Cosmos pursue proper training facility, Academy program as stadium proposal lags

COSMOS BELMONT STADIUM

EOS had a chance to speak with New York Cosmos Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover to discuss the state of the team ahead of the Fall Championship season. We begin our conversation on the club’s pursuit of a stadium in Elmont, and their desire to establish a proper training facility and Academy program.

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On the field, there is very little negative to say about the New York Cosmos.  They won last year’s Fall Championship season, became the Soccer Bowl champions, finished second in the Spring season and took local bragging rights over Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls in a 3-0 thrashing at Shuart Stadium.

Off the field, the story has been less rosy.

Last Spring’s attendance woes and U.S. Open scheduling issues served to show the limitations of Hofstra University as a home field. Yes, there may be historical roots in the college campus for the club, but little else that helps entice fans to continue going back.

It begs the question; what is going on with the Belmont Stadium proposal?

“I wish I could say more than ‘nothing to report,’ but it is literally true,” New York Cosmos Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover tells EOS.  “We are just waiting on the decision from [Empire State Development].”

The Cosmos are nearing the two year anniversary of their “Elmont Crossing” proposal; a large scale, multi-facility construction deal that would feature a new, 25k seat stadium at the heart of a redevelopment project in the economically challenged Elmont district.  The team sought this route towards a stadium in order to avoid the bureaucratic mess associated with acquiring private or federal land and imposing one’s self into a community.  Here, it was the State that invited proposers to bid, and the Cosmos were more than happy to give it a shot.

As it turns out, there is no avoiding red tape when it comes to large scale construction projects.  Instead of suffering delays on one end, their proposal has landed New York in a waiting game, at the mercy of Albany’s political devices. Worse still? It is an election year for the State governorship, making such large scale projects a political football.

In that waiting game, the team has quietly explored other land opportunities just in case their Plan A options do not pan out.

“We have met with people in the five boroughs and outside of it,” Stover reveals.  “It would be hard to put anything in any order of what would be a Plan B. There is a Plan A and other talk about other business.

“Where we would end up if Belmont didn’t happen, I couldn’t speculate.”

That other business includes infrastructure of a different type.

“We have talked to other locations all the time, different municipalities, because we have other business going on, not the least being a new training facility,” Stover reveals.

IMAGE, NEW YORK COSMOS

IMAGE, NEW YORK COSMOS

Currently, the club trains on a parcel of land at the Mitchel Athletic Complex.  The Cosmos spent nearly half a million dollars to renovate the former Field Six area (along with upgrades to the complex’s main offices) to suit their operations.

One option for a new training ground could be expanding their footprint in the complex, but that isn’t what the Cosmos have in mind.

“Mitchell is government property and we have a good lease and have made a good deal with the parks department here,” Stover explains.  “It is certainly a legacy project for the Mitchell Athletic Complex. Whenever we leave, whenever we do leave, they will have improved facilities at literally no cost to tax payers.

“Is there a possibility we could expand and stay there longer?  Yes, but it would require a lot of government intervention and we are not ready to have those conversations right now.”

Instead, the team hopes to acquire their own piece of land for development.  As the lack of a proper stadium naturally limits the Cosmos’ first team ambitions, so does the lack of a proper training ground — a fact Stover acknowledges.  After all, Stover has first hand knowledge of how important a top-rate training facility can be. He was there to witness the New York Red Bulls as they trained on an uneven pitch in the hills of Montclair University. Their world-class training center in Hanover has exponentially helped the MLS club grow both on an off the field.

Like their first tier rivals, acquiring an expansive property would allow the team to explore new areas of growth, and the Cosmos are busy trying to make that happen.

“If we are going to get to the level we want this club to get to, we need to have a state of the art training complex with multiple fields, an academy program with ages from u-8 to a u-23, a reserve team,” Stover said.  “You need space and facilities for that.”

IMAGE, DAVE MARTINEZ, EMPIRE OF SOCCER

IMAGE, DAVE MARTINEZ, EMPIRE OF SOCCER

While both the hunt for property to house a stadium and training center continues, the club has been busy formulating plans for the aforementioned Academy program.

“We were very close to a few things for 2014 and we thought it was best to table it for a year,” Stover admits.  “I am not sure what form it will start on 2015, but I fully expect a Cosmos Academy in 2015.”

Academy systems are one area in which professional soccer in the United States has lagged. Programs like Barcelona’s La Masia have proven how effective an academy can be when properly implemented, setting the bar for clubs worldwide hoping to imitate that success. Over recent years, MLS teams have worked through their structure to implement youth systems with that kind of output in mind.

Lucky for the Cosmos, they have the man who offered the American blueprint on building youth academies on their payroll. Head coach Giovanni Savarese was the lead person and pioneer in the creation of the now flourishing Red Bull Academy, establishing a model that many MLS teams have followed to this day.

Clearly, the ability to establish a first team pipeline through a grassroots initiative is what any team hopes to achieve. While a date is in place for its creation, how the program begins is still up in the air.

“There are theories around all if it,” he explains.  “One thing I know for sure is we can’t start right out the box with six teams and a u-23 team and think you can be successful. We have to start small with a couple of age groups and build off that success.

“I am not sure where we will start because there are compelling arguments for an array of solutions. Those are the discussions we are having now.”