Some action from the Cosmos-Al-Hilal match last week. (Photo courtesy of Al-Hilal FC)
By Michael Lewis
The Cosmos play their first competitive match Saturday night since their trip to Saudi Arabia last week.
Given the Cosmos’ challenges on and off the field this year, the Middle East venture begs the question: was it needed?
While it was a goodwill trip, the long journey and friendly against Al-Hilal FC occurred during the North American Soccer League season as the Cosmos postponed one home game and rejuggled their home schedule for the first week of June.
In terms of significance, the Saudi Arabia trip was nowhere near the ground-breaking and historic visit to Cuba two years ago, when the Cosmos became the first American sports team to perform on the Caribbean island in a couple of decades and the first professional soccer team to play down there since the Chicago Sting in 1978.
This Cosmos team, however, is in a different place, a precarious one, you might say.
The team is trying to capture a new audience in their new home at MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn and are trying to become a force again in the North American Soccer League. They already were forced to move their game against Puerto Rico FC Saturday, May 13 to Sunday due to an unplayable field because of torrential rain.
The Al-Hilal FC game — which ended in a scoreless draw, by the way — forced the Cosmos to restructure their league schedule. They moved the FC Edmonton home game from Saturday, May 21 to Wednesday, June 7. It became a domino effect as they pushed their North Carolina FC home encounter from Friday, June 9 to Saturday, June 10. The Cosmos host Puerto Rico FC at MCU June 16.
Translated: three home games in 10-day span and four matches in 13 days.
How healthy are three consecutive home soccer games in 10 days? Guess we’ll find out
The Cosmos are averaging 4,040 for their opening three home games this season, good for fourth in the league (they averaged 3,451 at Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University in 2016). Their home opener, which drew 6,204, has accounted for more than half their home attendance.
(In case you were wondering, the league average is 4,581 with Indy Eleven leading the way at 7,697, followed by Miami FC (6,847) and North Carolina FC (4,855). The expansion San Francisco Deltas, who are New York’s opponents at MCU Saturday night, bring up the rear at 2,844).
It might be wise for the team to stay at home and shore things up domestically because crowds and results in the NASL will help determine their fate (yes, I know they will play Valencia of Spain in Regina, Canada July 22, but that is a warm-up match for the fall season and won’t wreak havoc with the schedule).
During a May 11 conference call, I posed questions to Cosmos owner Rocco B. Commisso and head coach Giovanni Savarese about whether switching of games would affect the team’s health in attendance by playing so many home games in a rather short period of time and forcing the team to play several matches over a short span.
“It’s not unusual that clubs play two games a week,” Commisso said. “So, we’re not playing more than two games a week. We’re playing two. During the heat of the season, we haven’t played two games during a specific week. So, we’re getting into the heat of the season. Frankly, for spectators, it’s better for us to go to MCU Park in the month of June than the month of April.”
At the time of the conference call, it was not known that the Cosmos would lose their Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup match to an amateur side, Reading United AC, 3-2, May 17. It was the first time the Cosmos were eliminated in the competition by an amateur team. Usually, they were ousted by a Major League Soccer club, such as the Red Bulls or Philadelphia Union.
A day after one of their most humiliating defeats in club history – past or present — they departed for Saudi Arabia.
Saverese was asked about playing so many games over a short period of time.
“I think we have to look at first that we have been invited to an important match,” he said. “I think it was a match we couldn’t let it pass because of the invitation that we received and being the fact we are the New York Cosmos. And this club in the past history has always been representative, an important club for the United States. This was from the standpoint a very important opportunity for us to represent the United States once again.
“Of course, with this decision, games get moved and [we’re] trying to make sure they fall into the right place. It’s definitely going to be a busy month, let’s say a busy two months. We’ll try to figure a way to be able to manage it and to get the best out of it. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of matches and we hope the players will be healthy the entire two months.”
Who knows? Being on a plane for two long flights might help the team bond and come together to become a dominant NASL side again.
That could help boost attendance at MCU and make the team more relevant (hmm, what do you call a reverse domino effect? Momentum).
But at the present time, there are many more questions than answers.
That 10-day period in June may provide us with some invaluable insight.