M.L.S. pre-announces that second New York team, which still isn’t the Cosmos

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Don Garber. (Howard Megdal)
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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has announced that a deal is weeks away to create the league's 20th team, with an M.L.S. spokesman confirming that when he speaks of this team, he's referring to a second team in the New York market.

With the New York Cosmos preparing for their initial season as a non-major-league franchise, a marriage between M.L.S. and the Cosmos had to be part of the deal, right? 

Nope. Multiple reports indicate that the Cosmos are officially out of the running to join the Red Bulls as the area's second big-league team. (Garber did reportedly meet on Wednesday night with Pele, but this Pele was a dog, and a red herring.)

So what's going to happen next? 

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Let's start with what Garber told reporters in Toronto: that "we're making progress."

"We continue – you’ve heard this for the last year – but we continue to negotiate with the city of New York, meet with local political folks and community leaders to get support for the stadium we hope to build in Flushing Meadow Park," he said.

"We are deeply engaged with potential ownership groups, and we are hopeful to be able to announce a 20th team within the next three to four weeks, perhaps, so the timing’s accelerated a little bit. I should moderate that — four to six weeks. Got that? four to six weeks, not three to four."

He's not kidding about acceleration: back in February, he was talking about getting it done by the end of 2013.

But it's still not clear what it would mean to "announce a 20th team."

Is this a finalizing of the stadium deal? It's hard to believe the remaining obstacles have been completely overcome in such a way that the stadium can move forward on that timetable; the stadium has yet to be approved by the City Council. But without much enthusiasm from whoever succeeds Mike Bloomberg, the time to strike would obviously be now.

Or could this simply be an announcement that the league has come to an agreement with an ownership group, with the venue details to be worked out later? Apparently not: Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald reports there's no final deal in place with an ownership group, either.

The interest by the owners of the Premier League's Manchester City in owning the new M.L.S. franchise has been rumored since the fall; the timing of Manchester City's spring friendly in New York would appear to dovetail with Garber's timetable, expressed Wednesday night. With M.L.S.'s new television deal likely to be negotiated this summer, there are significant reasons for Garber to do so with a second New York franchise in place as well.

All that's clear right now, from what the league is saying, is that it's not going to be the Cosmos.

When I reached out to M.L.S., spokesman Dan Courtemanche said, "Major League Soccer has not had active discussions recently with the Cosmos regarding an expansion team in MLS.  We wish them well with their debut in the [North American Soccer League, a feeder league] this summer."

M.L.S., given the problems the New York Red Bulls have had making any substantial mark in the market, will be counting on the second team to create buzz from scratch. Cosmos, owned by well-capitalized Sela Sport, appeared to have that potential capability, of creating a soccer team that could compete in M.L.S. right away.

Without a pathway to M.L.S., it's not clear the Cosmos will be able to sustain any momentum toward building their own proposed 25,000-seat stadium at Belmont Park, which would be significantly surplus to the needs of a long-term minor-league franchise. 

Without M.L.S., the Cosmos are freed of the salary cap that limits the ability of teams in the league to add high-priced talent. But it also deprives them of a schedule filled with the best domestic club teams; instead, the Cosmos will be playing clubs like F.C. Edmonton and the Carolina Railhawks. 

It will be fascinating to see what Sela Sport makes of that question. The Cosmos continue to stress that they prefer the N.A.S.L. financial model. If M.L.S. goes in a different direction for ownership of the 20th team, as it now promises to do, they'll get the opportunity to prove it.

Hopefully both sides aren't botching a golden opportunity just because of the Cosmos' game of chicken. Destructive infighting and pointless commercial rivalries, sadly, are as old as soccer in America itself.