The revived New York Cosmos know the name casts a long shadow. Those involved in the effort to make a new version of the Cosmos matter in both New York and American soccer circles feel the weight of the star-studded teams that lit up the town back in the days of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia. While there’s no denying that the new NASL is nothing like the old version, and that the new Soccer Bowl isn’t quite the stage those mythical names played upon, there’s still pressure to live up to the name.
The Cosmos team that won the fall season of the NASL and heads to Atlanta to take on the spring champion Silverbacks Nov. 9 includes two of locals who joined the team aware and thrilled by the burden.
“I think there was a lot of pressure, but we didn’t take it that way,” said Sebastian Guenzatti, a Uruguay-born attacker who was raised in Queens. “We took the pressure as a positive thing. People wanting to beat us more than other teams, playing harder against us, it gave us the push at the end to be in the final. The pressure is good.”
The Cosmos locked up the fall title with a game to spare last weekend in San Antonio, a game that summed up their run to Soccer Bowl in many ways. The club’s biggest name, Spanish midfielder and Euro winner Marcos Senna, scored the goal that equalized, with Bulgarian stiker Stefan Dimitrov putting in the game-winner two minutes later despite the Cosmos being down a man.
Throughout the season, New York’s quality -- in many ways a function of the pull of their storied name for players other teams in the league might not attract -- showed through.
The new Cosmos team includes Senna playing alongside a host of experienced internationals, former MLSers, and an uplifting comeback story in the form of former U.S. youth international Danny Szetela, all under the watchful eye of head coach Giovanni Savarese. It’s a motley crew reminiscent of the NASL teams, if on a slightly different scale.
Long Island native Carlos Mendes recognizes the advantages the Cosmos' history brings and the pressure it applies, but credits Savarese and his staff with putting together a group of players willing to work to live up to the legacy.
“We realize the importance of the Cosmos name and the history and the tradition behind the team. The team has meant a lot for soccer in the United States. We look at it like an honor. We’re very proud to play for a team with that history,” said Mendes, who also related the thrill of a preseason lunch with Pele, where the Brazilian legend expressed the pride he felt playing for the old Cosmos.
“The front office and the coaching staff have done an excellent job of getting quality players, it’s a good group of guys also. That’s a key part of it. Not just having talent, guys like Marcos Senna, but a good group that is willing to work and to really put in the time because it’s a good league, a competitive league. You need chemistry.”
Good chemistry might have played a part in the Cosmos' success this fall, but there are suggestions around the league that not playing the spring season also gave New York and advantage. Less soccer means fresher legs. Both Guenzatti and Mendes played down that notion, in part because the Cosmos were forced to gel so quickly.
“I think it’s difficult for us to put a whole new group together, to get to know each other, to get that chemistry on the field,” said Mendes, a veteran of seven MLS seasons before joining the Cosmos. “You can look at it two different ways. For us, it was about getting a group together. The good thing for us is that every game the team has matured and improved and that’s a real positive sign.”
For a bit of perspective, the Cosmos’ last championship came in 1982. Mendes wasn’t yet 2. Guenzatti wouldn’t be born for another nine years. Nevertheless, a championship in year one of the resurrected New York Cosmos is the bare minimum -- and the players know it.
“Being in New York and playing with the Cosmos, the fans expect the team to win with the history. It’s very exciting,” Mendes said.
The younger Guenzatti also viewed those expectations as a positive. “I know the players that played here were incredible. It gave us a push, to know that we came to a great team. We knew we couldn’t leave the people waiting for another result. We know what ‘Cosmos’ means,” he said.
At the Cosmos training session Tuesday, NASL commissioner Bill Peterson presented the team with a trophy for their second-half triumph. The fall season award figures to be the first of many for the new Cosmos, backed by an ownership group who wants to make waves in a suddenly crowded New York soccer market. Not only did the New York Red Bulls break a 17-year streak of futility by winning the MLS Supporters Shield, but Major League Soccer’s second New York franchise, Yankees-backed NYCFC, launches in 2015. Staying relevant, even for the Cosmos, won't be easy.
Meeting those winning expectations will help, said Mendes.
“We need to do our job on the field. We need to win games and to play for championships. That’s how you stay on top. There’s a lot going on with soccer in New York and with soccer in general in the country. That’s a great thing. I’m proud to be a part of it.”