What do the New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos have in common?
A lot, actually.
With five games remaining in the 2013 season, the Red Bulls are tops of the Eastern Conference and a single point away from the Supporters Shield title. Likewise, the expansion Cosmos find themselves in sole-possession of first place at the halfway point of the NASL Fall Championship with a one point lead in the standings over the Rowdies, Railhawks and this weekends opponent, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
While the unlikely nature of their lofty accomplishments are similarity enough, there is much more to the parallels between the clubs than just wins, losses, geographical markets and the occasional familiar face.
The minute the 2012 season ended, an irate Red Bull Director of Global Soccer Gerard Houllier dropped the hammer on New York’s roster, immediately cutting 10 players the morning after the team’s playoff ouster while plotting the eventual dismissal of Rafa Marquez and the trade of Sebastian Le Toux. Kenny Cooper, the team’s top goalscorer in 2012, was being floated in the market while aged superstars like Brazil’s Juninho Pernambucano came into focus.
Overall, eleven players from the 2012 season are still wearing Red Bull colors, meaning the club has hired more players (18) than they have retained.
Meanwhile, the Cosmos have taken on 28 complete strangers and put them into a roster since signing Carlos Mendes December of last year. That includes players of 11 different nationalities, speaking seven different languages, spanning five of the seven continents. The majority of those acquisitions occurred mere months prior to their season opener against Fort Lauderdale (August 3rd). Of the 28, only two had ever played on the same team together (Carlos Mendes and Hunter Freeman).
Rookie BossesWith the tempest of player movement engulfing both organizations, one would think an experienced coach would be found to guide either ship.
Not so fast.
After an exhaustive search that saw three other capable, experienced candidates pass over the position, the New York Red Bulls settled on team folk hero, Mike Petke. Despite being an assistant to Hans Backe over the course of two seasons, the Long Island native came into the position with little hands-on coaching knowledge. His lone experience at the helm saw him play the part of sacrificial lamb, leading a short-handed C-squad into U.S. Open Cup slaughter as the team’s coach stayed behind to tend to the first team.
Hardly a resume stuffer, that.
Still, an eager Petke ignored the process of his selection and focused instead on the opportunity.
Likewise, the Cosmos found a hero of their own under somewhat similar circumstances. Giovanni Savarese was the lone front office holdover from the Paul Kemsley era to the new Seamus O’Brien led Cosmos. Like Petke over in Harrison, Savarese had new bosses to show for. He had already grown to be a fan favorite amongst the small contingent of followers that had already begun the drive to make the Cosmos “their” club. While he played a vital part in their early coaching and developmental efforts, Savarese wasn’t the first choice for the new Cosmos position. He, like many others, had to prove himself to the new bosses.
An impassioned presentation in front of the club’s Board of Directors won the Cosmos bosses over and he was awarded the job.
While Savarese does have more experience as a man manager than fellow Metrostars’ legend Petke, he never held a position of responsibility like his counterpart had. That fact, along with the simple weight of the Cosmos name made Savarese as big a gamble hire as Petke ever was.
To add to their similarities and obstacles, both coaches also suffered an excruciatingly short preseason to prepare for the battle ahead.
Beating ExpectationsSavarese and Petke, in their own inimitable style and guidance, have been able to find success through near impossible circumstances. Moreover, Petke and Savarese have shown growth in their positions while carrying their teams to some very impressive results.
Petke nearly had one foot out the door just six games into the season. A mish-mosh of redundant talent could not be wedged into his dream 4-3-3 system. A key loss against the Chicago Fire on the road forced the rookie coach to scrap his plans and start from scratch. While simple and unattractive, he implemented a crude 4-4-2 system that has turned around the Red Bulls’ season as demonstrated by their current position in the league.
That was the first clear sign that the new boss was able to keep his mind fluid for a season that would surely bring with it some difficult situations. Since then, he has had other obstacles obstruct his path (Thierry Henry amongst them), and has been able to show dexterity in the face of despair.
Savarese has been just as telling a boss through seven matches for the Cosmos. Like Petke, the Venezuelan coach has imposed a tactic of his own liking – a 4-2-3-1. Unlike Petke, he has stuck with his. The Red Bulls boss, a career defender, chose to build his team offense-first despite being his past. Savarese, a life-long forward, built the Cosmos from the back; a decision that has kept the team surprisingly competitive. Despite the number of offensive parts to his roster, the experience and reliability of Hunter Freeman, Carlos Mendes, Roversio, Hunter Gorskie and Kyle Reynish, padded with the defensive work of midfielders Marcos Senna and Danny Szetela has helped the Cosmos achieve a first place position halfway through the season despite the fact that the team holds a zero goal differential.
That is impressive for any coach to boast.
Sustaining that success for the Cosmos, of course, will be dependent on what the team can do on the offensive side through the second half of the year. Defense-first will only take them so far. Still, Savarese has shown plenty of reason on both sides of the ball for people to consider the Cosmos a viable threat for the rest of the campaign.
The battle isn’t done for either team. After running the gauntlet of NASL opposition, the Cosmos are looking ahead to a road heavy second half of the Fall Championship. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls look ready to book their postseason ticket, but face their own difficulties with teams like the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo rounding out their schedule.
For now, there is little question; both club’s have surpassed expectations, and the winners on either side are the area soccer fans.