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.
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