For New York Cosmos, Red Bull roots run (and cut) deep

IMAGE, DAVE MARTINEZ, EMPIRE OF SOCCER

COMMENTARY: The New York Cosmos’ U.S. Open Cup match against the Red Bulls means more than simply challenging a cross town rival, representing the flag of NASL or even securing a CONCACAF Champions League spot.

In many ways, it’s personal.

From the front office to the stands, the Cosmos are comprised, at their root, of former Red Bull personnel and fans. You see them on the executive level. They are present in the team’s ticket sales department. They wear the uniform in week-to-week competition.

Some left on good terms. Many left in agony, making motivation an afterthought for this weekend’s encounter.

You can start at the top. Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover ushered in the Red Bull Arena era — just as he has the New York Cosmos reboot. As a Managing Director for the Red Bulls, he oversaw a mostly prosperous period which included a run at the 2008 MLS Cup and the building of Red Bull Arena — considered to be, by many, the jewel of all North American soccer stadiums.

An abrupt and unexpected front office purge saw the popular Stover and a host of other Red Bull executives and front office members lose their jobs. Officially, his departure was labeled a “resignation,” but there was little doubt that the club wanted to go a different direction now that their “infrastructure guru” served his purpose.

Several reports at the time cited an uncomfortable breakup between Stover and the organization. It was clear he was not a soccer-person when hired in 2008. His experience ranged from managing Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to filling the VP of Operations role at Giants Stadium. By 2011, however, Stover earned the respect of many of his peers and proved himself as a soccer-guy in this new era in Harrison.

His chance to make his case never came to fruition.

Head coach Giovanni Savarese was in a similar situation. While many may have forgotten, the Metrostars legend laid the foundation for what is now America’s premier development program; Red Bull Academy. As the Director of Youth Soccer and Player Development, Savarese constructed the Academy model in 2007 — a time when MLS was barren of such infrastructure. In fact, the Venezuelan striker often said he hoped his plans would serve as a model for the entire league to follow suit.

In many ways, it did. However, Red Bull took the decision to terminate him just as the program was set to take off. It was an ugly break up that Savarese made clear was a decision taken by the organization — not him.

The team’s roster has several familiar faces — but few hurt feelings. Carlos Mendes and Hunter Freeman anchor an NASL best defense, leading the club towards all of three goals against in nine matches. Mendes in particular was a fan favorite over his seven years with the club. In fact, he still holds lofty records in Harrison in all-time appearances (146), minutes played (third place, 11,498) and starts (third, 128).

Along with those two players, Jimmy Maurer has been outstanding in net this season. Not familiar with him? He was a 2011 Supplemental Draft pick whom then coach Hans Backe never even brought into training camp. He has gone on to feature and start for the Silverbacks and Cosmos — even enjoying a stint with Chile’s Universidad de Concepción. Despite all of that, the Backe-shun may still be in the back of his mind.

Finally, there are perhaps the most motivated members of this rivalry — the fans. The Five Pointz are sprinkled with people who either threw down their colors when Red Bull took over the Metrostars or those who simply soured on the satellite management style of the Austrian based ownership group. When the Cosmos announced their re-emergence, several supporters from the Red Bull camp shifted allegiance as well, making for a deep familiarity — and disdain — amongst the supporters group.

Even if the Red Bulls do trot out a mostly reserve-laden side, the Cosmos will not be deterred. As Savarese and the rest of the team have stated, this game has less to do with the names on the back of the jersey than the shield on the front.

CONCACAF Champions League is a fine prize. Representing the second division is a nice touch as well. However, make no mistake about it; for the Cosmos, Saturday’s encounter at Shuart Stadium will be about pride, respect — and a touch of revenge.