At the end of every year we reflect and take stock of the things we are thankful for in our lives. For Cosmos fans this year, one of the main things to be thankful for is the way their club has treated its fans, players, and even the competition. As sports fans we are accustomed to professional teams, athletes, and coaches describing their relationships as being like that of a family. And although this is true at times, all too often we see the opposite play out in front of our eyes. Players engaged in salacious behavior, coaches switching teams after pledging their loyalty, and teams making financial decisions instead of people decisions.
With this backdrop in mind, one cannot ignore the way the Cosmos have been conducting business – both compassionately and professionally. This was recently crystallized for fans during a question and answer session on reddit.com with Cosmos’ head coach Giovanni Savarese. He was asked "Can we expect some big signings this off-season?" Coach Savarese’s did not give the answer you might expect, instead his response was:
"Every player we sign is big for us, honestly, because we’re bringing a new member to the family. We’re looking forward to building a strong team that can continue to make our fans proud. We want to continue playing with the same idea we’ve set forth from the beginning."
A beautiful answer, but a sentiment easy to dismiss as nothing more than the perfunctory response of a sports figure. But once you step back and read through the rest of the reddit session, a pattern of behavior begins to reveal itself. In particular, you had to take notice of his comments when asked about Haji Wright’s time with the club.
Coach Savarese responded, in part –
"First of all, we are very interested in supporting young players to develop and become better pros at a younger age… In relation to Haji, we wanted to make sure he was prepared for what he will face in Europe. We wanted to make sure we are a club that helps develop players in that transition, so they are more prepared for what they encounter in Europe. We had a plan from the beginning, and we are very content in how we helped Haji. We believe he has grown tremendously personality-wise and has developed an ability to compete with professionals… We believe these decisions will help further develop younger players in the U.S. But we have to be careful we go about it the right way… So we are very content in the decision we made with Haji. He will always be part of the Cosmos family. We wish him the best in his future, and we will not rule out seeing him back at the Cosmos."
You could dissect this quote for hours, but it was particularly noteworthy to see him emphasize player development and his concern with the growth of the young man as a person. Certainly, if you treat players well, this is good long term for the team, but nonetheless it is not the path chosen by all teams. In addition to Haji Wright, Coach Savarese also discussed the club’s other young star, Alexis Velela, in his response, the full transcript can be found here (https://www.reddit.com/r/NASLSoccer/comments/3wdsji/im_giovanni_savarese_head_coach_sporting_director/) The comments regarding the ongoing relationship with Alexis Velela bolster the claim that the treatment extended to Haji Wright was not an aberration but part of a road map that will employed in the future with other young prospects as well. As fans of American soccer it is nice to see a club dedicated to player development from the onset, and as Cosmos’ supporters it is yet another thing that we can be proud of because it sets our club apart from its competitors.
This approach to developing player relationships is not limited to young prospects. The handling of Walter Restrepo further reinforces the idea that Coach Savarese’s words have substance. Restrepo was one of the team’s most important players in the 2015 season and as a result he is currently being courted by numerous teams across the NASL, MLS, and abroad. The interesting part of this situation is that early reports erroneously indicated it was Restrepo that declined an option on returning to the club. The truth is the Cosmos held the option, not the player. As such, they could have exercised it at any time. But instead of doing so, the club allowed him to explore opportunities presented to him. "We will help him reach where ever he may want to be," Coach Savarese said. "We have never got in the way of players careers in the past and won’t begin to now." He went on, "We care about him. And want to help him out in any way we possibly can." Although there is every indication the door remains open for Restrepo to return, that the door was open by the club at all is an indication the Cosmos are prioritizing people, that is members of their family.
As illustrated by these two situations, the Cosmos’ treatment of players has set them apart from other teams. But this approach also extends to respecting the interests of opponents. In their inaugural season, the Cosmos B went undefeated during the regular season and as a result earned the right to host the NPSL Final, but they relinquished the privilege after consulting with representatives from the league and Chattanooga FC. Cosmos COO Erik Stover explained the rational this way "[k]nowing their (Chattanooga FC) story and how important the game is for the NPSL, it was a pretty easy discussion internally... What Chattanooga has done is something special and it shows the power and growth of soccer in this country. They’ve done an amazing job. In terms of attendance for the game who knows what happens, there are projections that they’re going to break their own record. I mean a fourth-division final with more than 10,000 people. It’s more validation for the sport." By putting aside the club’s self-interest for the betterment of the larger soccer community, giving up the home game to a developing soccer market made sense for their adversaries, the league, and "validation" of the sport. The Cosmos were not the first professional team in this position, but they did take the unique position of looking at what was best for all involved. In fact, last year Chattanooga FC played a RedBulls reserve team in the finals in Harrison, NJ. Although RedBull Stadium is a nice place to play a game, no attendance records were broken that day.
It can be tough for Cosmos supporters to discuss their club alongside its local rivals without taking shots at its competitors. But this isn’t necessary. The club’s actions this year in regard to youth player development, player contracts in general, and treatment of adversaries demonstrates the Cosmos are an organization that can stand tall on its own merits. The Cosmos family continues to grow every year and the fans are thankful because this leads to an improved experience for all those that love the game and the club.