The world-class 25,000-seat, $400 million Long Island stadium proposed by the New York Cosmos last week raises questions about the ambitions of the Cosmos and the second division North American Soccer League (NASL), in which they'll play in 2013.
The Belmont Park stadium is a potential venue for World Cup and Olympic qualifying matches for the U.S. national teams, international exhibition games, U.S. Open Cup matches and NCAA games. In fact, the proposed stadium seems a lot more like a first division facility than a second division venue, particularly as Major League Soccer's D.C. United and New England Revolution don't even have their own stadiums. Furthermore, MLS has been trying to install a second franchise in NYC with a $300 million stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to rival the New York Red Bulls, but without visible results.
“We plan to develop an iconic project for the region and build a state-of-the-art stadium that will make Nassau County and the entire region proud,” said Seamus O’Brien, Chairman and investor of the New York Cosmos.
Last summer, O'Brien entered the re-emerging Cosmos, owned by Saudi Arabia-based Sela Sport, in NASL to begin play in the second half of 2013 with home games at Hofstra University. At the time, NASL CEO and Traffic Sports USA president Aaron Davidson told me that the Cosmos will "lead the league through the second stage of evolution and growth," indicating higher ambitions for NASL. Davidson also said that the nine-team league, entering it's third year of operation in 2013, will stand at 14 teams by 2014 and continue to expand.
"Every pro league in North America needs 30-plus teams in order to make pro soccer relevant across the region," said Davidson.
Will NASL compete with MLS?
Rumors are swirling that NASL may compete for dominance with MLS, recently harshly criticized by FIFA president Sepp Blatter on December 28.
"[The USA has] no very strong professional league, they have just the MLS," said Blatter. "They have not professional leagues that are recognized by the American society. It is a question of time, I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994, but now we are 18 years in and it should have been done now. They are still struggling.”
But Davidson's standards for a second division team may simply be closer to Blatter's concept of a second division league in the richest country in the world. If that quality makes MLS look like a second division league, then it's up to MLS to double-down on progress to achieve the international standards of an elite first division league. While the quality of some MLS teams has grown by leaps and bounds and beautiful new stadiums and passionate fans groups have emerged and officiating improved, the overall quality of player still hold the league back and TV ratings are not what they should be. MLS has tight salary caps, no free agency, spring-to-fall schedule, no promotion/relegation, rewards for under-performing teams and all of these areas are opportunities for improvement.
Davidson has strongly advocated clarity and cooperation between the various U.S. divisions and development systems and more player movement between the leagues, as done throughout the rest of the world.
"People should be thrilled about what we’re doing with NASL and the second division," said Davidson. "Everyone needs to know their role in the game in this country and we’re going to have to work really hard to define the role of the youth clubs, amateur clubs, fourth division, third division, second division and first division. People need to feel like they’re part of the system."
The Cosmos stadium complex proposal
The NY Cosmos submitted an economic development proposal to the State of New York for a stadium at Elmont Town Crossing complete with nine new restaurants, 250,000 square feet of retail space, a 175-room hotel, a Cosmos museum, and a new 4.3 acre public park for the community at a cost of over $400 million. A soccer field will be built at the park and be open to local soccer teams, with the Cosmos also providing $2.5 million for development of community soccer fields.
If approved, shovels will break ground in 2014, and the stadium would be completed and ready for play in spring 2016 with the retail portion opening in fall 2015. The project would create more than 500 construction jobs and over 3,000 full-time permanent jobs, which certainly makes local officials very excited about the Cosmos and their proposal.
“The NY Cosmos plan is a big win for Belmont and Elmont," said Sandra Smith, Chair of the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development. "Their proposal revitalizes our community, creates jobs and expands the tax base. I can only think of one word to describe a plan that brings soccer, shopping, a community park and hotel to Elmont: GOAL!"
Supporting the community
Achieving public support by supporting the public with needs such as athletic fields for children is key in a failing economy with massive unemployment and foreclosures and school funding cuts. Connecting community youth soccer to the professional game is also critical. While soccer is the No. 1 youth sport in the United States, the high cost of proper club development prices the vast majority of the population out of the competitive game at even the youngest age groups, where the critical development takes place.
“We are 100 percent behind the Cosmos," said Elmont Memorial High School Principal John Capozzi. "Our community thrives on soccer. Bringing professional soccer and a field for our kids to play on to Elmont would mean the world to us.”
Sponsors are also taking NASL seriously. In August, Toyota - which also has its name on MLS Chicago Fire's Toyota Park - acquired naming rights for the NASL San Antonio Scorpions' new stadium as part of a large sponsorship deal.
Blatter's remarks and NASL's surge are likely not a surprise to MLS, which is home to elite sports marketing executives and technical experts. MLS is a competitive, organized vehicle cutting through a tide of existing U.S. sports with measurable success and fully intends to remain the U.S. first division. The competitive challenge is the natural state of MLS. There are team owners and investors within MLS who also want to push forward towards elite international standards. In 2013, MLS will reveal a competitive response to these new challenges by the New York Cosmos, NASL and Blatter, which aren't going away.
"To be frank," O'Brien told ESPN, "I don't know where MLS is at, but it won't affect us in what we want to do."
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