New York Cosmos player Pelé meets The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger after a match (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)

On a warm summer’s day in 1981, 10-year old Giovanni Savarese sat on a New Jersey-bound bus, gazing out of the window as the New York skyline slid by in the distance. The boy from Venezuela, who didn’t speak a word of English, had spent the past few days at a soccer camp, honing his skills with hundreds of other children. Now he was about to get his first taste for professional soccer. The home team, the New York Cosmos, had arranged the summer camp, and now he was finally getting the chance to watch the then-world famous team in action. Savarese watched in awe as the gigantic spirals of Giants Stadium came closer and closer.

“It was incredible. The environment, the energy, the whole thing,” Savarese remembers. For the next 90 minutes, the pulse of Giants Stadium engulfed him, as tens of thousands of fans cheered the Cosmos while the close summer’s sun beat down upon them. Savarese was inspired, watching the Cosmos come from two goals down to tie and eventually win in a shootout.

Savarese was in New York to attend the Pelé Soccer Camp—named after the Cosmos’ most famous player, who he was lucky enough to meet. The youngster returned to Venezuela with a photograph—a spiky-haired young boy, clad in soccer camp training gear, with a scallywag’s smile; the greatest soccer player of all time’s arm across his shoulders. Savarese, determined to become a professional soccer player one day, hung copies of that picture in each set of grandparents’ houses to remind him of the trip.

The team Savarese supported that day was America’s most successful club team of all-time, once fielding several of the world’s greats. While they are no longer the beacon of American club soccer, at that time, they were known around the world.

“In my time, there was no Internet and the kind of things kids have today,” says Savarese in a warm Italian accent, inherited from his ancestors. “Nevertheless, growing up in Venezuela, I knew what the Cosmos was, who they were—they were famous everywhere.”

Fast forward two decades to the spring of 2013 and Savarese, broad-shouldered, with a shaven head, piercing eyes, and calm demeanor, is still constantly thinking all things Cosmos. Sitting behind his desk in a SoHo office, Savarese sees Cosmos directly in front of him: jerseys, photographs, trophies, footage of goals playing on loop.

The modern-day New York Cosmos practicing on Long Island. (Photos by Brad Horrigan)
The modern-day New York Cosmos practicing on Long Island. (Photos by Brad Horrigan)

At 42, a career as a professional soccer player now behind him, Giovanni Savarese is the new head coach of the New York Cosmos–a team that had not played competitive soccer for nearly thirty years. “Life has a funny way of doing things,” he jokes, leaning back in his padded leather office chair.

For almost three decades, the New York Cosmos have existed purely as a brand, an entity, but had not fielded any players. They last played a competitive match in 1984, yet outside his office, in an open-plan space with a Cosmos logo emblazoned on an exposed brick wall, Savarese gazed at social media managers and marketing experts tapping away at keyboards, trying to keep the Cosmos in the public eye.

On August 3, 2013, that will all change. The New York Cosmos, based on Long Island, will once again take to the field as a competitive team. Though Savarese was the man responsible for signing a fresh group of players, that was just a small part of the Cosmos’ almost-30-year struggle to match a world-renowned name with an actual soccer team once more.

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In 1967, a year before the North American Soccer League (NASL) began, there were just 100,000 people playing soccer in the United States. This figure was a drop in the ocean compared to the millions playing football and baseball at the time. The NASL’s first few years were known for half-empty stadiums and teams assembled of part-timers, students and foreigners. Viewers joked that CBS’ coverage, with its slogan “Just for Kicks!” should have been dubbed “Just for commercials.” Referees were encouraged to call fouls to allow for advertisements, goals were missed, and Americans, quite simply, just didn’t tune in to games broadcast during the mid-Sunday afternoon timeslot.

One such team caught up in this whirlpool of failure was the New York Cosmos. Owned by Warner Communications, the Cosmos, who played their first three seasons in Yankee Stadium and then Long Island’s James H. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University– finished at the bottom of their conference in the 1975 season, by then playing in front of just 4,000 fans on average, in a disintegrating Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. Given the diverse, immigrant-heavy makeup of New York’s population, the Cosmos made people question just how successful soccer in America could ever be. If the game couldn’t make it in New York, the most cosmopolitan, international city in the U.S., where was it going to make it?

Cosmos players Henry Lopez, left, and Paulo Mendes, battle for possession of the ball in training.
Cosmos players Henry Lopez, left, and Paulo Mendes, battle for possession of the ball in training.

That question was answered on June 15, 1975, when the arrival of one man created a seismic shift in the perception of soccer nationwide. That man was Edison Arantes do Nascimento—better known as “Pelé.”

The Cosmos were fortunate enough to have the financial backing of Time Warner chief executive officer Steve Ross. They also employed a persistent general manager by the name of Clive Toye, who had tracked Pelé around the globe since the 1970 World Cup, when he cemented his place as the biggest sporting star on the planet. When the Brazilian retired from his boyhood club, Santos, in 1974, Toye and the rest of the Warner staff jumped at the opportunity. The NASL’s structure was based upon a franchise system, so, unlike in Europe—where teams had been built up over decades, spread out amongst towns and cities, backed by communal followings—anyone who had the money and a stadium to play in could essentially buy a slot in the league and plonk a team there. Once accepted, owners were free to spend as much money as they liked assembling a team; and there were no salary restrictions as there are in leagues like the NFL today.

Pelé agreed to a whopping deal, reportedly worth $4.7 million, which he would be paid over three years. (The highest paid sportsman in America at the time was Henry “Hank” Aaron, earning $200,000 annually.) The deal included sponsorship as well, meaning Warner owned everything, from Pelé-branded boots to Pelé-branded cologne.

“You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States,” said the three-time World Cup winner after he touched down on U.S. soil.

Five days after signing in front of 300-plus journalists gathered at the 21 Club, Pelé made his Cosmos debut. The effect was immediate. Cosmos tickets had previously been handed out with Burger King vouchers; now, at a Downing Stadium where the field had been painted green to look more appealing to the CBS cameras, more than 22,000 enthusiastic and intrigued supporters packed the stands, with an estimated 50,000 left waiting outside. An audience of more than 10 million tuned in on TV—missing both Pelé’s goal and assist during commercial breaks.

Over the next three seasons Ross and Warner used Brazil’s favorite son to brand the game of soccer across the country. Pelé mesmerized fans and players alike with a standard of soccer they had never before seen. Whether Pelé still possessed the swift, mercurial skills of his prime was up for debate; but when compared to the likes of the part-time teachers and scattering of former European club players he was playing with and against, the Brazilian’s control of the ball seemed not only from another world—it was from another universe. “The biggest challenge for us,” said the Cosmos’ then-captain Werner Roth, “was not stopping and watching him play.”

Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, signing his contract with the New York Cosmos (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)
Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, signing his contract with the New York Cosmos (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)

By Pelé’s final season, the perception of the NASL had been completely transformed. By 1977 the Cosmos were also fielding other glamorous names, such as Franz Beckenbauer, a 1974 World Cup winner with Germany (on an $2.8 million, four-year deal), Carlos Alberto of Brazil, and Giorgio Chinaglia, of Italy. Five staff members struggling to cope with media requests and ticket sales became 50; press conferences moved from the locker room to the 21 Club or the Plaza Hotel; help-yourself buffets and bottles of soda were replaced by caviar, smoked salmon and Champagne; and games moved from Downing Stadium to Giants Stadium, where 77,000 fans, plastered in Cosmos merchandise, flocked to watch the coolest team on the planet. There were even stars among the fans. “Sometimes, in the dressing room, I think I’m in Hollywood,” Beckenbauer, famously said. The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Robert Redford and Henry Kissinger all came to see Ross’ team, which was now so well-known that sports journalists only had to mutter four words to get into the trendiest parties at Studio 54: “I’m with the Cosmos.”

As for soccer in America, the Cosmos aura meant the fan base grew throughout the country, as more and more people headed to stadiums to see Pelé and co.’s roadshow. By 1977, the average attendance at NASL games had tripled. During the 1976 season, Pelé, sidelined by an injury, would still travel to games to wave to onlookers who’d come out to see the star. Soccer camps across the country also boomed, attracting youngsters to the game. (Female participation grew particularly sharply, increasing fourfold from 10,000, in 1976 to 41,000, in 1980.)

Soccer finally offered a viable alternative for the traditional American sports of basketball, baseball and football—the Cosmos, who won their second NASL title in 1977, even rivaled the Giants and the Yankees for the back pages of New York’s newspapers.

But the Pelé odyssey had to end sometime. And on Oct. 1, 1977, the Brazilian made his final appearance for the Cosmos, in an exhibition match against his former club Santos. As the rain fell down , “even the sky was crying,” one Brazilian journalist wrote. The man who was the Cosmos was carted off the pitch atop of shoulders, swarmed by well-wishers.

Though an essential part of the Cosmos exited that year, another man entered behind the scenes. That man was an Italian by the name of Peppe Pinton.

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Pinton joined the Cosmos as its general manager in 1977, replacing Clive Toye. A short man, with a thin face, narrow-rimmed glasses and a moustache, he had previously been involved with the club as the manager of one of its star players, Giorgio Chinaglia, whose affairs he continued to oversee. Chinaglia was a burly, outspoken striker–his immense talent matched only by his ego. Because of this persona, many involved in the club saw Pinton as Chinaglia’s lapdog: players said they once saw Pinton carrying a TV through a hotel to Chinaglia’s room late into the night. “My television wasn’t working and I wanted to watch television. He had a good television, I had a bad one; he had to give me the television, what’s the big deal?” Chinaglia later joked in the Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime. True or not, Pinton went about his business quietly.

Following Pelé’s departure, it was up to the Cosmos’ remaining stars, like Chinaglia, to hang around and keep soccer progressing. Over the next few years, NASL teams still attracted huge crowds.

“You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States”

But the Cosmos were losing money, all those ticket sales never made up for the exorbitant salaries. Steve Ross joked at one board meeting, in 1977, that the Cosmos was costing Warner around two cents a share. Some around the table laughed at how insignificant two cents a share sounded. But in reality, two cents a share equated the company’s value dropping by $5 million.

These losses were made easier to stomach, though, by the success of Warner’s video games consoles. (Space Invaders’ profits alone rose from $6 million in 1979 to $70 million in 1980.) Then, in 1979 the league signed a promising television deal with ABC, with the promise of nine live games over the next two seasons, including the Soccer Bowl, the league’s showpiece match.

“Television was crucial,” Phil Woosnam, manager of the NASL, later said to Gavin Newsham for his book on the Cosmos, Once in a Lifetime. “It had always been the thorn in our side and when we finally signed a deal with ABC it looked like we were getting somewhere.” But it soon became clear (again) that nobody wanted to spend their weekend afternoons watching soccer on TV. Viewership sat at just two million homes across America, a terrible showing considering this was during the network-only era. Poor ratings were accompanied by the league’s all-too-rapid expansion, as the NASL bosses added team after team, in some of America’s smallest and most unmarketable locations—from Team Hawaii to the Caribous of Colarado—to anyone willing to pay the $100,000 entry fee. Many of these owners were not “soccer people,” and, after trying to follow the Cosmos model of paying excessive fees for aging stars, they looked to get out of the soccer business as soon as their team’s popularity and financial stability started to decline.

The cash-starved bosses were left with a choice: pass their brands on to others willing to pay the league’s entry fee, or simply let their teams fold. By 1981, the NASL’s showpiece, the Soccer Bowl, had been downgraded to a tape delay broadcast in favor of a repeat of Love Boat. Attendances fell and all franchises quickly became unprofitable.

Steve Ross, CEO of Time Warner and owner of the Cosmos  (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)
Steve Ross, CEO of Time Warner and owner of the Cosmos  (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)

While the Cosmos won the NASL championship in 1978, ‘80 and ’82, they were failing financially. Behind the scenes, Steve Ross was hit extremely hard by the video game crash of 1983. Sales of home consoles plummeted by 97 percent over the next two years—an oversaturated market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games meant many consumers lost confidence. Ross was forced to sell off parts of his Warner conglomeration, including the controlling stake in the failing Cosmos.

Ross transferred control of the Cosmos to Giorgio Chinaglia, by then his favorite player and the club’s record scorer. Chinaglia obtained 60 percent of the Cosmos in exchange for $1.5 million in “working capital”– but, amidst all the league’s failings, he and Pinton could not make things work. (Chinaglia had also purchased his failing hometown club, Lazio, in Italy, losing millions there, too.)

By 1984, there were just nine NASL teams still active, and with no TV deals to subsidize their financial failings, more and more teams continued to go under. Without TV money, Pinton estimated the Cosmos needed 20,000-plus fans to meet the $60,000 operating costs of Giants Stadium for each game–but they were attracting fewer than 13,000. On March 13, 1985, the New York Cosmos could not a submit letter of credit to meet the $150,000 NASL entry fee and were subsequently expelled from the league. A day later there were only two teams registered for the start of the 1985 season and the NASL folded altogether.

At the amateur level, soccer was more popular than it have ever been in America. College soccer, hardly considered a sport before the NASL, was now played in more colleges than football. And across the country, four million people were now playing the “beautiful game”–(40 times more than in 1967).

As for the Cosmos, they had won five NASL titles but not made a penny in their 14 years. A year before the NASL folded, in 1984, Chinaglia had handed back his “working capital” stake to Steve Ross, who then passed the Cosmos ownership on to Pinton, asking him to preserve the legacy of the brand...or so it is believed. Others, such as Clive Toye, claimed in numerous interviews both during and after the Cosmos’ demise that Chinaglia never even owned the brand, and Pinton just happened to be the last member of staff standing.

“The Cosmos did not just fall into my lap,” said Pinton in a recent interview. “I had been with the organization for many years...I obtained it from Warner Communications. Chinaglia had no part in my transaction. I was his manager—people just put the two together.” (A disinterested Chinaglia, for his part, would confess years later that he didn’t really care who owned the brand.)

But ownership disputes aside, by 1985, Peppe Pinton was boss. With the team no longer playing, Pinton literally moved all things Cosmos—the trophies, the memorabilia, the merchandise, the 1,300 hours of game footage—into New Jersey-based storage, where they would gather dust for the next several decades.

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Pinton now runs an Italian restaurant in upstate New York called Il Portico, which he opened in 1989. But even before that, in the years immediately following the Cosmos’ exit from professional soccer, Pinton continued to run the Cosmos as a brand, using the tools he still had at his disposal: marketing video footage, the logo, and youth camps like the one attended by Giovanni Savarese. “We were fortunate enough to still have a brand name—‘The Cosmos’—and that was my passion, my love, and that was what I intended to do,” says Pinton.

Pinton operated the Cosmos out of an office in Orangeburg, New York, 20 miles north of the city; the trophies were stored in a mahogany cabinet as a reminder of past glory. “I protected the company assets,” says Pinton assertively. He claims to have spent around $5,000 a month keeping the Cosmos alive—on storage, staff, and office space—not making a penny for himself. (Pinton refused to give exact figures.)

By 1993, the Cosmos name was essentially just associated with youth soccer summer camps at Ramapo College, although Pinton continued to charge anyone and everyone who wished to use the Cosmos’ footage, logo or name. “The way to protect your trademark,” he said, “is to police around the world through various sources, maintaining the registrations, and to prove you are actively involved as a business.” Pinton estimates that he spent between $800,000 and $900,000 in legal battles against those wrongfully slapping “Cosmos” on items while he owned the brand.

During this time, soccer in the U.S. was on hiatus, and no one else really wanted ownership of the Cosmos brand. That changed in 1994, when the World Cup came to America and interest in soccer as a professional sport exploded once more. A new professional league, Major League Soccer, was established. Pinton entered into discussions with the league for the sale of the entity he had run for more than a decade. “He owned the brand and he was looking to sell that brand at some point,” says Daniel Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for the MLS. “He had a price point that he wanted to sell it at and ultimately we passed on that price point.”

Pinton says he in fact turned down multiple approaches to buy the name, including from the Wilpons, the owners of the Mets; the owners of the New York and Philadelphia-based soccer franchises, who were willing to change their names; Andrew Murstein, owner of the taxi company Medallion; and even Clive Toye. Pinton believed such potential owners were not willing to honor the tradition of the brand. He wanted a buyer who could return the Cosmos to their former glories, as the leading team in U.S. club soccer—not someone who only had the financial resources to create an also-ran club, or an individual only interested in the name purely to sell Cosmos-branded merchandise. “The fact that the Cosmos was not showcased with the new league was not a defeat–it was a victory for the Cosmos, because the Cosmos could maintain its dignity,” he said.

From 1996 onwards, Pinton continued to run Cosmos soccer summer camps, sue illegal users of the Cosmos brand, and reject offers from interested buyers. But on a midsummer’s evening, in 2009, Pinton felt that he had finally found the right man to carry on the Cosmos legacy. Sitting opposite him, in his upstate restaurant, with its cream walls, crisp white tablecloths, and large windows that illuminate the compact room, was an English businessman by the name of Paul Kemsley.

“We were fortunate enough to still have a brand name—‘The Cosmos’—and that was my passion, my love, and that was what I intended to do,” says Pinton.

Kemsley, or “PK” as he is known to friends, is a tough-talking, Rottweiler of a businessman, with a Cockney accent. He was in his early 40s at the time, slightly rotund, and usually sporting a hint of five-o'clock shadow. Kemsley made his millions in property development and in his prime was featured on the UK’s version of The Apprentice, interrogating would-be businessmen and women over their resumes. In 2001 he became a director with the Tottenham Spurs of the English Premier League Tottenham, and was widely praised for helping them reach a steady financial decision. But during the financial crisis of 2009, the Londoner’s company, Rock, (which had an estimated worth of $700 million) went into liquidation and he started to look for fresh opportunities elsewhere.

Kemsley’s people started chatting with Pinton’s people; and on that midsummer’s night—as Sassicaia flowed and oysters were served—Peppe Pinton heard Kemsley’s vision for the New York Cosmos firsthand.

“I had an individual that convinced me that he wanted it more than me; someone who had absolutely no upbringing with the Cosmos, but had acquired a knowledge over the years,” Pinton said. “It was someone who said ‘I’m going to take it from where you are, take all your energy, all your love, all your passion, all the relentless hours, and take it to the next level.’ To a level that I could not have gone.” Kemsley, Pinton thought, would return the New York Cosmos to the forefront of U.S. club soccer and make them a serious force once more. He also appeared to have the money to do so.

When the meal was over, the restaurant's owner rose to his feet and shook Kemsley’s hand–the deal was done. Pinton immediately spoke to Kemsley’s wife on the phone, congratulating her on the vision her husband had laid out for his beloved team. Pinton was convinced Kemsley was the man who could make the New York Cosmos, once the Rolling Stones of soccer, an actual soccer team once more.

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Rumors started circulating in the British press in late 2009 that the Cosmos were back. Kemsley, they said, had a grand vision for this once-grand team. But it wasn’t until August 2010 that Pelé, rehired as the Cosmos’ honorary president, officially announced the team was preparing to take to the field once again. By this time, the ownership model was made up of three key players: Kemsley, who owned the majority of the brand; Terry Byrne, David Beckham’s former personal manager; and Anomaly, a British marketing company that agreed to exchange their expertise for a small stake in the club. The group started out with a vision of building the club from the ground up: purchasing academies as well as harvesting local talent on both coasts. This would be combined with community events and large-scale marketing to get the Cosmos back in the public eye.

By the beginning of 2011, Kemsley had moved into a five-bedroom apartment on the 75th floor of the Time Warner Center, reportedly renting at $57,500 a month, and a trendy office was set up in SoHo. The Cosmos had already completed part 1 of their plan, sponsoring two academies in New York and L.A. They also purchased the rights to a local soccer event called the “Copa,” essentially a World Cup for the amateurs of New York City, with locals represent their home nations, and renamed it “the Cosmos Copa.” Carl Johnson, CEO and one of the founders of Anomaly, said the first intention was to focus on New York’s cultural mix and how soccer is embedded into its communities.

After signing a deal with the British manufacturer Umbro, Kevin Lyons, a fashion designer, Cosmos-of-old fan and Anomaly’s design director, got to work on designing a new kit for club. Capitalizing on retro nostalgia, Lyons created a new jersey extremely similar to the one worn by Pelé in his last-ever professional match. “The kit was always meant to be worn on the field, but the kids could also wear it as fashionable streetwear, too,” he said. “The idea was novel: we were a cultural entity that wanted to create fervor and then the team would come.”

Lyons had a vision of a New York soccer brand that would succeed in the fashion markets of Asia and Europe, just at Yankee caps are worn around the world. Kemsley, in his flashy new Prada espadrilles, hosted an evening at the Openhouse Gallery in Nolita, blaring out ’80s classics such as Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” while grainy footage of the original Cosmos’ played on a projector. The “Umbro x NY Cosmos Spring/Summer '11 Collection” was launched, later accompanied by Times Square billboards and pop-up shops around the city. “We hope you get it... It’s going to be huge,” Kemsley declared.

New York Cosmos head coach, Giovanni Savarese, speaking to members of the media
New York Cosmos head coach, Giovanni Savarese, speaking to members of the media

“It was an expression of vision and ambition,” says Carl Johnson. “The ambition from the outset was that this can be the largest name in soccer in the U.S. It can be, and probably will be.”

A month after the clothing launch, the latest group of Cosmos ambassadors, Pelé included, headed to Asia to promote the club’s rebirth. As they hopped between Singapore and Hong Kong—an excitable Kemsley would describe the prospect of meeting the Singaporean president as “sick”—the former players attended signing sessions, Q-and-As and soccer games, all in the hope of boosting brand Cosmos in the Asian market. Soon, soccer fans across the world were indeed wearing Cosmos-stamped clothing: jerseys, hats and jackets started popping up everywhere; from bars in Sydney to the financial district of London—all without an actual team.

Finally, in August 2011, an exhibition Cosmos team played a game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. With the stands packed, Pinton and Kemsley watched on as a squad featuring World Cup winners, players from top leagues from around the world, and American youth talent donned the popular Cosmos jerseys, losing 6-0 in the process. The final score hardly dampened their enthusiasm. “It was like a dream,” said Pinton. “You close in 1985, you walk out of the stadium and you wake up in the stadium of dreams, Manchester United’s, with the brand you kept alive for many years.”

This, though, was only a quasi-Cosmos team—they were still not a competitive outfit—and soon after the Manchester United game, things started to unravel off the field. That month, the Cosmos Academy in L.A. disbanded, $210,000 in debt.

Costs of running the club were mounting up—payments to Pelé, billboard advertising, tours, public events, the now-15-plus staff members. “There was not a sufficient focus on revenue in; rather than just looking at what was being spent,” says Johnson.

The Cosmos merchandise that Johnson’s company had helped secure was one of just a few forms of “revenue in.” And weeks after the Manchester United match, Anomaly pulled out, forfeiting their ownership stake in order to focus on other projects.

According to Johnson, instead of looking for alternative ways to generate money, Kemsley searched for cash to keep the club afloat, turning to an investment group called Cosmos Ventures, and reportedly selling a 50-percent stake for the money he desperately needed.

The bigger problem was that the Cosmos still had no way of joining the top tier of American soccer once again. The MLS entry fee was over $100 million—a level of investment that could not find—and with no actual soccer to attract fans, the club continued to hemorrhage money. By October 2011, Kemsley’s investment had dried up, and when he asked Cosmos Ventures for more funding the answer was a simple “no,” according to current sources at the club. The group activated a buyout clause in their dealings with Kemsley, taking complete control of the club, and on Oct. 26, 2011, Kemsley resigned as chairman. He declared bankruptcy the following year, with the team still never having played a competitive match. (Numerous attempts to contact Paul Kemsley were unsuccessful.)

“I believed in the entity, I believed in the process, I believed in the concept, I believed in who I was dealing with,” says Pinton. “Was I right? Yes. Why? Because even though he’s not here, the Cosmos is still here.”

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Today, very little is clear about the New York Cosmos’ actual ownership structure; the club would disclose only that there are multiple investors with an interest in the Cosmos’ fortunes. English businessman Seamus O'Brien, who founded the World Sport Group, Asia’s leading sports marketing, event management and media company, is the club’s chairman and current figurehead. (When asked, some sources at the club claim O’Brien is a sole owner; others mention a fifty-fifty split with a Saudi Arabian sports marketing group called Sela Sports.)

But ownership structure aside, unlike the previous hierarchy, O’Brien has made it clear he has one simple objective in mind: associating the name Cosmos with an actual soccer team.

Kyle Reynish, New York Cosmos' goalkeeper, during practice (photos by Brad Horrigan)
Kyle Reynish, New York Cosmos' goalkeeper, during practice (photos by Brad Horrigan)

In July 2012, not long after his tenure began, O'Brien announced that the team (or brand, as things stood) planned to do just that. The club opted to rejoined the NASL, which, having folded in 1985 along with the original Cosmos, was reformed in 2009 as the second tier of American soccer. The league, which is unassociated with MLS, is made up of eight teams. The NASL drew an average attendance of 3,810 in 2012, significantly smaller than the MLS’s 18,807. But with an entry fee at just over $1 million, it was a far more attainable option than that of the MLS’ $100 million-plus entry fee, too.

“We won’t say anything we’re not going to deliver on,” O’Brien told Sports Illustrated, in what appeared to be a dig at the previous ownership. “You’re not going to get hyperbole and big, grandiose lunatic statements that might have been the mantra of the past.”

“Like any other fan, I read that article, and thought, that’s exactly the direction this club in particular needs to go,” said Erik Stover, a laid back, dress-down-Friday kind of executive with a shaven head and warm smile. Stover formerly oversaw the rise of the New York area’s other soccer franchise, MLS’ Red Bulls. He helped plan their move into a $200 million stadium and secured the signing of one of the current generation’s greatest players, Thierry Henry. Now, though, Stover has an office next to Savarese’s. He was appointed the Cosmos’ COO in November 2012, the same month Savarese became head coach. Slowly, Stover and Savarese helped to put together the pieces, both on and of the field, necessary for the Cosmos to become a competitive soccer team. “Now all those big things that seemed so daunting, and would never happen, are actually happening every day,” said Stover, an assured nod of his head in time with the final two words.

The New York Cosmos will play their home games at Hofstra's stadium.
The New York Cosmos will play their home games at Hofstra's stadium.

By early 2013, the Cosmos had found a stadium: the same place they played during the 1972 and 1973 seasons, at Long Island’s James H. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University. Over the months that followed, the Cosmos slowly and discreetly started putting together the pieces that would enable them to become an NASL club, adding players, recruiting staff, and hosting fan events, peppered with the odd appearance from Pelé.

Just a year after O’Brien first announced the brand’s intentions to play as an NASL team, the makeup of the New York Cosmos is almost unrecognizable to the entity O’Brien inherited. They set up training camp at Mitchell Field in Nassau County, along with a ticketing office at the complex to begin engaging the Long Island community. They have also released a plan for a $400 million stadium in nearby Belmont Park, to include a mixed-use development, shopping areas, and playing fields. Their first competitive game in nearly three decades will take place August 3rd.

The team has arranged a new kit deal, and inked deals with Nike as a manufacturer and Fly Emirates as a sponsor. They have begun to recruit season ticket holders. The New York Cosmos finally has a complete roster, too, a cosmopolitan mix of former MLS players; representatives from Asia, Europe and South America; and American players, including the club’s captain, Carlos Mendes, a New York local who grew up a few minutes away, in Mineola, Long Island.

Club officials are confident they can not only challenge for the NASL title, but also prove they are the best team in the country by winning the U.S. Open Cup, which enters lower-league teams into the same knockout competition as MLS outfits. With players coming from such a wide variety of backgrounds, though, it is difficult to predict how well these players will gel during the Cosmos’ first season.

The Cosmos’ rebirth was somewhat overshadowed by the recent move by English soccer powerhouse Manchester City and the New York Yankees to team up as co-owners of a second New York team set to join the MLS in 2015. Stover says the team welcomes this challenge, and right now are purely focused on raising the profile of the NASL.

“As long as we do it right—we run a proper soccer club, have good connections to our supporters—the other stuff will take care of itself,” said Stover. “We’re not really thinking about lifestyle gear, it’s not about that for us. We understand we have a long way to go...but for us, we ultimately want to win silverware, we want to win championships, we want to compete at the highest level, and we want people in this country, or, for that matter, around the world, to say ‘that’s the best soccer club in the United States.’”

*    *    *

“Just play your natural game,” Giovanni Savarese said reassuringly to around 100 youngsters standing in front of him on a windy May evening in the West Village. “And just have fun.”

As the sun set on Pier 40, a sporting complex hit by the breeze from the Hudson River, Savarese and other Cosmos coaching staff watched over the last of five open tryout sessions the club was holding—one in each borough of New York. The concept was simple: anyone could apply, and one player from each borough would be selected to attend preseason training with the Cosmos.

Cleats in hand, Sean Salgueiro, 10, watches the Cosmos train.
Cleats in hand, Sean Salgueiro, 10, watches the Cosmos train.

“We feel strongly that if you are asking people to see you, you need to go and see them first,” said Savarese, explaining the team’s grassroots strategy. The tryouts attracted everyone from an unfit 62-year old who had sat in the stands during the 1970s, dreaming of playing alongside Pelé and Chinaglia, to 16-year olds who perhaps had never even heard of the original Cosmos, let alone been alive to witness them in their heyday. Players from Germany passed to those from England; Dominican kids from Washington Heights passed to Mexican-Americans from Queens.

When the tryouts came to an end, Savarese brought everyone in to thank them for their participation. He showed his appreciation to those who did not make it, and assured them to never to give up on their dreams of becoming soccer players.

A 10-year old boy from Venezuela left New York with such a dream more than 30 years ago. “You are all part of the Cosmos family now,” Savarese said.

*    *    *

Jack Williams is a New York-based journalist, originating from Wales in the UK. A recent graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, he has written sports features for the likes of The New York Daily News and The New York Times.Twitter: @itsjackwilliams

Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.

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