When asked to imagine the president of a soccer team or an entire league it’s not too difficult to imagine wealthy businessmen, large corporations or shady figures that sit in luxury boxes. One has to look no further than the New York City metropolitan area, where the three professional soccer teams are respectively owned by: a large corporation funded by the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi, an Austrian energy drink corporation, and the owner of one of the largest cable television networks in the United States. Team owners and league presidents are far removed, both physically and socioeconomically, from the masses of die-hard fanatics and families that make up the audience for the product they sell.
Despite the financial inequalities between those in charge of professional teams and the fans that support them, around the world soccer is still the game of the masses. Whereas organized sports like American football and hockey require hundreds of dollars of specialized equipment per player, all you need for soccer is a ball, shoes, clothing and a field.
A walk through a New York City park will give you an idea of the number of people that play some form of organized soccer. From children to groups of older adults, there are thousands of soccer teams in New York City. Each of those teams has to find a league to play in, resulting in hundreds of organized soccer leagues throughout New York City. The biggest and oldest league in New York City is the Cosmopolitan Soccer League. Founded in 1923 as the German-American Soccer League, becoming the German American Football Association in 1927 and keeping that name until 1977 where it was given the name it still holds today.
How To Run A League
Mike Fitzgerald has been president of the Cosmopolitan Soccer League since 2013. He and his team oversee 105 total teams between all levels of the league.
Far removed from the midtown Manhattan offices of MLS, Fitzgerald commutes to the CSL office, located in Northern New Jersey due to a lower tax burden, after he’s done with work and everything else he has to do at home. In fact, almost all of the staff of the Cosmopolitan Super League work at the office part time, after their 9-5 jobs, and volunteer their time to keep the league running.
“We have a staff that basically runs the office,” says Fitzgerald as he tries to recall how many hours he puts in during the week. It’s a volunteer job for him, putting in as much time as he can during the week. He’s quick to credit his staff for the countless hours they also put in. “The office staff probably works 20 hours a week to 30 hours a week doing that kind of work, and we’ve got 4-5 people in the office staff.” There are three part-time employees in the league office who work 20-30 hours a week during the league season. On top of that there are 2 digital media and site managers who are paid to run the league’s digital and advertising presence.
It’s very clearly a labor of love for the rest of the staff who also volunteer their time to ensure all the players have a field to play on and a referee to officiate their matches. “We try to make sure we maintain a high level of quality by having a board with a president, several vice presidents, treasurers, controllers, auditors,” all of which are unpaid. “They work part-time but they’re there probably three days a week, and certainly on the weekends. They handle everything from scheduling to player registration, to collecting dues and paying out.
“We pay dues to Eastern New York soccer, to be part of that affiliation, that grants us certain rights and access to high quality referees. That also gets us into New York State tournaments and also allows us to participate in Region 1,” says Fitzgerald. The CSL affiliation with Eastern New York Soccer in order fall under the larger umbrella of the United States Adult Soccer Association. Region 1 is one of the 4 regions of the USASA, which encompasses divisions 4-13 in the US Soccer structure.
The US Soccer pyramid is a massively sprawling system, with millions of active players across the country spread across all 50 states. As a result of the sheer size of the pyramid, there is plenty of paperwork associated with registering players and teams. Fitzgerald is anxiously looking forward to the anticipated rollout of a completely digital system with individual ID numbers for each player in the US pyramid which would make the life of every coach and league president much easier.
With Fitzgerald’s unassuming demeanor and openness you’d be more likely to mistake him for a friendly bodega employee than a president who oversees a the largest soccer league in the New York City area (Editors note: he actually works at a bank in the Bronx). His time in the CSL started with the Manhattan Kickers, a club that superstar David Villa’s DV7 academy has partnered with recently. Fitzgerald recalls when he joined the Kickers as a player and how he eventually worked his way to the top of the organization, sometimes surprising himself along the way.
“I joined the league, personally in 1995 and took over what is called the Manhattan Kickers Football Club, a local New York City football club and worked my way into the board as a trustee.” He was first asked to take on a role as the organization’s treasurer, which he did for several years. During his time as treasurer he oversaw fundraising and events for the club.
“It was one of those events where I was sitting around with all the senior members club at the time and they had said, ‘Hey we’re looking to start a youth movement and we think we’ve found the perfect candidate’ and I’m looking around the room at who they could possibly be talking about, and the next thing you know we’re all clinking our glasses together and they look at me and say ‘Congratulations we just voted you the new manager of the club.’” From that point on he got to work on making sure the team had matching uniforms, organized practices and focused on building the quality of the side.
Fitzgerald was determined on focusing on the basic club infrastructure, which is a goal he brought with him to the league office.
About the teams
Each team is unique in their composition, neighborhood location and finances. Some teams have been around for almost a century, with established senior teams and reserve teams, playing on beautifully manicured fields while others have to scrounge up every penny they have to buy their uniforms and play on shared fields which are more dirt than grass.
“The teams are different, the makeup is different, what they can offer is different. The Pancyprian-Freedoms play their games at Belson Stadium at St. John’s. It’s one of the premier facilities in and around the New York area. It’s a beautiful professionally laid out facility.” NYCFC’s academy squad plays their home matches out of St. John’s Belson Stadium and the New York Cosmos hosted the NASL Championship match there in the past. “Then you’ve got people who are playing at the playgrounds, or out in Prospect Park and those fields are all torn up and you don’t really have nets on the goals,” he says. “We have a couple of clubs in the New York area that have been associated with the league for a very long time. Hoboken FC started back in the twenties when the league was founded.”
Much like top division MLS, there is a general sense of parity among the teams. Yet some teams manage to stand out due to excellent management or financial backing, sometimes even both. “Our first division is some of the best quality in the country and those teams are run like professional teams with trainers and managers and coaches. They have strong supporters, they have a strong financial backing” he says.
“The Lansdowne Bhoys who play up in Tibbetts, in Yonkers just won the Fricker Cup, and the Open Cup [the national amateur cup is the amateur equivalent to Lamar Hunt US Open Cup], they won it all. They’re hands down, by far, the best amateur team in the country right now. They just won three trophies in a row over two weekends.”
Successes and struggles
Fitzgerald mentions the Lansdowne Bhoys as an example of a team many try to emulate for their success on and off the pitch. “To be able to travel from New York to Milwaukee, and there from Dallas, out to Seattle to play these matches and to play these types of games. We are still talking about amateur level soccer and there’s a lot of infrastructure that goes into it,” he says. “Getting a quality field, getting quality players, and just getting people to show up on a Sunday when they’ve got work and family and friends and kids and other priorities is always a challenge.”
They key to a successful team is commitment he says. “It’s about commitment and guys who are willing to have their buddies’ back. [To say] ‘I’m not going to let this guy down. I’m going to be there on Sunday whether it’s snowing or whether it’s 120 degrees on that turf field up in the Bronx.’”
Much like global powerhouse teams, amateur sides tend to go through a rebuilding phase every couple of years and this is the biggest challenge for teams. “When you go through that rebuilding process, it’s not easy to find those quality players – to bring them in and fill the gaps that have been created,” acknowledges Fitzgerald.
“You have someone who joins the team as a young kid, and he’s trying to improve his game, he’s trying to work his way into the starting lineup and he finally makes that break, he finally gets that opportunity, and then meets a girl and the next thing you know they’re planning a wedding and then the next thing you know they’re having kids and then the next thing you know he’s joining your over-30 team and he’s showing up sparingly. Life gets in the way.”
It’s a scenario familiar to recent college graduates and 20-somethings in New York: people who you used to spend countless weekends with aren’t around anymore. “Life gets in the way of amateur soccer. You’re not getting paid, so you have to find a way to maintain your lifestyle and still be able to play soccer and do all those things you’ve wanted to do. I wish everyone could just play soccer and have fun all the time. That’s my dream.”
As a result of player turnover, teams have to find new talent quickly. Fortunately for the CSL, New York City tends to attract a lot of people. CSL sides have a lot of international players that make up the teams just because it’s New York City. “Our league is quite unique in that way – we have that attraction being that it’s New York and a lot of people who come here from overseas or other areas are always seeking high quality soccer to play – and this is where they come.”
But it’s not just recent immigrants on these teams. “We have a fair number of ex-MLS players in the league. In fact I had a couple of guys on my team throughout the years,” explains Fitzgerald. “When they feel like ‘I can’t compete at that professional level anymore, let me see what’s local to New York that I can keep getting that fix that I need’, playing soccer every couple of nights a week. We attract USL players, MLS players, college players and in fact some of our guys will go the other direction – they’ll come to us after college and have a couple of years with say the Pancyprian-Freedoms or the Cedar Stars who are starting an academy, and next thing you know they’re getting plucked by a professional team and off they go. So we’re kind of that intermediary spot between professional level and really, recreation amateur.”
Long Island native and current Vancouver Whitecap Tim Parker was among who chose to play in the lower divisions during college to avoid being tied to home grown status with the Red Bulls.
NYCFC’s Impact (or lack-thereof)
So how has the introduction of NYCFC changed the game for the CSL? The short version is, not as much as the league would have hoped. “They had reached out to me and asked how they could establish a relationship with the CSL, so last summer we did a CSL Championship Day out at the stadium,” said Fitzgerald. “We had about 60 players and coaches show up and they blasted our names, all the championship members, across the big diamond screen and showed us out in the audience, it was pretty cool. It was for us, a great little acknowledgement that we were there supporting NYCFC and they were supporting us and our championship teams and things like that.”
Training or coaching help, however, has been non-existent from NYCFC – who otherwise has been very active in the community through their City In The Community program. “It would be great when there are clinics and there are sessions and things like that where we could offer that to our younger players who maybe want to get exposure to some of the talent and the education that can be offered by NYCFC in between.” One has to assume the lack of a full-time dedicated facility makes outreach difficult for NYCFC, who lease grounds in every phase of the organization from the Senior squad (Yankee Stadium) down to the Academy (St. John’s & World Class FC).
Growing the game
As the league President, Mike Fitzgerald always asks himself what he can do to grow the game in New York. Promotion and relegation has been pointed to by some as the silver bullet for growing the game across the country. He sees it as a fantastic idea in theory, however the practical applications need fine-tuning. “One of the things we grapple with as a league ourselves is the whole promotion/demotion with the higher levels of soccer that are in and around New York.”
One of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue for any league considering promotion and relegation is the logistics. “We have talked about what it would look like if we were to expand to that level from a promotion/demotion perspective and to me that’s the biggest challenge,” he explains.
“As an example, even if we offered ourselves up to teams from Connecticut and they come down from Stamford, on Sunday it’s a 2 hour drive to get down to Queens to play a game and then you’ve got to drive back afterwards. Lets say that team gets demoted, well then what happens, do they come to our second division? Do they stay in the Connecticut second division? Do we take a replacement team from Connecticut? There’s certainly a lot of challenges involved in that. You can have the dream and aspiration of growing your footprint and growing your product to offer your teams to Connecticut and even other parts of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, but then the question remains: how do you administer that? How do you really monitor that? Because you don’t want those teams to end up having to forfeit [because of weather and rescheduling issues] and that’s the challenge.”
Despite his best intentions and given the difficulties teams face in finding people to play local games, it’s unlikely promotion and relegation is implemented on a wide level across the tri-state area in the near future. He says he’s thought a lot about the idea of promotion and relegation among the lower leagues in New York City and talked to other teams and leagues about it.
Fitzgerald isn’t one to give up on the big picture so easily. He admits that he’s discussed the idea of championship teams from each league playing in a Champions League tournament over a weekend in a competition styled after continental Champions Leagues. “We used to have something in New York called the Mayor’s Cup. Something that the Cosmos used to run that became Copa NYC,” he adds.
The Mayor’s Cup was a miniature and local version of the World Cup. Teams from around the city, generally with players from different nations, would come together to compete in a weekend tournament in Queens to determine the best team. Fitzgerald said the CSL helped provide organization and officials for the matches but eventually the Cosmos organization decided that they didn’t need the league’s help anymore and tried running it on their own. The Cosmos’ efforts to boost the competition initially helped, though as their own team faced financial issues, projects like the Mayor’s Cup fell to the wayside and it’s since been scrapped which is seen as a major loss to the NYC soccer community. The New York Cosmos declined to comment on the prospect of the revival of the Mayors Cup.
“It’s kind of hard for me to say that they’re going to bring it back,” says Fitzgerald of the Mayor’s Cup. “If it was something that our league could continue to help sponsor and grow, or if we could come together with all the other leagues in New York City and create something similar.” As of now that’s one of the more realistic ideas he has to grow the game in New York.
That is, when he and his team of volunteers aren’t working, taking care of their families or overseeing the 100+ teams that make up the Cosmopolitan Super League.