia doing their magic as an overflow crowd has the time of their lives. Twice in a Lifetime!

Except of course that what it's really purporting to show is soccer-savvy New Yorkers jam-packing a stadium to watch a NeoCosmos team made up of MLS rejects play second division rivals like the Virginia Slavecatchers or Minnesota United.

Not exactly the same cachet somehow.

While pimping a development project with utter nonsense is one thing - in fact it's practically a requirement - actually believing this pile of hooey is something else altogether. Nobody spends a couple hundred million bucks on a 25,000 seat stadium to host NASL games.

I don't believe it, you don't believe it and, what's more, the suits at NeoCosmos World Domination Central don't believe it either.

(The fact that there seem to be a few people who DO actually believe this rot is somewhat troubling; as the saying goes: if you look around the poker table and can't figure out who the sucker is, it's you.)

For his part, O'Brien says that New York is a big place and there's plenty of room for the RedBulls, the NeoCoz and NYC2, telling a reporter that “there are seven or eight teams in London” and we shouldn't really quibble although by my count there are twice that if you include all of what we would call "minor league" sides, and since he himself will be President of a team which fits that description he can't really quibble about me including Milwall, Brentford and Leyton Orient.

However accurate his number may or may not be, it's beside the point; soccer clubs in London don't have to compete with the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers or Islanders for attention and money. It's not a situation that easily lends itself to a corollary as simple as his.

Of course, O'Brien has some other problems at the moment, the biggest one being that he's somehow managed to make the soccer world's International Top Ten Villains list as new Asian Confederation President Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa leads a review of World Sport Group's billion dollar media and promotion contract.

The AFC Congress began last week with a WSB Charm Offensive that had O'Brien telling reporters “Me and my colleagues at WSG will assist AFC in any way we can to achieve our common goals. For 20 years, we’ve been through good and bad times and I believe that we will move forward even further in the future.”

Unfortunately, after the defeat of a number of proposals which would have prevented and/or severely limited the scope of the upcoming review of his company's contract, the NeoCosmos President got up and, according to Reuters, "stormed out of the room".

So a it stands now, the Neos are waiting to see if their proposal for the Elmont site will get the green light from the Development Commission. What the time frame might be, what criteria will be employed and who else is in the running are all mysteries at this point.

We do know that at least one other group submitted a proposal, but we don't know who they are or if there are others. I spent six weeks going back and forth with the Commission's "Press Office" - a dozen phones calls, twice that many emails and, after any number of promises to "get you the answers you need" I finally received the following which I will quote in it's entirety despite the fact that it's supposed to be confidential and thus I will be severing this unique and invaluable source of information forever:

"Told you I wouldn’t forget about you --- answers to your questions, on background – from a spokesperson for ESD– below

pls don’t hesitate to reach out should you have questions or need anything else ---

ESD is currently undertaking a comprehensive review of the proposals received. ESD will continue to work with RFP respondents to better understand their proposals and identify any outstanding information that is needed. Ultimately, proposals will be judged on a number of factors including, but not limited to, feasibility, economic impact on the local community and experience of the project team.

We expect to make a decision in the coming months."

Thanks for clearing that up.

So the bottom line is that we don't know diddly about what's going on or when we might hear something.

As I've said previously (and Eric Stover has since graciously confirmed in an interview with the New York Times) the NeoCosmos strategy, at least in public, is to win the US Open Cup and, by extension, the CONCACAF Championship and thereby lay claim to being the biggest, best and baddest outfit in the US.

To accomplish this however would mean, in the first case, being on a par with the Seattle Sounders and in the second with the better teams in Liga MX.

Which would be good news for them but pretty bad news for the rest of the NASL, AKA "The Generals", but it will never happen. To guarantee those one-time results year after year is impossible and when they fail, then what?

Furthermore, the rest of the world is not stupid. They know what second division is. Likewise, they've heard of teams like the LA Galaxy, DC United, New York RedBulls and the Seattle Sounders.

They also know that winning a domestic federation cup is not the same thing as winning a first division professional league.

The NeoCoz can say whatever they want and their delusional flock of devotees can pretend that they believe it all they like but being in NASL long term is not a viable option for an outfit bent on being "America's Global Brand".

So what's going to happen here? Damned if I know but if one thing is sure it's that is all centers around the Game of Stadiums, which is looking more and more like the biggest game of chicken ever.

The possible outcomes are, in no particular order:

1) MLS gets its stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the NeoCosmos get turned down by New York State:

Call Pepe Pinton and ask him if he'd like the trophies back. Game over.

2) Both the NeoCosmos and MLS get the go-ahead for their respective stadiums: MLS wins again. First Division vs. Minor League is not a fair fight. In fact, it would be a shock if Sela Sport was crazy enough to go ahead and build a stadium with NYC2 ten miles away.

3) The NeoCosmos get their place, MLS gets turned down in Queens: The only way MLS might be forced into making the best deal they can with the Neos. If there's a big fancy soccer stadium smack next to New York, it's going to be tough to explain why the team playing there isn't in MLS.

4) Neither project is approved:

The NeoCosmos play nice little NASL games at Hofstra before increasingly smaller crowds who have figured out that Pele isn't coming down the ramp and that losing to Minnesota United isn't quite as glamorous as they expected it would be. Meanwhile, MLS simply ignores them.

I don't know how it will turn out in the end, but two things seem clear:

First, if MLS gets FMCP it is a very big win that the NeoCosmos probably won't be able to overcome. They'll never have the kind of leverage they need to force MLS to cut a deal.

Secondly, MLS has the money and the staying power to wait this thing out no matter what happens with the stadiums. The NeoCosmos do not. They need a win, they need it now and they need to get credible in a hurry.

Pele is now 70 and just had a hip replaced. The value of a brand based on a bunch of sepia toned photos of guys in long hair and very short pants is not limitless. Eventually you've got to play the game.