CHESTER, Pa. -- Ever since Major League Soccer began play in 1996, the path to soccer legitimacy has been set: slow, inexorably moving along patiently, riding the wave of demographic changes and the country's growing love for the game. A few stars, but only a few per team. And no real surprises.
The New York Cosmos had a different plan, a different timetable. And heading into Tuesday night's crushing 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union, it seemed they might just pull it off.
For whatever reason, MLS teams have consistently ignored the U.S. Open Cup, a 100-year-old tournament made up of professional teams from all divisions of domestic soccer. It's a knockout tournament, bracketed regionally at first. And the prize is enormous: a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Let's put this in perspective. There are three ways to earn that berth, the ability to play soccer at the highest level possible in the region. You can win the Supporters Shield in MLS. You can win MLS Cup. Or you can win the U.S. Open Cup.
And yet, somehow, year after year, MLS teams ignore the third one.
The Los Angeles Galaxy went out Tuesday night and lost to the second-division Carolina Railhawks. This is the third year in a row it happened. Last year, head coach Bruce Arena didn't even bother showing up to the match. This year, after they lost, he sent an assistant to speak to the media.
Nor is this limited to the teams themselves. A Union squad performing poorly enough to cost coach John Hackworth his job earlier this month is still drawing 17,976 per game to beautiful 18,500-seat PPL Park.
The U.S. Open Cup, realistically, is the only chance the Union have of winning hardware this season.
On a perfect Tuesday night for soccer against the Cosmos, the Union drew 3,846.
So it all seemed so perfect. The New York Cosmos, denied their chance to join MLS, could gain access to the CONCACAF Champions League by winning the tournament so many others ignored. It reminded me of Barack Obama's 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton -- the MLS clubs, all out chasing California and New Jersey, while the Cosmos sneak in and win a relatively uncontested Idaho.
Same delegates, right?
And like the Obama campaign in 2008, the Cosmos aren't some underfunded longshot. They're owned by deep-pocketed Sela Sport. Their goal has been, from chairman Seamus O'Brien on down, the delightfully high-aimed but vague "play soccer at the highest level."
The Cosmos are not simply one of many NASL teams, the current domestic soccer second division, having success in the Open Cup. FC Edmonton doesn't have a stadium plan like this, or a history like the Cosmos, or the ambition to take over the largest media market with one teams in a higher division, and a second set to begin play next year.
This is to take nothing away from FC Edmonton, or the San Antonio Scorpions, or the Carolina Railhawks, who did what the Cosmos didn't Tuesday night, and advanced in the Open Cup. But the Cosmos, fully fleshed out and taken to its logical endpoint, is a direct challenge to the whole MLS structure.
The Cosmos, winning in CONCACAF Champions League where so many MLS teams have faltered? The Cosmos, adding more than the three high-priced imports the current designated player rules allow in MLS? The Cosmos, paying for the kind of roster depth that allows a soccer team to juggle league, Open Cup and Champions League without compromise?
Imagine the implications for soccer in America.
They're not necessarily good ones, by the way. Read David Wangerin's "Soccer in a Football World".
So when someone asked me, prior to the Red Bulls-Cosmos match, who I was rooting for, I answered: "I'm rooting for New York soccer to not fragment so much it collapses upon itself."
The careful, slow build by MLS not only directly refuted the very path the original Cosmos took toward extinction back in 1984, but it makes a great deal of sense. The league has certainly seen growth and development while utilizing it.
Whether it is the path from the current state of affairs, with plenty of teams drawing well at the gate but lagging in television ratings and loyalty domestically to the English Premier League, we do not know. That's no more obvious that whether the Cosmos can find a way to become a premier soccer team in New York and nationally while playing in the second division.
But for the past few weeks, they looked to be on their way. Against a Red Bulls lineup largely intact from the previous week's MLS match against the New England Revolution, the Cosmos went out and dominated. Not only did they win, 3-0, they outshot the Red Bulls, 21-3. It wasn't a plucky upstart upsetting the imperious favorite -- the Cosmos are too well-funded, talented and well-coached to be merely plucky, and the Red Bulls, god bless them, haven't succeeded enough to pull off imperious.
Even on Tuesday night, on the road agains another MLS club, the Cosmos played far from their best game, yet found themselves into extra time tied at 1-1. Then came a through-ball to forward Mads Stokkelien, a crushing tackle from behind by Union defender Maurice Edu, and surely a penalty to follow...
But no. Nothing. No call. And a few minutes later, on a far more ambiguous bit of contact in the other box, a penalty call against the Cosmos. A few minutes, coaching ejections, and multiple red cards against the Cosmos later, it was all over.
If the Cosmos are going to upend the order of domestic soccer, it'll take winning the 2015 Open Cup, and even then, no Champions League until 2016. Whether they are buried under an avalanche of NYCFC publicity by then, or whether Sela Sport will throw in the towel, we do not know.
Maybe the world will discover this incredible tournament by then. Maybe more than 3,846 will show up to PPL Park to see it. Maybe the Open Cup will get a damn television contract, when even the Sugar Land Skeeters can be seen on ESPN3, so more people can watch soccer's version of March Madness.
But it could have been very different. This Cosmos team beat one MLS club soundly, and, at worst, played another evenly on the road. They'd have hosted the next match, against the winner of the New England Revolution and Rochester Rhinos, and a win that day would have put them two victories away from a Champions League berth, from asking all these questions about how American club teams are built these days.
"Yes, it is a little more difficult," Cosmos coach Gio Savarese, who cited the "joker referee" as a reason for Tuesday's loss, said when I asked him about the Cosmos' narrow path to challenging MLS "You wish that you'd have more opportunities, more possibilities. But this is what we have, and we have to play with what we have. And if that is the only chance, we have to take it very seriously, keep on competing next year."
Savarese added that "we are content to play in the NASL", but the Cosmos don't exist again simply to play before 5,000 people in second-division matches. Millions of dollars haven't gone into the rebirth of the Cosmos merely to exist as the best team in a lesser league. It's a fine place to be, 10 months after taking the field for the first time in 30 years. But Sela Sport won't be content if this is how it all turns out.
So it was demoralizing, if you enjoy drama, if you have any doubts about the MLS model or merely want to see it challenged, to see the Cosmos' progress upended by a single referee performing poorly in front of a sparse crowd. It was a reminder, too, of the fragile nature of the Cosmos experiment, that it could be postponed by so little.
And as I walked out of PPL Park on Tuesday night, I couldn't help but wonder just how much the Cosmos lost in the process, and how much soccer in this country changed, or didn't, as a result.