The New York Cosmos build a roster as big as their plans

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Hunter Freeman. (New York Cosmos)
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With each passing day, the New York Cosmos are catching up to their outsize ambitions, moving further away from being an empty brand and historical curiosity, and closer to becoming an actual soccer team. (And maybe even a good one.)

The Cosmos have a real coach, New York soccer legend Gio Savarese, a place to play, James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University, and now a start date: August 3, 7 p.m., against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

But just what kind of Cosmos team is this? The Cosmos can offer players the opportunity to play in New York, and as members of the North American Soccer League, aren't restricted by the Major League Soccer's salary cap. But the N.A.S.L. is a step down on the soccer pyramid from M.L.S.

So they may well be more successful at recruiting good players to play second division soccer than most or all second-division teams. But can they recruit top-caliber players to play in the lower league, to play against (with all due respect) the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and FC Edmonton and the Carolina RailHawks?

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Early indications are that the answer is yes.

The Cosmos have signed five players so far. And four of the five would be very much at home on an M.L.S. roster.

The first player signed by the Cosmos, defender Carlos Mendes, played on an M.L.S. team last season, logging 12 games for the Columbus Crew. Prior to that, the Long Island native played six years for the New York Red Bulls. 

Next came goalkeeper Kyle Rainish, longtime backup to Nick Raimondo on Real Salt Lake. 

Last week, the Cosmos signed Spanish midfielder Ayoze. Generally speaking, M.L.S. teams don't acquire players from La Liga, Spain's top-flight, let alone N.A.S.L. teams. But Ayoze is for real: a midfielder who played 15 matches for Sporting Gijon last season, and 13 the season before. Ayoze is also just 27, so this isn't a fading star looking to come to America. He should give the Cosmos on-field credibility.

The club then announced on Tuesday that Hunter Freeman, another M.L.S. veteran most recently with the Colorado Rapids in 2012, signed on to join Mendes on the back line. Again, what is noteworthy isn't just that Freeman belonged to M.L.S. clubs, but that he got significant on-field time, appearing in 19 games last season for Colorado, and 23 the season before with a Houston Dynamo club that reached the M.L.S. Cup final.

Only Stefan Dimitov, who scored eight goals in seven matches with the Brooklyn Knights of the U.S.L. Developmental League (soccer's fourth tier) might be out of place on an M.L.S. roster, among the players signed so far.

For comparison, the league's 2011 Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner, Etienne Barbara, played only two matches in 2012 with the Vancouver Whitecaps, then was released. Prior to his breakout 2011 season, he'd never played for an M.L.S. club or even been signed by one. The 2012 Golden Boot winner, Pablo Campos, played just two seasons in M.L.S., scoring only four goals in 41 matches. And even after his tremendous 2012, he's returned to the Minnesota Stars for 2013.

Teams like the San Antonio Scorpions, last season's regular season winner, are adding players from the Chinese and Bosnian first division, while Carolina Railhawks defender Kupono Low, who bounced around the lower tiers of U.S. soccer before joining Carolina in 2007, where he's been a mainstay, is far more representative of what the N.A.S.L. typically features, talent-wise.

The gap between M.L.S. and the rest of U.S. soccer has been apparent in the U.S. Open Cup, an undeattended competition that is our domestic equivalent of the F.A. Cup in England. No non-M.L.S. team has won the competition since 1999; no one outside of M.L.S. has even reached the final since 2008.

Then again, non-M.L.S. soccer in this country hasn't had a team with the potential cache and financial backing of these Cosmos.

So while the Cosmos talk about building their own M.L.S.-quality stadium, and insist they can exist outside the league structure, there will be no greater way to prove that--or, alternatively, to make the case for admission--than by putting a top-flight product on the field. The early returns suggest they are doing that. 

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