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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.

twitter.com/NYCosmos
twitter.com/NYCosmos

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.

Serie A 2018-19: Empoli, Parma, Frosinone make return

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MILAN (AP) The Italian league begins this weekend with Parma returning to the top flight only three years after being declared bankrupt.

Empoli and Frosinone are also back in Serie A.

The three promoted clubs replace Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento, which were relegated last season.

Spal was the only promoted team not to go back down last season.

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Here’s a look at the new teams in Italy’s top division:

EMPOLI

Empoli, which is in the city of Florence, bounced back up to Serie A after only one season in the second division.

The Tuscan team won Serie B with four matches remaining and went on to finish 13 points ahead of second-place Parma.

Much of the credit goes to former Roma coach Aurelio Andreazzoli, who replaced Vincenzo Vivarini in December, with the team in fourth place.

It was Andreazzoli’s first managerial role since 2013 but, under the 64-year-old coach, Empoli went on a remarkable 23-match unbeaten run to the end of the season.

When it was last in Serie A, Empoli spent three seasons in the top flight before being relegated on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign after it failed to beat Palermo.

Andreazzoli has made astute signings, bringing in defenders Luca Antonelli and Matias Silvestre as well as young forward Antonino La Gumina.

Francesco Caputo was the top scorer in Serie B last season with 27 goals, six more than teammate Alfredo Donnarumma, who has since moved to Brescia.

The 31-year-old Caputo has scored only one Serie A goal, for Bari in the 2010-11 season.

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PARMA

Parma earned promotion to Serie A only three years after being declared bankrupt, becoming the first Italian club to earn three straight promotions.

Parma beat Spezia on the final day to finish second in Serie B after Frosinone conceded a late goal to draw 2-2 at home against Foggia. They finished level on points but Parma clinched second because of its head-to-head record.

Parma also became embroiled in an attempted match-fixing case after it was revealed forward Emanuele Calaio had sent text messages to Spezia defender Filippo De Col, encouraging him and another former teammate to not try too hard in the game.

Calaio insisted he was joking but Parma risked being demoted back to Serie B. It was deducted five points from the upcoming season but that was reduced to a fine on appeal.

Calaio, who was originally banned for two years, is suspended until Dec. 31.

Parma has signed a number of players, including Portugal defender Bruno Alves and Inter Milan trio Jonathan Biabiany, Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni.

It could also sign Antonio Cassano, who is looking to make a comeback after two years out of the game.

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FROSINONE

Frosinone recovered from missing out on automatic promotion to win the playoffs and earn a second season back in Serie A.

Frosinone, which is south of Rome, advanced with a controversial 3-2 aggregate victory over Palermo. It had lost the first leg but won the return match 2-0, although players were accused of intimidating the referee, while substitutes threw balls onto the field to delay play.

Palermo complained but the Italian soccer federation ruled that the promotion was not going to be overturned. However, Frosinone will have to play its first two home games on neutral ground.

Frosinone opened its Benito Stirpe Stadium last season, more than 40 years after construction began, including 30 years of inactivity.

In its only previous campaign in Serie A, Frosinone finished 19th out of 20 clubs in 2016.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

VAR at the World Cup cemented its place in our soccer brains

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Feel how you will about Video Assistant Referee, but this summer’s World Cup changed how we feel when we watch club soccer.

That’s not a slight or a compliment to the tournament, which was in fact quite amazing, but rather a deep dive into that word: Feel.

V-A-R, you guys.

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While review wasn’t perfect at the World Cup in Russia — cough, Aleksandar Mitrovic versus Switzerland, cough — it cut down on red cards and was a part of the most exciting tournament in some time (perhaps ever).

And on opening weekend in the Premier League it was hard to not find yourself, for better or worse, thinking that the lack of video review played a role in some clubs earning and losing valuable points (They’re worth the same in August as they are in April, you know?).

Consider:

— Saints forward Danny Ings nearly earned a winning debut on his homecoming, only for the should-be penalty call to not arrive at St. Mary’s.

Mamadou Sakho takes down Fulham’s Andre Schurrle in the box, no PK, with Crystal Palace leading 1-0 en route to a 2-0 win over the Cottagers.

Moussa Sissoko stepping on the leg of Kenedy before halftime of Spurs’ 2-1 win at Newcastle (in front of referee Martin Atkinson for what it’s worth).

This wasn’t an unusual weekend for controversial plays at all, and certainly soccer has survived and thrived for years with plenty of human error.

But after a World Cup with an unusually low number of red cards — presumably because players knew there was an eye in the sky — and high amount of correctly awarded penalties, it’s going to take some time to get used to human error again.

That’s fine. Again, we’ve done it this way for years and can continue to do so for a long, long time. But it’s going to be interesting to see if we ever feel like the genie is back in the bottle.

Sarri relaxing rules around Chelsea to court players

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Several reports out of Arsenal have the Gunners getting accustomed to big changes in coaching style from longtime boss Arsene Wenger to new manager Unai Emery.

Wenger was viewed as a players-first, freedom-giving manager and Emery is a major step up in intensity and rigidity.

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Chelsea, it seems, is flipping that script. Whereas Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte were very strict, Maurizio Sarri is trying to bring the positive vibes to Stamford Bridge.

For one thing, he’s changed the unpopular rule of players staying in a hotel the night before home matches.

And then there’s the food. From The Telegraph:

Sarri has also permitted a wider choice of food in the training ground canteen and also in hotels when they are away from home to try to create a better atmosphere than that which existed in the previous ten months. Conte was very strict on nutrition, with relatively little choice for the players, and while Sarri also feels that there are gains in that area for any coach, his priority is to get the squad in the right frame of mind.

It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam, and it’s another thing to see it all through, but clearly giving players a bit of what they want isn’t a bad thing. And considering this group has already quit on a boss or two, perhaps it’s an especially good idea.

Premier League Club Power Rankings, Week 1

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The champs should need to be dethroned, except maybe when the season sample size is just one game deep?

A few grains of salt — or 300 — are always recommended when dealing with power rankings, and our Premier League club power rankings are intended to be a show of how the clubs look in both form and forecast at a moment in time.

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Manchester City beat new-look Arsenal 2-0 despite being quite shorthanded at the Emirates Stadium, and is coming off the most impressive PL season in recent memory.

But is that enough to hold off mighty Liverpool, who has invested the resources for a true title fight and looked dynamite all preseason before pummeling West Ham United at Anfield?

Read on…

20. Cardiff City — Could be a long season in Wales
19. Brighton and Hove Albion — Biggest disappointment of the weekend
18. Huddersfield Town — No shame in losing to Chelsea
17. West Ham United — Defense should buy Pellegrini his breakfast this week
16. Southampton — Couldn’t beat a thin, tired Clarets at home
15. Burnley — Joe Hart looking like a man back in form
14. Fulham — Performed better than its 2-0 loss indicates. Seri is the truth.
13. Newcastle — Deserved a point vs. Spurs; Need Rondon, Muto fully fit
12. Bournemouth — Did what was expected against new boys Cardiff
11. Leicester City — Demarai Gray was fine, but more needed from playmakers
10. Wolves — Promising, but 2-2 against 10 shows there will be growing pains
9. Arsenal — When Mesut Ozil isn’t going, this team goes nowhere
8. Everton — 2-2 feels like a false start thanks to Jagielka red, but a good battle
7. Watford — Totally shut down a Brighton side with high expectations
6. Crystal Palace — Wilfried Zaha is a nasty talent.
5. Tottenham Hotspur — Rusty but industrious at Newcastle.
4. Manchester United — Fortunate Vardy was rusty, but same true for LCFC-Lukaku
3. Chelsea — If Maurizio Sarri gets Morata humming, can contend with anyone
2. Liverpool — Keita very much looked the missing piece in cueing up Mane, Firmino, Salah
1. Man City — Solid away win without KDB, Sane, Kompany, David Silva in Starting XI; Keeping Aubameyang off the scoreboard keeps City just ahead of the Reds.