• James Izurieta

Cosmos DA Suspends Operations: Players, Parents, Supporters and Club at a Loss

The Cosmos organization announced recently that it is suspending its youth academy indefinitely, exposing a red line to the project that is the New York Cosmos.

"After careful consideration and internal debate, the New York Cosmos have decided to indefinitely suspend the operation of the Cosmos Academy," Cosmos Chief Operating Officer said. "It was an incredibly difficult decision, and we are saddened by it."

"The players have put a lot of time and effort into training and competing," he said. "They have represented the club with pride and honor. We’re sorry that we can’t continue the academy at this moment in time.”

This year, the Five Points, the Cosmos supporters collective, had vowed to renew their commitment to the support of Academy players. Unfortunately, this return to support for the club in all its manifestations was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the USSF's decision to shut down its DA program and allow MLS to spin up a private youth development league network.

The impact felt by the suspension of the Cosmos Development Academy cannot easily be described. As an organization and community that's spent four long years in crisis, it was a moral fixture that steadied the ship. If an organization like the Cosmos is to mean something, it must have principles and a culture it defends. The Academy was one of those very rare animals in US soccer - a place where players could develop without paying fees. A free Academy was part of that culture, part of the infrastructure that enabled the club to convey meaning. It was a manifestation of the rebuke to the closed-league, closed-bid, incestuous way the US Soccer Federation claims to grow the sport. Many players over the years had gotten an opportunity to play youth soccer, that they would not have otherwise had because the club understood the importance of the act of development decoupled from the ability to pay. Adding a profit motive to academy development is the origin of much poison and discrimination in American soccer. It's a debilitating blow to our already anemic ability to find and develop our best talent, closing doors in the faces of hundreds of thousands of youth players, and bolting it shut to millions more. One of the reasons to love this club was its long-term commitment to the principle of a free academy, even as it wavered in reality in the latter half of 2019. It is not inexpensive or easy to uphold this principle, and credit is certainly due.

And this doesn't even come close to describing the disruption and pain inflicted on Cosmos Academy players. One parent had this to say:

"Today everyone who had a son playing in the DA are talking about the situation and how devastating this is for US Soccer.  I think it's a easy way out for the DA...In the middle of the pandemic the US Soccer DA made a decision to cancel and this decision for my son was extremely upsetting. He asked several questions regarding his future in soccer.  Imagine a 13 year old boy asking these questions about his future and what will happen to his team and teammates, and no clear answer you can tell a kid his age.  

"This season he was on a mission because coming to NY Cosmos Academy from Red Bull’s Academy was a big change. He wanted to play for a smaller club and after all the traveling we did and hours between driving to New Jersey from Queens now was a time to finally have extra time for something that we call being a kid and enjoying the game. Cosmos [DA] gave him a lot, everything that you can ask for: great coaching, great training, confidence and everything else. But the most important thing they gave every player extra time and room for improvement which many other clubs don't. They recognize that players performance come at a different maturity, and that talented players should always receive that option. They also recognized that such performers should be challenged at a high level and that one of those players was our son. He made new friends [at the DA], and now everything is gone...Earlier in the season he was selected from HNS (Croatian Soccer Federations ) to play at a high level tournament in Croatia for the Croatian Selection of North America. [Some of] his teammates were selected to attend US ID camps for their age group. They were going somewhere."

There are hundreds of similar stories, with no path to conclusion. What's needed now is more than reflexive expressions of lament, or descriptions of how difficult it was to suspend it. Given the long-term destruction being wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic on sports organizations in general, and the hostility of the USSF regulatory environment, we need the club to not dwell in this reactive space of 'understanding' and 'regret'. Now, more than ever, we need a reaffirmation of principles as an inclusive community. We need to share what the academy meant as a manifestation of those principles, and we desperately need a far clearer commitment towards standing up the Academy as soon as is possible.

The 'why' of the Cosmos supporter often takes turns to specific matches, specific shared moments, but from time to time, we need the club to speak with our shared voice and answer the question of 'why'. For four long years, there's been too little of that. There's always a plausible reason available, but here we are. One of the last seemingly-solid pillars has been kicked out. We're left with a dread new context as we look around the ruined landscape and see all the individual problems with fresh eyes. No venue - temporary or permanent. A dismal one in Mitchell Field. New competitors in New York City proper. No message. An absent front office. No pro/semi-pro womens side at even a meager budget level. A dependence on attendance during a pandemic. No TV deal. A hostile captured regulator. A lawsuit that may change things but has now entered its third year. No girls academy. and now, no academy of any kind at all.

We love when Danny or Sembroni project their commitment, or we get a glimpse at a new signing. But the loss of the Academy - and it IS a loss until we hear otherwise - is too much. We've gotten used to crisis, become inured to it, and it is killing this club by inches. This has to stop. We need a heartbeat, and an attentive, dedicated actor in the front office. We need our Academy back.

The Cosmos DA has operated groups of boys from U-13 through U-15, as sanctioned by the US Soccer Federation. There has never been a girls academy, to the disappointment of many fans. Earlier in 2020 Cosmos had applied for the U-16 band, but their application was were denied. In retrospect, it was then likely informed by the USSF's planned abdication of its development academy obligations.

Asked about the quality of the Academy experience, the parent said. "The coaches were great...the Academy director, Dan Wiseman, would personally make calls and give recommendations on players and will continue to do that [post-suspension]."

Another parent concurred that the quality of training was high, very individualized, and a player could expect greater personal attention that could be found at other DAs - including that of MLS' Red Bulls.

The coaching staff may look for alternatives in the immediate aftermath of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the USSF decision to collude with MLS to dismantle the DA program and stand up MLS' own private DA network. It is rumored they may work to spin up a new development organization under different branding.

Given the adversarial relationship the USSF has had with the Cosmos organization as well as its failure to meet it obligations to build the sport in America, the Cosmos DA has in many ways mirrored the existential instability experienced by the first team. Since 2018 and the first team's loss of a D2 sanctioned league, the Academy had no choice but to more short-term year-to-year plans. With every season's end came the worry on the mind of every player as to whether the DA would return in the spring. That's a lot to put on kids just trying to get better at a sport they love.

Part of the moral weight brought by the Academy to the greater Cosmos community stemmed from its 100%-free model. But in the fall of 2019 the accumulation of damage coincided with its difficulty in collecting compensation for players signing with other organizations came to a head, and the DA had no choice but to begin charging players' families - three thousand per year. The costs of running each age bracket were estimated by our source to be in the one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollar range.

The inability to sell players, or as a non-MLS DA to expect training compensation as does the rest of the world, it wasn't a surprise the change had to be made. They put the blame for this outcome squarely on the shoulders of the US Soccer Federation.

On the decision to suspend the Cosmos DA Academy, one parent had this to say: "The state of U.S Soccer and how it's run...[is] at the root of this decision."

Doors all across the country have been closed to youth players in recent days. While this is a supporter blog focused on the Cosmos community, it's also about thousands of kids who were already dealing with the anxiety of dislocation over school and everyday life; the worry that their family may get sick and possibly risk mortal harm. And then, this happens. There were already too few doors open to too few players, and too many of those few players from a cohort singled out mainly by their ability to pay to play. The destruction of national girls development, and the vast contraction of boys development venues so that MLS can control the key to a greater percentage of development opportunities, is the worst possible outcome for a nation with a potential talent pool of tens of millions. The rot of our soccer institutions runs clean through, while the handful of journalists supposedly holding US soccer accountable look the other way for fear of upsetting their niche relationships. Scouting was a cruel joke before the demise of the DA system; its privatization and further consolidation into MLS hands is ethically criminal. Is this sport about community or is it about money (and money being captured by other people)? It's certainly not about being the best, in this country. Anyone saying so is lying. Our children deserve so much more.

James Izurieta is a regular contributor and editor for First Team Podcast.


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