What are the New York Cosmos playing at?

A rendering of the proposed Cosmos' stadium. (New York Cosmos)
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Ever since Seamus O'Brien's group and Sela Sport purchased the New York Cosmos, his organization and Major League Soccer, the top-flight soccer league, have appeared to be on separate, parallel tracks.

Major League Soccer, and its vocal commissioner Don Garber, have been intent upon bringing a second franchise to the New York area for years, and on that team playing in New York City proper.

Currently, the New York Red Bulls play in Harrison, N.J., and at least in part due to that location (though for many other reasons as well), the team has failed to take off the way other M.L.S. franchises have in cities like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.

The Cosmos under O'Brien, meanwhile, have been working diligently to erase the memory of previous chairman Paul Kemsley, who focused more on the brand at the expense of things like creating an actual soccer team or finding it a place to play.

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So while Garber has been moving heaven and earth to make a proposed $300 million soccer stadium proposal at Flushing Meadows Corona Park a reality, O'Brien's Cosmos have been busy creating a team that is scheduled to begin playing in the new North American Soccer League, one tier down from M.L.S. in the United States' soccer pyramid, in 2013. 

The team has a venue (Hoftra University), a general manager, a coach, and even a player. And these moves were looked upon favorably by Garber, who has spoken positively of both the steps taken by the Cosmos, and O'Brien's leadership as a whole.

The M.L.S. and the Cosmos both appeared to be looking to 2016, a year in which M.L.S. hoped the Queens stadium would be completed and ready to open, and by which time the Cosmos could take that step up from a second tier professional league, as the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and most recently, the Montreal Impact had done, and become the twentieth M.L.S. team.

Which is what makes the announcement yesterday by the Cosmos that they are proposing a $400 million development in Elmont, just south of Belmont Park in Nassau County, so odd. The news, which caught Major League Soccer off-guard, could sidetrack the current league effort, and in fact essentially requires that effort to fail.

For their part, the Cosmos have insisted that their franchise did not require admission into M.L.S.

Of course, that's what a club would say if it's looking for leverage in its coming negotiations with the league it wishes to join, assuming that club isn't planning to exist permanently as a hideously expensive giant among minor-league minnows.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that the Cosmos are no longer looking to gain admission into M.L.S. At that point, the Queens stadium project, and with it, a second M.L.S. franchise, would seem to make a Belmont Park soccer stadium a nonstarter.

It would entail spending $400 million for a stadium for a second-tier soccer team 12 miles from another brand-new soccer stadium housing a top-tier soccer team, in a market that has yet to prove itself capable of supporting two professional soccer franchises. As it stands now, the Red Bulls, with no competition in the metropolitan area, averaged just over 18,000 fans in their 25,000-seat arena, while boasting frontline talent like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

The non-M.L.S. Cosmos path, then, would require nothing less than the creation of a superteam unmoored from this country's soccer structure itself, or one capable of upending that structure on the strength of its sheer awesomeness.

And why not? If Sela Sport truly has bottomless pockets for such an experiment, it's not impossible.

Much as the original Cosmos effectively ran the original N.A.S.L. back in the 1970s, this version of the Cosmos could bring in expensive foreign talent. They'd have the freedom to do so no M.L.S. team enjoys, since M.L.S. has a strict salary cap and allows for a maximum of three players, called designated players, to earn more than that meager amount (compared to other top leagues, that is). N.A.S.L., with no such salary cap, would allow the Cosmos to grow as fast as their money could entice players to come join them.

But who'd come? Would, say, Frank Lampard sign up for road trips against F.C. Edmonton and Minnesota Stars F.C., for any amount of money?

And that's the other inherent limitation in such a plan; the N.A.S.L., by virtue of designation from U.S. Soccer, and by a lack of promotion/relegation soccer pyramids employ in England and many other countries around the world, is the also-ran league, with no way up and out.

As N.A.S.L. C.E.O. Aaron Davidson described his league back in August, "It’s great to see M.L.S. with 19 teams maturing, showing the world that North America has great potential and a great future in soccer, and we’re now filling in that next tier of markets."

If the Cosmos actually intended to spend big money to play in the N.A.S.L., in other words, it would require them to have a much more ambitious idea of what that league can be than the league itself does.

All of which suggests that the more likely scenario is that the Belmont stadium is a bluff. If O'Brien's group can be more than just one of several with deep-pockets vying for M.L.S. to pick them as the new expansion team, and instead be a threat to the entire domestic soccer project, it becomes far harder for Garber to refuse them their spot in the highest level of U.S. play, on terms they're confortable with.

Perhaps O'Brien and the Cosmos management is looking to a historical example from baseball, 50 years ago. After the Dodgers and Giants left Brooklyn and Manhattan for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, a market demand (from pissed-off Dodgers and Giants fans, for starters) for the National League to expand into New York and other unserved markets went unmet at first.

Then a group created by New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner with the express goal of returning National League baseball to New York, headed up by New York attorney William A. Shea and later fronted by former Dodgers' executive Branch Rickey, went about creating a rival league: the Continental League, with teams in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and yes, New York. The New York franchise was to be at the center of the league's plans and would-be identity.

Appropriately spooked, the National League quickly expanded into New York, eliminating the rationale for the Continental League, and the Mets were born. They began play in 1962, in the Giants' old home the Polo Grounds, and in 1964 moved into brand-new William A. Shea Stadium.

The Cosmos would no doubt consider it to be a very good outcome if their story plays out in a similar manner; perhaps the Queens stadium can be called Seamus O'Brien Park.

Or, if M.L.S. calls the Cosmos' bluff by proceeding with its plans and awarding that second New York franchise to a different consortium, maybe we'll get to see just how the Continental League might have looked, 50 years later and in another sport.

UPDATE: Dana Rubinstein interviews Cosmos COO Eric Stover here.