M.L.S. chief touts the possibilities of two teams in New York, gives no satisfaction to the Cosmos

Don Garber. (Howard Megdal)
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One thing is clear, following Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber's state of the league address Wednesday evening, held as a Google Plus video hangout and opened to questions from reporters and fans: New York is the center of the highest-stakes soccer battle in this country, perhaps ever.

When we last left our principals, Major League Soccer had been working steadily toward getting city and state approval for a 25,000 seat stadium at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

One key component in this effort will be to get backing for the project from Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents the district where the park is located. She recently described to my colleague Dana Rubinstein what it would take to get her on board.

But it's important to remember that the push for the stadium has been undertaken by the league, not by a particular owner. Garber was careful to temper his optimism at each turn by discussing how much work remained, and probably gave his most telling comment on the timing of a deal when he said: "If we are successful, we believe it will be one of the real shining lights of Major League Soccer, having a terrific rivalry with the Red Bulls who are doing a terrific job across the river in New Jersey. If we’re not successful we’ll throw our hands up. We’d take a step back and see if there’s another market."

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So, by that formulation, it's: New York stadium within a year, or hello, Orlando.

But who will play in this gleaming new stadium? Garber, who used to drop the Wilpon name whenever discussing potential ownership groups, but no longer does, for obvious reasons, has been circumspect about who the new owners might be.

That's where the New York Cosmos come in. The Cosmos, a well-funded team that was until this season little more than a throwback brand, will begin play in the North American Soccer League, second division in the American soccer pyramid, this fall. They have a stadium plan of their own, over at Belmont Park, and they released a video rendering of it a few hours before Garber spoke.

The video was exceptionally beautiful, and an implicit statement of independence. And, thus, it was yet another possible means of strengthening their position in eventual negotiations with M.L.S., even as M.L.S. suggests more explicitly than ever that it won't entertain alternative locations to the one in Flushing Meadows.

The Cosmos would seem to give M.L.S. much of what the league could possibly ask for from a new a franchise: ample funding and perhaps the most iconic brand in American soccer. (The Cosmos were the marquee franchise in the old North American Soccer League, which flamed out in the '80s.)

It is hard to to imagine the Belmont Park facility can get built unless M.L.S. fails to get a stadium in Queens, or for M.L.S. not to turn to the Cosmos and their Belmont Park plan should the Queens stadium fall through.

So onward the two sides move, each careful to assert its ability to fully succeed alone, while speaking well of one another.

"Their status is a question for them," Garber said in reponse to my question about how the Cosmos were doing in their pursuit of that second New York franchise.

Garber and M.L.S., it's worth pointing out, will ultimately decide who owns that team.

"I was sitting at a table next to them last week at the New York City Soccer Gala," Garber added. "I'm friendly with both Seamus [O'Brien, chairman of the Cosmos], with his partners, with Erik [Stover, C.O.O. of the Cosmos], who I have a lot of respect for, so I continue to speak with them, and I'll speak with them on a regular basis."

Then this: "They had a choice to make. Did they want to vie for an M.L.S. team, or do they want to go into the second division. They decided to go into the second division, we support that."

So were they actively seeking that New York franchise?

"Again, you'd have to ask them whether they're active," Garber said. "I have not had active discussions on that with them recently."

For their part, the Cosmos referred me to O'Brien's previous statements on owning in M.L.S.

As he told Goal.com's Alex Labidou in January: "I want this team to play at the highest level possible," he said. "How it all evolves in five or ten years, I'm not going to be bold enough to predict. But we want to play in the highest level. If that ends up being M.L.S., that's fine. The fact that we got our stadium makes us a more suitable owner."

In the meantime, both sides remain at detente. 

And what about the soccer team in this market M.L.S. already does have?

The talented but trophy-challenged New York Red Bulls of Harrison, New Jersey are just a few days away from starting the new M.L.S. season. They are quite optimistic, and told the world so not at a media day at gleaming Red Bull Arena, as in the past few years, but at an event at Chelsea Piers.

So it wasn't a complete surprise, though certainly news, when Garber announced that the Red Bulls are moving their offices to New York City, in response to my question about how a franchise that drew only 68 percent of capacity to Red Bull Arena in 2012 can expect to thrive with another M.L.S. team siphoning off part of that support. A Red Bulls internal study of the problem last year showed only 60 percent of their fans came from New Jersey; 40 percent come from the five boroughs, or surrounding areas like Long Island.

"Hopefully this rivalry will allow them to go from the 18,000 they have an average to 25,000 fans on average," Garber said. "They have a new manager. New management has come in. They are moving their offices to downtown Manhattan. They are getting focused on engaging the downtown community."

The Red Bulls actually denied this to MLSSoccer.com's Red Bulls reporter Franco Panizo, saying they only planned to move "some commercial and marketing functions" there.

"Ultimately, this will make the Red Bulls bigger, better, more popular," Garber said of another New York franchise. "Thirteen million people live in this tri-state area. Many of them are from Queens who are going out to New Jersey. So I think this rivalry will raise the water level for both of those clubs and make Major League Soccer more popular, more powerful, more influential in New York City. Important market."