Since the day I found Gavin Newsham’s book Once in a Lifetime sitting on my brother’s bookshelf of football non-fiction, I’ve fallen in love with the story of the New York Cosmos. For those unfamiliar with the story of the Cosmos, a bit of history first. This was the buccaneering North American Soccer League (NASL) club who transformed from a city-based amateur team to football’s answer to ‘Beatlemania’. Nevermind, Real Madrid’s Galacticos, New York Cosmos were the first real all-star team. The NASL was a thriving and rapidly growing league and the Cosmos were becoming the headline act of it, boasting players such as Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and the man who launched the club and the league into the limelight almost single-handedly, Pele. There was also a Welsh football link to the club with arguably the greatest player in Cosmos history being the irascible and remarkably egotistical Giorgio Chinaglia, a former youth team player with Swansea City. Swansea manager John Davies released the wild child Chinaglia following his off field antics, but Swansea’s loss would be Lazio and the Cosmos’ gain as he was named the former’s greatest ever player in 2000 and became the Cosmos and the NASL’s all-time top goalscorer with 243 goals.
The funds to afford such extravagant purchases came from the godfather of US football and the president of Warner Communications, Steve Ross, who had help launch the club in 1971 with company executives Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. After recruiting General Manager Clive Toye, the club truly began to take off and by the mid-1970s, after the club finally completed their barely believable capture of Pele, the Cosmos were filling the imperious Giants Stadium to its 77,000 capacity. However, following Pele’s retirement in 1977 the Cosmos and the NASL went into freefall and headed towards financial meltdown. New York Cosmos were the embodiment of the glitz and glamour years of the NASL, yet they were also the greatest example of how a club could soar so high and fall so far so quickly. As Rodney Marsh put it: “The New York Cosmos were the best and worst of what American Soccer was all about.”
1984 saw the eventual folding of the New York Cosmos and as an onfield presence they vanished; however, thanks to former general manager Peppe Pinton, the name lived on, although calls to relaunch the franchise during the nascent years of the MLS were quashed by Pinton who would not sell the name and image rights to the club as he felt the heritage of the club would be tarnished by the MLS. Eventually, in August 2009, Pinton dropped his defensive stance and sold the rights to an English consortium headed by former Spurs vice-chairman Paul Kemsley, businessman Terry Byrne and former Liverpool CEO Rick Parry with the aim of relaunching the Cosmos.
So why on earth have I rambled on about the history of a defunct New York ‘soccer’ team and its phoenix-esque rising from the ashes? As you’ve probably worked out, it has something to do with Welsh football. To be more specific, it relates to a former Swansea City striker: whatever happened to Swansea’s former Venezuelan striker Giovani Savarse? Well, he’s the man charged with taking the mythical Cosmos back to the big time.
‘Who on earth is Giovani Savarese?’ I hear you many of you ask. For one thing, I can guarantee that fans of North American football will not be asking that question; Savarese is a bit of a legend in the US soccer circles.
Savarese was born in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas in 1971, but by 1990 Savarese would move to America to play ‘football at Long Island University. This was to be the start of the Venezuelan striker’s ascendancy to becoming one of the first great stars of the MLS and a benchmark for all strikers playing in North America to follow.
1996 would see the formation of the MetroStars (the original name of the New York Red Bulls) ready for the maiden season of the MLS. The first squad in the franchise’s history would be made up of legends of the game such as goalkeeper Tony Meola and Italian midfielder Roberto Donadoni as well as being managed by former Cosmos coach Eddie Firmani. However, it was to be the relatively unknown Venezuelan striker, who the club signed in the 9th round of the first ever MLS player draft, who would go onto be the first star of the team. Savarese had a good goalscoring record at lesser clubs, Greek America AA and the brilliantly named Long Island Rough Riders, but it was at the New York-based club where the Venezuelan would first make a name for himself in world football. The MetroStars’ life would begin with a 2-1 loss to LA Galaxy, but Savarese would enter the history books by scoring the only goal for the MetroStars that day and with it becoming the club’s first ever goalscorer; this was to be the first of many.
Savarese would go onto be a true fan favourite and a real cult hero with the MetroStars, notching up 41 league goals in 85 games. However, after three seasons at the club, Savarese found himself frequenting the bench more and more often and much to the outrage of the club’s fans, Savarese was traded to New England Revolution. Savarese would score 10 goals for his new MLS club, although his spell in New England was to be the trigger for a truly nomadic football career. Firstly, Savarese would move back to Venezuela (he would finish his career with 10 goals for his home nation from 30 caps) to join Deportivo Táchira for one season in 1999, before heading to Europe.
Savarese’s travails around Europe would begin in Italy with Serie A club Perugia, although after making zero appearances for the club he was loaned out to Serie C1 club Viterbese. America came calling once again as Savarese went back over the pond to play for the San Jose Earthquakes during mid-season, but after going goalless for 4 games Savarese was heading back to Europe; more specifically, South Wales.
Division Three champions Swansea City had made a slow start to life in Division Two, especially in front of goal. Manager John Hollins signed Savarese from San Jose in the hope that he’d add firepower to the Swans misfiring attack. The 2000/01 season was a tough year for the Swans as they never really truly adapted to the higher level, only winning a measly 8 games and scoring just 47 goals in the 46 game calendar. The Swans were promptly relegated back to Division Three, finishing in 23rd place with only Oxford United below them in the league. Individually, the season was quite a successful one for Savarese, who proved himself to be an accomplished goal poacher by finishing the season with 11 goals in 33 appearances. Savarese immediately made a good impression on the Jack Army by scoring braces against Stoke and Bristol City early on in his Swans career, as well as netting a hatrick at Kenilworth Road in February 2001 in Swansea’s 5-3 loss to Luton. Like so many other players that have played for the club, Savarese had clearly enjoyed his time with the Swans, especially when you look over his career stats; following his successful spell at MetroStars, Savarese played for 10 clubs – it was only at Swansea that he managed to play the best part of a season and reach the 30 appearances mark. Swansea fans regularly wheel out the ‘grass isn’t always greener on the other side’ saying to lament the many players that depart the club for supposedly bigger and better things yet struggle to recapture their Swansea form; arguably the saying could also apply to Savarese.
Swansea’s relegation prompted Savarese to move on once again and this time he would end up at Millwall. Limited opportunities would stop the Venezuelan striker having any sort of impact at the New Den and once his three-month contract expired he decided to depart Millwall, after only making 1 appearance for the club. Another sojourn back to Venezuela to play 22 games for Deportivo Italchacao was followed by another move to Italy, where Savarese played 1 game for Sassari Torres, before his career came full circle as he ended up back at the Long Island Rough Riders. After 5 goals in 10 games for the team where it all began to take off for Savarese, he called time on his career and became head of youth development for the MetroStars. As the MetroStars became the New York Red Bulls Savarese would retain his role before moving onto one of world football’s most exciting projects: the rebirth of the New York Cosmos.
The Cosmos name would fall into the new regime in 2009, but it was not until August 2010 that the club was supposedly back in a true football club format. Kemsley would bring in a star lineup of names to help relaunch the Cosmos brand with footballing names such as US football star Cobi Jones coming in as a club ambassador, Pele as honorary president and, perhaps most exciting of all, Eric Cantona as ‘Director of Soccer’. An all-out market assault was launched with the Cosmos brand resonating on billboards everywhere, but the problem was that the Cosmos remained a brand and not a football team. Essentially, Kemsley was running a club with no team, no stadium and no real financial backing. The club would not truly take off until the arrival of Seamus O’ Brien – the man who would take over the ownership of the Cosmos from Kemsley. Unlike the more bombastic brand-heavy approach to the club from Kemlsey, O’ Brien stated that his mission objective was to bring the Cosmos to the MLS, but instead he has decided to let the Cosmos grow naturally in the familiar surroundings of the modern day, rejuvenated NASL. A large part of the NY Cosmos’ new club ethos has centres on youth development, something which Savarese had played a huge part in. However, Savarese links to the club’s youth setup would be cut as the Venezuelan was made the first head coach of the new incarnation of the New York Cosmos in November 2012.
American ‘soccer’ does not have a promotion/relegation system and the only way to join the MLS is through election. Obviously the Cosmos have a lot of history behind them and generating a fanbase should be easier than it is for most American teams; the same should be true of the club generating sponsorship; the Cosmos are in the process of planning to build a ‘soccer-specific stadium’, one of the key criterion for entering the MLS; it is now up to Savarese to produce a footballing side worthy of the Cosmos name. Recently, Savarese has been holding trials around the boroughs of New York as he searches for some hidden footballing gems amongst the Big Apple populus. To further attract players and the public, Savarese has claimed that his team’s style of football will be based on the Barcelona model.
It has been no secret that MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been eyeing up franchises to be MLS club number 20 and with his repeated rhetoric on how he felt that New York needed another team to compete with the Red Bulls, it was beginning to sound like that Savarese’s Cosmos could well become an MLS franchise in the near future. However, with the recent announcement of the formation of a new New York club, New York City FC (backed by the same money men behind Manchester City), which will become the MLS’ 20th franchise, it throws a certain amount of doubt on the Cosmos’ chance of becoming a MLS franchise; although there is hope in Garber once saying that he felt that New York could possibly house three MLS franchises.
Savarese was a truly itinerant footballer, but of all the places outside the US, it seemed like Savarese was most at home at SA1, a theory perhaps proven by the fact that he actually remained and played for Swansea for practically an entire season. It is incredible to think that the South American striker who graced the Vetch for one season is now heading up and leading the rebuilding of one of football’s greatest relics. All the best to Savarese and the New York Cosmos as they prepare for their first season back in the NASL beginning in August.