New York area soccer fans haven’t had much to cheer about recently. But all that could change this weekend as both of the area’s active professional soccer teams could claim silverware. The New York Red Bulls, long a laughing stock of Major League Soccer, are one win away from claiming the Supporters Shield (MLS Regular Season title), while the revived New York Cosmos are a single point away from claiming the NASL Fall Season title and a berth in the Soccer Bowl that determines the NASL Champion for the 2013 season.
Beginning life in 1996 as the Metrostars, the New Jersey-based MLS club has never won a single piece of silverware. Despite the influx of great international talent such as Roberto Donadoni, Branco, Lothar Matthäus, Youri Djorkaeff, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, and Tim Cahill, the Metrostars/Red Bulls have failed to achieve any honors. The fact that Red Bulls chief MLS rival DC United have won 13 trophies since 1996 adds to the complicated existence of a Red Bulls fan.
The hiring of Mike Petke, one of the few true heroes of the lamentable Metrostars era, as Head Coach of the Red Bulls excited the fan base of the club. Petke understands the psyche of the American player unlike so many previous foreign coaches the organization has hired before him, and knows the league well enough to master the rules. Petke’s hiring is the single biggest reason the Red Bulls have gone from classic underachievers to top of the heap in Major League Soccer.
Across the metropolitan area on Long Island sit the revived New York Cosmos. The Cosmos sit just one point away from a berth in the NASL Soccer Bowl, a remarkable achievement for a club that was mocked by many as simply being an apparel brand until they actually kicked a ball in a competitive match two months ago. The Cosmos’s decision to join the second-division NASL was met with much scrutiny but has proven to be the proper recipe to revive the dormant brand and make it relevant again.
Much has been made that Cosmos have played just half the NASL season, playing in the fall while the league crowns a champion for both the Fall and Spring based on the results of both competitions. It’s important to note that the Cosmos didn’t ask to be able to simply play in the Fall Season. The NASL knew that the Cosmos would not be ready for the Spring Season but allowed New York to compete in the second half of the season. The NASL’s split-season format had much promise but is proving to be almost unworkable. The different number of teams in 2013, where the Fall Season will been won by a team that did not compete in the Spring Season but is now eligible for the overall annual title, is one issue. This will be replaced by a different set of issues next season: a different number of games in 2014 — ten games in the Spring Season and twenty games in the Fall Season. Yet both seasons are weighted equally in determining Soccer Bowl participation in 2014.
So perhaps the Cosmos were even a bit hamstrung because they did not have the luxury of the ramp up for the Fall Season that the seven teams they competed with had. Or as many have theorized, they were able to save money on players that the competition was forced to spend and bought a better team on less wages for the Fall. In either event, the Cosmos are likely headed to the Soccer Bowl.
If the Red Bulls and Cosmos win this weekend, ghosts of the past will be erased — the Metrostars/Red Bulls ghosts of failure and the Cosmos ghosts of not playing for almost thirty years. Neutrals love to hate New York, but many in an unguarded moment will admit this week they are pulling for both New York teams.