Back in the 1970’s, the New York Cosmos took America by storm, boosting the popularity of soccer in the country. The team brought in Pele, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia to play for them, and soon saw attendance as high as 70,000 in New York to watch professional soccer. Just a few decades earlier, the U.S. managed to beat England in the World Cup in 1950, yet no America’s really knew that this happened or even really cared. In fact many thought the score was a misprint, and some newspapers reported the score differently.
So what made soccer popular all of the sudden in the 1970’s? The professional league then, the North American Soccer League (NASL) started with a small number of teams but quickly expanded with hopes of becoming the next major professional sport league in North America. The crown jewel of the league became the New York Cosmos in 1975, when Pele joined the team, and with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia, the trio of extremely well paid stars the team was the toast of the town, as mentioned in this New York Times article. The team was so popular that rock stars like Mick Jagger would show up to meet the team and hang out with them in New York nightclubs. But the New York Cosmos, while being the most popular and famous team in the history of the NASL, also would be the team that lead to its downfall. After the Cosmos started to pay high salaries for stars, other teams in the NASL followed suit, and with rapid expansion, the league was soon too big to be sustainable, and was paying salaries that were much more than any team could afford. And within less than a decade of Pele’s appearance in North America, the league folded, going broke as teams just could not control their spending.
And yet, still people remember the wonderful days of the New York Cosmos. In fact one man named Paul Kemsley loved the Cosmos so much he bought up a bunch of their stuff, put them in boxes and locked them away in storage, guarding them as he grew older, much like the guardian of the Holy Grail in the one Indiana Jones movie. In order to keep the Cosmos name and logo, Kemsley ran soccer camps each year using the teams name and logo which he had bought the rights to, and spend almost a million dollars in legal fees suing those who tried to use the Cosmos.
Now, the Cosmos seem to be on their way back. Recently Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS) said that the final spot in the league (the 20th franchise) would be sold to a franchise that would be based in New York. Speculation began to fly as to who this team would be, and who would buy them. No real news has come of this yet, but the Cosmos have seem to have risen from the ashes and are making a push towards being that 20th team to enter the MLS. Quite ironic, as the Cosmos and NASL’s failure were the model for the single-entity league structure which the MLS has employed to keep down player costs. In the New York Times articles this issue is discussed, especially with Mr. Kemsley’s goal of being number one soccer franchise in the world. And already the words have begun flying between Garber and Kemsley in regards to the Cosmos’ future.
“They need to believe in the M.L.S. system, which is not about one team dominating everybody else, like the Cosmos did 30 years ago, and if they don’t believe in our system, we won’t sell them the team.”
“We intend to meet the requirements of the M.L.S. We intend to play nicely.”
I’ll be curious to how the MLS responds to the Cosmos’ interest in joining the league. The tradition is something that the MLS likes, but it surely brings back bad memories of the NASL’s death, and the U.S. losing out the 1986 World Cup bid to Mexico because of the NASL’s demise. If the Cosmos do come back, I’m sure the league will make sure their pocketbooks are kept under tight control.
On a final note for everyone’s amusement, the Portland Timbers, one of the MLS’ newest franchises began play this past week, and their “mascot” Timber Joey has stepped in to take the place of Timber Jim at games. Timber Jim supposedly brought a chainsaw to games for decades, and now Timber Joey fires up the chainsaw each time the Timbers score a goal (Timber Joey was busy the first night with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Fire). That said, the Timbers have been a real success this year in regards to attendance and fan support. The Pacific Northwest is really looking to be the hotbed of soccer in the United States.