Before the New York Cosmos unveiled the club’s sponsorship deal with Emirates at the Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan last month, in a room packed with virtually every soccer journalist in New York City, the rumor floating around among those in attendance was that the Cosmos would take the opportunity to also announce a major player acquisition. Not only had the club promised the presence of honorary president Pele at the press conference –presumably there to share the good news – but Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl had reported a few days prior that they had agreed terms with Villareal’s veteran Spanish midfielder, Marcos Senna.
No such announcement was made by the club, so by the time the press conference opened to question, one reporter performed his due diligence and asked if there had been any developments on the Senna front. Head coach Giovanni Savarese took the opportunity to respond with a classic managerial non-answer, informing everyone that “Marcos Senna is at Villarreal” and describing him as “a player that I think would do well for any team.”
Of course, the Cosmos announced Senna’s signing several days later, undoubtedly the biggest personnel move in the brief history of the club’s new incarnation. It wasn’t until this past week, though, that Senna arrived in New York to start training for the club’s first competitive North American Soccer League match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on August 3. The question now is what the addition of Senna really means for the Cosmos – as both an on-field, footballing entity and, perhaps more importantly, as an enterprise attempting to (re)establish its name in the American soccer landscape.
The on-field aspect is more fun to ruminate on as a fan, and also much more straightforward. Senna turns 37 on July 17; he fits nothing if not the profile of the former European star who’s seeing out the twilight of his career in the States. The injuries have accumulated as he’s gotten older – even at the Emirates press conference, a few in the room openly questioned how Senna’s knees would hold up on the artificial surface of Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium, where the Cosmos will play their home games. In his prime, though, Senna was not only one of the steeliest midfielders on the continent, but also one of the most dynamic.
He was the anchor of Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph, a historic victory for a Spanish national side that, at the time, were still trophy-less underdogs riding a crest of realized potential to the pinnacle of the sport. He was the “1” in Luis Aragones’ 4-1-3-2 system; a holding player disciplined enough to carry the defensive burden for an otherwise slight midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva, simultaneously skilled enough on the ball to play within the tiki-taka style that would go on to revolutionize the sport. Senna spent over a decade at Villarreal, including five years under new Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini that saw the Yellow Submarine achieve unprecedented success – a Champions League semifinal in 2006 and an incredible, second-place La Liga finish in 2008. He was indispensable to those Pellegrini squads, his exceptional passing rendering him as vital an influence creatively as he was defensively. And even with his age and injuries, the club’s all-time leader in appearances remained important at Villarreal through this past season, making 33 appearances in the Segunda Division and helping the club secure a return to La Liga.
So yes, the Cosmos just acquired a 37-year-old midfielder who’s at least five years past his prime, expecting his creaky knees to grind out half the season on artificial turf. They’ve also acquired about an immensely talented player who just played 30+ games in the Spanish second division, proving that he can still cut it in a league that’s significantly more challenging than the NASL. If Senna manages to stay healthy, he’ll easily be the Cosmos’ best player.
Where the problem lies is what the Senna signing is supposed to mean for the Cosmos as an organization, and that’s where questions about the club’s brand and identity come into play.
Ever since the Designated Player Rule transformed Major League Soccer into a competition that could command the services of some of the game’s most visible (and expensive) players, the arrival of a former European star at an MLS club has usually been interpreted as a sign of growth and progress for that club and, in turn, the league at large. Though they’re not subjected to the Designated Player Rule as an NASL team, there’s almost no doubt that the Cosmos view the Senna deal this very way. And perhaps they should; ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported that Senna turned down several La Liga offers to come to New York, and the Cosmos are believed to be paying him a salary equivalent to what the average MLS designated player earns – a number well into six figures annually.
That’s a significant investment for a club like the Cosmos, one with limited revenue streams playing in a secondary league. It’s not going to bankrupt the club by any stretch of the imagination, but the point is that the Cosmos are paying MLS money for a player whose very employment is meant to help legitimize their status as a major players on the American soccer scene. It’s a status that – as of now, having yet to start competition in an eight-team league with little-to-no national exposure – is simply unwarranted.
Look, Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien has repeatedly emphasized his desire to return the club to “the top” of the sport in North America; it’s a point he made several times at the Emirates press conference last month, and an admirable one at that. Senna’s arrival only reinforces a squad comprised mostly of unknowns, and while hardly registering with casual fans or the national media, the signing has at least piqued the interest of the die-hards and soccer nerds. Senna’s only on a 1 ½-year deal and is a huge addition for the NASL, automatically becoming one of the league’s marquee players. And nobody, least of all O’Brien, would claim that the Cosmos are the finished article, ready to compete against the likes of their Red Bull neighbors in New Jersey.
But beyond a short-term window that may indeed pay immediate dividends, it’s hard to see how the Senna deal in any way indicates the sort of future O’Brien envisions for the club. “The top” of the sport in North America is MLS, and the Cosmos missed that train not long ago. O’Brien can praise the NASL all he wants, touting the league’s plans to soon expand to 12 teams, and eventually 18 teams by 2018, but Marcos Senna will be long gone by then and the MLS will only be bigger, better and richer. The Cosmos could even build that privately funded, 25,000-seat stadium in Belmont Park that would allow them to them leave Hofstra and play in a home of their own, but they’ll still be all the way out in Long Island while the Red Bulls and Man-kees enjoy close proximity to the heart of New York City.
The Cosmos are right to dream of the pinnacle – of once more warranting their place as “the most iconic club in American soccer,” as the club calls itself. But as cool as it is that Marcos Senna will be playing his soccer in New York this fall, it seems just the latest attempt by the Cosmos to present themselves as something they’re not: a force to be reckoned with by the sport, a team poised to take over the game once more. But for now, at least, they’re just another minor league soccer team.