Many believed it would never actually happen; that the apparent rebirth of the once mighty New York Cosmos was little more than a marketing exercise.
At times, it seemed as though the only real purpose behind the 2009 acquisition of the Cosmos name & logo from erstwhile owner Guiseppe Pinton (who was once personal assistant to the club’s star striker Giorgio Chinaglia) was to try and cash in on any brand value the 70’s era logo and history still held. Pinton, for his part, claimed ownership of the Cosmos by virtue of being the last person standing when all others (including then co-owner Chinaglia) had deserted the crumbling franchise in 1985.
And yet, after more changes in ownership, several announcements (some curious) and a little media hype (if mostly local), one couldn’t help but notice that the New York Cosmos actually played a game last weekend. Naturally, they won.
On August 3rd 2013 at 7pm at Shuart stadium (Hofstra University), the new Cosmos took the field for the first time in a competitive league match. They defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2-1. The late season start was the result of the Cosmos election to play competitive matches only in the second part of the NASL’s new-for-2013 split season.
In truth, the Cosmos that took to the pitch last week bore more resemblance to the Randy Horton led squads that played (at both Yankee stadium and Hofstra University) in the early 1970s than they did to the all star teams that drew tens of thousands of fans to the Meadowlands. There was no modern day Beckenbauer, Pele, or Alberto in uniform, nor a Cabanas, Bogicevic, Romero or Neeskens. If Studio 54 were still around, one gets the feeling the new Cosmos would have had to wait in line just like everyone else.
Happily, though, Pele, Shep Messing and Carlos Alberto were on hand to celebrate the rebirth of the club. A crowd announced at just under 12,000 (capacity at Shuart) took up their seats and cheered the new team. It’s just one game, but the attendance was 3-4 times what is considered good by modern NASL standards, and more than double what the original Cosmos averaged in their first four years.
So what of these new Cosmos, then? Could they ever recapture the kind of following that the original club once (briefly) had?
While playing in the NASL – inescapably now a second tier league – might seem a significant disadvantage, it may actually help their cause. Unlike MLS, the NASL does not impose a rigid salary cap on teams, nor a formal allocation system to decide which team gets which player. Acquisitions are therefore much easier to manage – assuming the money is available. Certainly the Cosmos could never be recreated as part of MLS’ single entity structure.
Many factors are working against the new owners. Primarily, the kind of money that would be needed today to assemble a squad with four or five (arguably more) of the world’s best players would be staggering. It was possible to lure a 35yr old Pele from Santos with $1.4m in 1975 – several times what he could have made anywhere else (including Europe). Given not only the pay scales today in Europe but the marketing opportunities outside the game for major stars, it seems impossible that any sum (now or ten years from now) could pry a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Vidic in their prime from their present employers. Add to that the fact that MLS has been bringing over highly paid past-prime stars for years.
Still, it is also true that no-one believed the Cosmos could sign Pele from Santos in 1975.
Even if the proposed $400m stadium is never built and the new Cosmos never manage to attract the caliber of stars the old club did, though, isn’t the football world better off with a franchise actually in New York? And carrying that name?
Perhaps, but only if they have the wherewithal to carry it in style. Over the next five or six years, the club will have to find a better home and at very least sign enough quality players to outshine their New Jersey rivals, Red Bull NY. MLS is unlikely to make this easy for them (Cosmos requests for friendlies will likely fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard not to see Garber’s recent “we’ll expand to 24 teams” claim as anything other than an effort to keep the NASL permanently hemmed in to smaller markets)
The Cosmos of today will likely never be what the 1970s club was, but they cannot survive buried in the shadow of their own neighbors. The ownership group is wealthy, but few owners in sport can outspend Red Bull principal Dietrich Mateschitz (the wealthy sometimes aspire to owning a Formula One racing team. Mr. Mateschitz, of course, owns two).
Despite the difficulties ahead, fans should enjoy the nostalgia that seeing the Cosmos jersey and name will bring. Try to remember that in 30 years away, the legend has grown quite a bit greater than the actual club was.
Just don’t expect the new club to have the kind of meteoric rise and fall that their namesakes once had. The influence of “outside” media company money that permitted the level of spending the Cosmos employed is no longer unique – every club of substance exploits those revenue streams and most do it better than North American soccer clubs.
You really can’t go home again, particularly in the modern sporting landscape.
For more on the history of the original Cosmos, readers are advised to watch “Once in a Lifetime”, a 2006 Documentary on the history of the New York Cosmos.
The first MLS Cup Final in 1996 was a dramatic affair that saw D.C. United recover from a late two-goal deficit against the Los Angeles Galaxy to win through Eddie Pope’s golden goal in overtime.
Yet the drama at Foxborough Stadium that day could not come close to emulating the ‘Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil’ — the first continental professional final held between franchises from those two cities to crown the 1967 United Soccer Association champion.
Nearly 18,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum witnessed 11 goals, two hat-tricks, three penalty kicks, last-minute equalizers in normal and extra-time, one sending off, countless punch-ups and a heartbreaking golden own goal in sudden-death overtime.
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The North American Soccer league imported many players in the 70s who were among the best in the world; Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, George Best, Gerd Mueller, my personal favorite, Patrick ‘Ace” Ntsoelengoe, and others who were World Cup Champions, European Champions, Copa Libertadores champions.
But perhaps none was a bigger personality or longer lasting on the American stage than Giorgio. The outspoken Italian began his professional soccer life in Wales, before returning to Italy and Lazio, the Italian National Team and the 1974 World Cup, and then, concluding one illustrious and controversial career and beginning another with the New York Cosmos.
In recent times Giorgio combined with Charlie Stillitano, who grew up in the shadow of Giants Stadium and the awesomeness of the Cosmos aura, to present an international soccer talk and call-in show in the United States on SiriusXM. Giorgio, as always, was more than willing to share his unfettered opinions on a range of subjects across the soccer world.
His endless supply of anecdotes from the past and observations on the present were always interesting, often caused debate, and always were good listening. “Let’s be honest” or “I’ll be honest” were his common refrains and his commentary was unblinkingly so!
Perhaps it is the Giorgios of the sports world our sport is missing. The major sports all have their respective “shock jocks” on various media platforms across the country. There is no lack of pontification about the NFL or college football, the NBA or college basketball, or Major League Baseball.
Was Giorgio providing a service, albeit with limited market penetration, that we demonstrably need? Eric Wynalda of Fox Soccer Channel and Alexi Lalas of ESPN have skirted along the margins of controversy (well Eric has a little more than skirted) but neither has consistently invoked the ire and reaction among fans and pros alike that Giorgio did.
So I wonder if we need the next Giorgio to step up and, we, the fans of the greatest game, need to clamor for someone we can debate, disagree with, detest or love, or more than simply listen to on a major media outlet. Anyone listening?
Another sad note: One of the Cosmos top newsman/reporters, Ike Kuhns, passed away recently as well. Ike was awarded the National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum’s Colin Jose Media Award in 2008. He was popular and highly regarded by both his peers and the general public. Among his many possessions at the time of his honor was an impressive and highly valued collection of World Series programs.
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