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Three Good Questions for: Cosmos CEO Seamus O’Brien

Feb 3, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

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For a brand in 30-year hibernation, the Cosmos name still resonates impressively.

The Cosmos once ruled domestic soccer, peerless in image, appeal and high finance, far ahead of its time and wildly out of balance with the game’s larger public regard.

The brand is up and running again, albeit at a measurably smaller scale.

When the new day Cosmos take the field later this year, the matches at Hofstra University will look nothing like the packed-house affairs of the 70s, when Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and other global stars led the fabulous Cosmos into Giants Stadium.

The new Cosmos will play in the North American Soccer League, domestic professional soccer’s second tier. The club’s larger ambition is anything but second tier. Not long after the club announced plans for a 25,000-seat facility, we talked to Cosmos CEO Seamus O’Brien.

For building awareness of what the Cosmos are now about, what’s the most important thing the organization can do in your first season?

I’m a believer that you earn credibility and respect through your actions. We will build awareness by just doing what we said we were going to do, which is put a very credible, competitive team on the field, building a business off the field that builds credibility and respect within the industry as one that is professional and of a high quality standard. And obviously, being competitive in a business sense and then winning on the pitch.

I’m of the school that I’m not interested in making big, grandiose statements. I’ll let our action do the talking.”

It seems that managing the public’s expectations might be a challenge. Obviously you cannot be the Cosmos of old, so how do you approach that?

I am very conscious of the history of the club, and it is in some ways a burden because it does create expectations, with people dreaming of the past. But I have made it clear that history doesn’t build a future and it doesn’t build a business. You’ve got to build your own history. I hope that everything we do will be respectful of the history, conscious of the history, and I’m sure it will blend through our messaging and our branding of the club. But ultimately we’ve got to build a new history and build a position based on how we perform today. Because the nostalgia of the past will only last so long. This is a tough sports town. New York expects winners. If we don’t perform on and off the field, the history will count for nothing.”

What is your relationship with MLS, because sometimes it is difficult to say if you guys are more ally or adversary?

A lot is being made of this. For us it’s simple: we are starting again from the beginning. As we’ve said, 30 years ago is a long time. We are building a business that has a very strong foundation. If it takes us 10 years to get back to the heights where we were before, I will be delighted. One thing I’ve said, when we get there this time, we won’t be going away. So we don’t want to make any false starts, doing things too quickly. Nothing could be more foolish. The thought that we could step out in our first season at MLS level and be a winner on and off the field, would be absurd. So we made the decision that [the North American Soccer League] is the right place for us to start again.

So we haven’t ruled out MLS, but we haven’t ‘ruled it in,’ if that’s the word. We’re going to look at it. Right now, we had other priorities for our capital as to what we wanted to do in building the club, and that’s what we’re going to do. As for MLS and what they want to do, I can’t really speak to that.”

  1. dfstell - Feb 3, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    I’ve said before……I love what the Cosmos are doing. For a team that hasn’t played in 30 years, I’m very interested in them. I have a ticket plan with the Railhawks and will be SURE to be at the game when they first visit. And I probably won’t be the only one. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Railhawks get a crowd comparable to what they got when the Galaxy and Chivas visited during the Open Cup.

    What I think is cool is how MLS has provided a stable base for American soccer. Now we can let the NASL and USL teams screw around with different models that may or may not work. Maybe the Cosmos overspend on player salaries and implode just the way they did last time? Who cares? We’ll still have MLS playing the slow-n-steady tortoise providing stability to our professional soccer. On the other hand, if Cosmos do something big and bold and SUCCEED, then they’ll have provided something that raises everything. This is a total “no lose” for American soccer.

    I don’t mean this to sound disparaging toward MLS because I like their product and appreciate the league, but they’re a little like The Borg and it’s nice to see some smaller clubs who have aspirations other than joining The Borg.

    • deeks2 - Feb 3, 2013 at 3:02 PM

      But the Cosmos have no other choice but to join the Borg. Otherwise there is no point coming back as a minor league team. That is why this is one big joke. The Cosmos are just using the NASL and everyone can see it.

      You really think you’ll draw over 7k to see the Cosmos?
      Pele isn’t going to show up. Just Carlos Mendes and some backup keeper. Maybe you are, but I doubt people in Cary, NC are that desperate and starved for entertainment.

      • wesbadia - Feb 4, 2013 at 8:46 AM

        “The Cosmos are just using the NASL and everyone can see it.”

        From their comments, so are Indianapolis, NoVA, San Antonio, and a couple others as well. USL has their fair share of “Aim High; Aim MLS” teams, too. I hardly think you can fault the Cosmos as being a “joke” because they’re looking to use a lower division as a stepping stone to get to the top tier league. Arguably, you can say the same about Orlando City and VSI Tampa.

        The real difference here is the attitude and mentality of the league those teams are playing in. On the one hand, you have the USL who is voluntarily cooperating with MLS and is embracing their status of 3rd Division by being completely open to MLS ushering in some of their teams in the future. On the other hand, you have the NASL whose leadership has made it quite blatantly known that they are gunning to be “more than a 2nd Division ‘development league'”. That is a declaration of war on the part of NASL leadership. Fortunately, their teams don’t seem to be buying into that, and that spells very, VERY bad news in the future if NASL’s business model (as dfstell said above) doesn’t prove better than MLS’s.

  2. deeks2 - Feb 3, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    Sorry Steve, but these were not “three good” questions. Folks really want to cut through the bs the Cosmos like to spew and get down to the facts. Enough with the Cosmos fantasy from 35 years ago. Only the last question had any value.

    Here is what I would have asked.

    #1 – Do you really have $450 mill of foreign money to build a stadium in Long Isalnd like you are claiming? And if you had that, why didn’t you just pay the MLS franchise fee and buy the new Queens stadium instead of one outside of NYC? Why come back as a minor league team out in Long Island and hurt your brand? You could of built the team and played exhibitions until 2016.

    #2 – Are you just trying to play hardball with MLS? Only recently did you stop mentioning them. What changed? What will you do when MLS builds their new NYC stadium? MLS says the a new team in NYC will start in 2016. And if you are not that club?

    #3 – You state a lot of different things about your goals and it is hard to follow. You claim the Cosmos will play at the highest level in the U.S. But don’t say MLS. Well Seamus, MLS is the highest level in the U.S. and is not going anywhere. So what are you trying to tell your fans who want you as a major league club? You do realize most folks think you are just trying to play games with MLS. But If you wish to challenge MLS, then please come out and say it. I am sure the rest of the NASL clubs will be thrilled to learn they are now in a war against MLS they have no chance of winning and will be their death.

    • Steve Davis - Feb 3, 2013 at 3:24 PM

      Its certainly fair to be critical of me here … to say I should have pushed more aggressively. And the questions you propose are reasonable (although I did ask 2 and 3 in some sense, in slightly different forms; I asked more like 5-6 questions and picked the best ones).
      But I think a lot of readers of this blog aren’t quite as informed on the Cosmos as you obviously are. Combine that with the newness here … meaning I’m willing to provide more wiggle room, since the club is still figuring things out and since we haven’t watched how the organization operates. Benefit of the doubt is OK with me initially … until you show me otherwise.
      There certainly might be a time to press harder … but in my opinion, we just aren’t there yet.
      But as I always say, “Journalism is more art than science, and on our best days, we still get some of it wrong.”

      • wesbadia - Feb 4, 2013 at 8:53 AM

        There’s the other side of the “newness” thing from a journalistic perspective. That is, if you come out swinging in your first few interviews with a new personality, you wind up burning bridges and shooting yourself in the foot in the future because no one wants to spend time being interviewed by someone whom didn’t respect them enough to give the benefit of the doubt when they were making their debut and subsequent rise.

        Best journalistic policy in this case: let O’Brien say what he wants now and report truthfully; if the actions of O’Brien and the Cosmos don’t materialize in the purported manner, or if they change their tune at some point from what they’ve been singing for months or years… bust open the can at that point and hammer him with the hard ones. Steve is right — art trumps science here.

      • Steve Davis - Feb 4, 2013 at 2:10 PM

        Yup … what he said. (I kinda didn’t want to talk about that part because it can come across as cynical, like we’re waiting for a chance to pounce. But, yes, you have let things play out a little.)

  3. pjbowmaster - Feb 3, 2013 at 7:50 PM

    Didn’t the NASL Commissioner recently make some comments about competing against the new MLS/USL partnership? Could we have an NFL/AFL situation brewing. It’s a big country. (Actually 2 counties) And MLS won’t grow that fast……

    • valiantdraws - Feb 4, 2013 at 1:27 PM

      Actually, FIFA will not let that happen. NASL will always be the second tier. They will always be a step below. Few sports have governing bodies like FIFA. The NASL commissioner is smoking crack if that’s what be believes.

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