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Why Rocco Commisso saved the New York Cosmos

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Rocco Commisso went from interested observer to owner of the New York Cosmos and savior of the North American Soccer League in a little over 24 hours.

And though it came together quickly, it also took a lifetime.

An Italian immigrant and cable television magnate, Commisso’s name may have come out of nowhere to Cosmos fans but in a sense his move into American soccer power is the logical next step in a lifelong relationship with soccer that began on the beaches of southern Italy, was nurtured on the field at Columbia University, and grew with his love for The Old Lady.

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Let’s take a step back, though, and recall the status of the Cosmos in late December 2016. Reigning champions of the NASL, financial troubles had the Cosmos releasing players from their contracts and putting their front office on furlough. The team looked set for at least a one year absence from the playing field, and there was a lot of smoke and certainly some fire regarding the potential demise of the NASL for a second time. It seemed probable the only silver lining was that the Cosmos would go out as champions.

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Members of the Cosmos staff approached Commisso, 67, who was no stranger to ownership opportunities both here and abroad. Perhaps the closest he came was in 2011, when the DeBenedetto/Pallotta Group spoke with him about helping with their takeover of AS Roma. Commisso eventually declined, he says, because his Juventus fandom wouldn’t allow him to trade clubs.

The rare opportunity to save both a storied name and a growing league was too much to pass up, however.

And the sport had given him so much that he felt he owed it a debt. His Bronx high school did not field a soccer team in the 1960s, and Commisso needed help from his gym teacher to get interest from colleges, eventually winning a four-year scholarship to Columbia University. He became a three-time All-Ivy League player, and was invited to tryout for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team.

Commisso also helped the Lions to the 1970 NCAA Tournament, scoring in a win over Buffalo State and future NBA star Randy Smith — “The highlight of my soccer life” — before using his degree to forge a wildly successful financial and media career.

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“I tell everyone my experience on the soccer field at Columbia is the one that I remember the most and which I cherish the most,” said Commisso.

“The friendships and the things that I got back from the game of soccer were a stepping stone to all I’ve done since. It was soccer that opened the door to a great institution like Columbia and now it’s my job to give back to the game.”

The game remained a big part of his life. He started an over-30 league in Westchester County,was a youth coach for 15 years and has been involved with the Columbia soccer program for almost 50 years, both as a player and alumni supporter. The university’s soccer stadium was named after him, and he was never ignorant of the fortunes of Juventus back home in Italy.

So it didn’t come as a massive surprise to those who knew him well that the Cosmos idea would intrigue him. Approached by Cosmos staffers named Joe Barone and Jack Gaeta, who also played at Columbia, Commisso was sold on the project if the NASL maintained its Division 2 status and the Cosmos could hit the pitch this season.

“There were competing bids where people wanted to shut it down and shut up the name, or buy the intellectual property rights and try to sell it to somebody else,” Commisso said. “But in neither scenario was the team going to be around in 2017. I felt an obligation to help out, and my first condition when I entered the room was I’m only here to talk about the team playing a full season in 2017.”

The NASL was granted provisional D-2 status, and Commisso sealed the deal. Years after his first offers to own a team, he was doing it his adopted hometown of New York City.

New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (L) during a Cuba vs New York Cosmos friendly soccer match on June 2, 2015 at Pedro Marrero stadium in Havana. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE

There wasn’t much time to celebrate, but surely there’s been plenty to smile about. Right, Rocco?

“My smiles or my tears?” Commisso said. “This is not a typical business, like the cable business. The next day was the realization that we had to put the team together. The front office needed to be rehired. There were some emergencies that we had to deal with right at the outset. Making sure that Giovanni (Savarese) was staying around and convincing the existing players, there were only a few, that there was a club.”

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And there was that whole question of where to play. The Cosmos of the first NASL had played at Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium, while the second spent last season at Hofstra University on Long Island. Commisso wanted back in the City, though that had proven a major obstacle for soccer teams in the Empire State.

Somehow, they found a home: MCU Park in Brooklyn, home of New York-Penn League baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the New York Mets.

“Just think about it,” Commisso said. “New York City FC still doesn’t have a soccer-specific stadium after four years.We finalized a stadium lease and game schedules in less than a month. A great location in the Five Boroughs in a short period of time. Typically these things take years. We managed to strike a deal to bring the Cosmos back to New York City where it all began in 1971. Now we’ve gotta try to install a soccer field on top of the baseball field.

“The next major job is how to go out and fill up the stadium with fans. We went out and the appetite is very high. In the media and Twitter, so far I must say 99 percent of the comments are very positive by everyone, and especially the loyal Cosmos fans. Lots of work. We’re working day and night. Even though we don’t have the luxury of a five-month window before the start of the season, we will be ready by April 1. Gio has 16 or 17 players already signed up, so we’re almost finished filling up the team roster. We’re not there yet, but we are well on our way proceeding with Spring Training the next couple weeks.”

Commisso is careful not to guarantee much regarding his maiden voyage through the NASL. For one thing, he says, American soccer provides less opportunities for upward mobility than the rest of the world. For another, business has taught him to work harder than he speaks.

“I’ve been known my entire career for never, never making promises that I can’t deliver on,” Commisso said. “I’d rather under promise and over deliver than the other way around. As you know, plenty of people came to this country including the prior ownership of the Cosmos, where they were going to revolutionize the whole game, the whole system, and look what happened. Unfortunately, the road to establishing sustainable professional soccer in the U.S. has been littered with financial failures.”

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“The simple problem is that I don’t control my destiny. You’ve got the NASL, the USSF, MLS, the USL, the stadium issue, the money… at least on the money side I’ll be okay. I’m not gonna run out of money tomorrow, but in terms of where I want to see the Cosmos, I don’t know what the future will hold, other than doing the job a day at a time.”

That’s fine. After all, here’s one of many tremendous immigrant stories, a man who built from nothing the fifth largest cable television company in America which is wholly-owned by him and his family, and who fashioned an accolade-heavy college career without having played organized soccer before college.

“I started playing with a soccer ball that was a bunch of rags tied up with rubber bands, some underwear, too,” Commisso said of his early playing days in Italy.

“I lived in a beach town in Calabria where in the summer we played on sand and in winter in the streets. It was never organized, was always pick-up games. You showed up and the big boys decided if they needed you. Because I was the only kid crazy enough to dive on concrete, they always chose me as goalie. That was the nature of my training, not like the kids today where their playing time is organized by the parents.”

And of course, there was Juventus. Commisso was a young fan for a terrific spell that saw The Old Lady win three titles in four seasons with Welsh star John Charles, fiery Argentine forward Omar Sivori, and Giampiero Boniperti(an attack trio that in some ways calls to mind Barcelona’s current trident).

TURIN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11: (L-R) Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus FC celebrate their victory after the Serie A match between Juventus FC v Parma FC at Juventus Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Del Piero and Buffon in 2011 (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

But what stands out to Commisso is what happened after Juventus was relegated following the Calciopoli scandal a little over a decade ago.

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“I knew I would be one of those people who stayed with the team when things got bad,” he said. “In 2006, Buffon and Del Piero, world-class icons of international soccer, they went down with the team into the Second Division. And within one year, we came back up and now we have won five-straight Seria A championships.”

Perhaps there’s a bright ray of hope in there for Cosmos fans. No, they aren’t far removed from winning a title, but they are only weeks removed from thinking their club was lost. Now it’s off to Brooklyn, and there are many reasons to schedule a visit to MCU Park in Coney Island.

VIDEO: Chicharito talks West Ham signing, opener at Manchester United

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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is back in the Premier League, and will debut for his new club at the home of his old club.

The league schedulers didn’t know the Mexican striker would be a member of West Ham United on Opening Day, but nonetheless have the first weekend ending with an 11 a.m. ET kickoff between the Irons and Red Devils of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

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Combine a new home with an old haunt, and you’ve got one fired up Little Pea:

“A little bit more than my teammates probably, of course to be back to Old Trafford to start this adventure this season with my new team. It’s gonna be a very important one and I’m going to be very happy to be there.”

Hear more from the latest West Ham buy below:

Juventus buys $46 million Bernadeschi from Fiorentina

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If this transfer is anywhere as successful as Juventus’ capture of Roberto Baggio from Fiorentina, the Old Lady’s run of scudetti could reach double digits.

Juventus announced the $46 million purchase of Federico Bernadeschi from La Viola on Monday, snaring the U-21 star at the same age they purchased Baggio in 1990.

[ SERIE A: Can Roma catch Juve? ]

Bernadeschi, 23, broke out for 11 Serie A goals last season for Fiorentina, adding two in the UEFA Europa League. He scored his first senior goal for Italy earlier this summer in a World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein.

It’s another big add for Juve, which has Douglas Costa on loan from Bayern Munich and made Mehdi Benatia’s loan a permanent buy.

It’s another big blow for Fiorentina, which sold Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic this summer, but it could be a boon for American forward Joshua Perez. The 19-year-old made his debut for Fiorentina in November 2016 against Inter Milan.

De Rossi’s fire burning toward elusive scudetto

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When Mexican star Hector Moreno arrived at AS Roma this month, he brought a hyper-competitive drive and the desire to inspire his new club toward a long-desired scudetto.

What he found was a club that top-to-bottom was already driving toward that same goal.

“I’ve been here two days and the guys have the same hunger and desire as me,” Moreno told ProSoccerTalk.

To those who’ve played for AS Roma, bled the crimson in and out for i Lupi, the pursuit of a first scudetto in a decade and a half dances through their heads.

“Totti told us that when he won the scudetto in 2001, there were parties for three months. We all have the ambition to win something here, and to celebrate with the fans,” said Kevin Strootman.

[ MORE ROMA: PST talks with Strootman ]

“It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us,” said star striker Edin Dzeko, the ex-Man City forward who potted 29 goals last season.

Juventus has won the last six Serie A titles, but Roma has steadily narrowed the gap in finishing second three of the past four seasons. Roma finished four points back of Juve last season, and my did they entertain, scoring 90 goals en route to second.

Strootman has been in Rome since 2013, Dzeko since 2015, and we’ve already covered Moreno’s nascent period with the club.

So imagine the scudetto fire that burns within captain Daniele De Rossi, who turned 34 on Monday and made his Roma debut the year after the club’s last scudetto. He’s made 561 appearances since that October night in Belgium against Anderlecht in the UEFA Champions League when he made his first senior appearance.

His teammates will know what it means to him.

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“It’s my biggest target,” De Rossi told PST. “It’s what I’m following with my career. I know the other guys know what that means for the people here in Rome and I would like to explain it a little bit deeply what it can mean to win a scudetto right here in Roma. It’s part of our job to know what can happen if we win, and to our culture it can be something that we never forget.”

AS Roma played Paris Saint-Germain level through 90 minutes in Detroit, its first International Champions Cup appearance of the summer. Now i Lupi prepares for another UEFA Champions League opponent in Tottenham Hotspur, up next Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.

Clubs have had to be nearly flawless to make a run at Juve in recent seasons, and looking at Roma’s schedule doesn’t mean finding a load of could’ves and should’ves; Yes there was an early draw at Empoli and a regrettable home defeat in the Derby della Capitale, but Roma wasn’t tossing aside points in poor situations.

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So even with a bunch of new faces and several key departures, De Rossi and Roma need to come out of the gates with vigor. And the captain admits he sees the fire mentioned by Moreno, but cautions that it needs to be carefully built by i Lupi’s leadership.

“It’s clearly very early but you can see that there’s a group, with a lot of people who are 27, 28, 24, who are not so much young players and that’s important because at 27 you already know almost everything you need to be a professional player,” De Rossi said.

“Hunger is something that comes probably later when the matches are more important, but also during training you can find it, and when people spend time with the team when they are free. The atmosphere is very good for now. I hope it will follow later.”

De Rossi’s words carry weight even in a short conversation. He doesn’t throw away words, and takes his time to convey the proper meaning.

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Asked about leadership and whether he considers his guidance more by words or his example, De Rossi doesn’t turn to platitudes or fire and brimstone. The latter might be expected, given his demeanor and — to an American audience — memory as the man who used his elbow to examine what lies underneath Brian McBride’s face at the 2006 World Cup (and, it should be noted, helped the Yanks to their only point of the tournament, later won by the Italians).

“It’s something you have inside, your character, but also something you build during your career and your life,” De Rossi said. “It’s not something you have to show every second in soccer or a work place. You have to be nice with your teammates, you have to be available if they need something, and that’s it. If you have to raise your voice, you do it, but it’s nothing special. The same things the other guys do.”

Sure, but the *other guys* don’t sit in the Top 5 for caps in the celebrated Italy national team set-up. They haven’t all won World Cups, or been knighted, or been named Serie A Footballer of the Year.

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So what are De Rossi’s leadership guideposts? Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no magic to it.

“First of all, inside the pitch you are respected by your teammates,” he said. “Also outside the pitch, you know that your job is going good when you see things going in the right way, the normal way, nothing weird, nothing special, nothing perfect, the right way! Normal people who love their work and love their job will respect each other.”

Okay, fair enough. De Rossi is no doubt respected, but as he edges further into his career, does he think about how he’ll be remembered? Scudetto or not, what’s his legacy?

Easy, it seems; De Rossi wants to be known as a custodian of his club, even if he’s already one of its all-time centurions.

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“As a professional player, a nice guy, but most of all a player crazy in love with his team,” De Rossi said. “And also as a good player, because I think I am. Nothing more. What happened to Francesco (Totti) is something unbelievable and unrepeatable. I’m happy. I will be happy if a lot of people remember me as a nice guy, as a huge person who loves Roma as much as he can.

Well, he’ll be happy then, as a classic Wolf in yellow and red: a man who was born in the Eternal City and grew to become a symbol of it.

“There’s something inside of us, Roman citizens. Rome is a city full of stories, full of history, full of old things. There are monuments, what you can read in books, but also people connected to art like Ennio Morricone or Sergio Leone. It’s a mix of new things that we have to do, and also remain connected with our past history. It’s something you have to remember, not forget, and can affect our way to lead and live outside of soccer and the way I play.”

And given his legendary status, it’s little surprise that De Rossi has the admiration of the players in the room, social media fans or not.

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“He’s our captain,” Strootman said. “He was already the captain when I came here four years ago and he was one of the only players who spoke English. He helped me with a lot of things on and off the pitch. He’s a role model for everybody. It’s a pleasure to train with him, stay with him, and be on the pitch with him.”

Strootman agreed with De Rossi that the side has to be nurtured into the season.

“We still need some time, that’s normal, but we need to show on the pitch that we are hungry,” he said. “It’s a good mix. We have to show it from the first competition and game by game.”

Roma’s ICC finishes up at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on July 30, where they’ll hope to make an early statement of intent against serial scudetto winners Juventus.

Reports: Jonathan Dos Santos set to join Giovani on Galaxy

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Double Dos Santos DPs in Tinseltown?

That’s again the rumor out of Spain, where Jonathan Dos Santos has reportedly left Villarreal camp with permission to negotiate with the LA Galaxy.

Dos Santos would join his brother Giovani in a move which would not only increase the Galaxy’s attacking portfolio but give the club another feather in the cap as it attempts to ward off incoming Los Angeles FC in the race for the hearts of L.A. soccer supporters.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

It would be the second time Jonathan joined his brother on a squad, and the third time the two were professional teammates. Both joined Barcelona’s academy in 2002.

Jonathan posted two goals and three assists in La Liga last season, leading the team in key passes per game with 1.3. He added a goal and an assist in UEFA Europa League play, where he also registered a hemorrhagic 2.6 giveaways per contest.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt the younger Dos Santos brother would shine in MLS, where he could set up his brother and Romain Alessandrini to feast on defenses, and maybe even help Gyasi Zardes find his form.