The New York Cosmos and the best and worst of American soccer

The New York Cosmos and the best and worst of American soccer

In 2007, David Beckham left Real Madrid. He had regained his place in Fabio Capello’s starting line-up and played an integral part in Los Blancos’ return to the pinnacle of Spanish Football, winning La Liga as a result of their better head to head record in that season’s Clásicos. Astonishingly, the world celebrity and talented player’s next move was to sign for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer midway through that season.

David Beckham, one of the most famous footballers of all-time, had – in theory – come to America to change the fortunes of soccer in the United States. Brand Beckham was going to take the MLS, and the sport in America to another level, and finally alter the quality of the game on the continent to a point where it would rival the European game. Beckham certainly wasn’t the first to try, and he may not be the last.

In 1975, the most famous footballer of all time, Pelé, signed up to do what Beckham aimed to do over 30 years later. After his defining moment in winning the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Pelé had retired from international football. He would continue to play for his boyhood team Santos in domestic competition and would later achieve the unbelievable feat of scoring 1,000 goals in competitive matches.

He would officially retire in 1974, only playing occasional matches for Santos, no longer the greatest player in world football. Imagine the shock of many when, in 1975, the most famous football player of all signed up to play for a team no-one had even heard of before, turning down offers from clubs like Juventus. Pelé was going to play for the New York Cosmos, and his signing would epitomise everything that was great – and wrong – with the North American Soccer League.

Pelé wouldn’t be the only one. The list of players – admittedly past their prime but still capable of sheer brilliance – who played for the Cosmos is astonishing. Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Wim Rijsbergen, Marinho, Gordon Banks, Rivellino and Clodoaldo all turned out for the Cosmos, although some of those were appearances in exhibition matches.

Pelé and Chinaglia – signed at his peak from Lazio in 1976 – would carry the Cosmos throughout the next two seasons, although the two reportedly disagreed on the pitch, with Chinaglia feeling Pelé would often come too close to his part of the pitch and wouldn’t give him the ball enough – but it was in 1977 (a decade after the inception of the league) that the Cosmos and the NASL as a whole took off, with Pelé as the driving force.

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In 1977, the club – now named simply the Cosmos – had moved from its lowly beginnings to playing in front of tens of thousands at the newly-built Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. However, with a third-place finish and a loss in the divisional round in Pelé’s first two seasons, those in charge at the Cosmos – and, by default, Warner Communications – decided that more was needed in order for the club to reach the Soccer Bowl.

In May they signed Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer. Beckenbauer instantly became a leader on the field – much to the dismay of Chinaglia, who confidently claimed that the club didn’t need the German – but improvements weren’t immediate, with the club losing 4-2 to Tampa Bay in Beckenbauer’s first game. Still, the management felt they needed more, and with four games left in the regular season, on the day of the infamous blackout in New York in 1977, Carlos Alberto arrived in the United States. The Cosmos had reached the peak of their powers.

Despite their now star-studded line-up, the Cosmos only finished the regular season with a 15-11 record, still enough to qualify for the playoffs. They eased past Tampa Bay – who had Rodney Marsh – 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs, before they moved into a series format. Fort Lauderdale were defeated two games to nil in the divisional round, with game 1 selling out Giants Stadium with an attendance of over 77,000 – clear evidence that soccer was growing in America. Rochester were the opponents in the conference championship but were easily swept them aside with a 2-0 series win, 2-1 in game 1 and 4-1 in game 2. The Cosmos had finally reached the Soccer Bowl – and it would be Pelé’s last professional game.

The 1977 Soccer Bowl was played at Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon with the Cosmos going up against the Seattle Sounders. Pelé would claim that this was his greatest performance since signing for the Cosmos, but he wouldn’t get on the scoresheet; the glory instead went to winger Stephen Hunt – winner of the Soccer Bowl MVP – and Chinaglia, heading in a Hunt cross from the byline.

The 1977 NASL Most Valuable Player award went to Beckenbauer for his performances from midfield. Importantly for the Cosmos players and management, Pelé went out as a champion, in a moment that – despite being obviously good marketing – was genuine. Pelé played a few more exhibitions for the Cosmos, but his career was over. He had drawn over 77,000 people to come and watch soccer, had helped attendances soar around the league, and brought other famous names to the NASL.

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Beckenbauer himself said that he was “proud to play in the same team as Pelé”. Perhaps more importantly, the television company ABC had negotiated to broadcast NASL games on their network. It appeared that Pelé had done his job and that soccer and the NASL would now progress to rival the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL for the affections of American sports fans.

Without Pelé, the Cosmos continued to dominate the NASL, both on and off the pitch, winning the championship again in 1978 – Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto were named as all-stars – with goals from new signing Dennis Tueart and Chinaglia sealing a 3-1 win and a repeat championship. They would lose to Vancouver in the conference championship in 1979 in an NASL shootout – a format that Johan Cruyff loved –  before gaining their third title in four years in 1980, defeating Fort Lauderdale 3-0 in front of 50,000 fans at Memorial Stadium. However, while the Cosmos were dominating with their list of stars, the league itself was faltering. The Cosmos were responsible for its ascension, but they also contributed to its collapse.

Warner’s desire to improve the Cosmos and the NASL led it to spend excessively in order to bring in the list of names you read above. This undoubtedly caused the NASL to improve, but it also developed two trains of thought amongst NASL owners. Businessmen either wanted to be a part of this money pit and bought franchises they couldn’t adequately afford, or the excessive spending of the Cosmos deterred them, not wanting to spend millions – Pelé’s salary alone eventually amounted to $4.7 million – bringing in ageing foreign stars without guarantees of success. Entertaining thought it may have been, there are many who argue that the Cosmos’ ‘win now’ attitude destabilised the league, at a time when it desperately needed stability in order to continue growing.

Furthermore, the Cosmos quickly became the dominant team in the NASL. Although other star names such as Rodney Marsh, Eusébio, Alan Ball, Gordon Banks, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Gerd Müller, Roberto Bettega, Ruud Krol, Rob Rensenbrink, George Best and Peter Lorimer came to the NASL, no other team could boast a line-up as glittering and cohesive as the Cosmos. In professional sport, competition – and therefore some element of parity – always leads to more interest.

Of course, there were also elements that were well out of the Cosmos’ control. The league and ABC’s handling of the sport’s full-time introduction to television faced issues from the start. Some wanted to slowly build the NASL into sports programming, showing highlights such as saves, goals and key players, whilst others wanted the full-fat version – games from the outset.

On average, two million American homes tuned in to watch NASL games – with the Cosmos regularly as the featured side – but often these games were scheduled poorly, meaning that the general public would either be at work or otherwise occupied when many were played. When this is considered, it is no wonder that soccer on television in America failed, and by 1981, the Soccer Bowl was being shown on ABC via tape delay. Average attendances reached their height in 1980, at 14,440, but without a television deal – crucial for any sport to thrive – the NASL was living on borrowed time.

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The league itself has also been blamed for expanding too quickly. In 1978, those in charge of the NASL had responded to the unprecedented success of the 1977 season by expanding the league to 24 teams. This meant that the quality of the league that had existed in 1977 became diluted, with many of the owners unable to afford to run a franchise. Not only that, but the glitz and glamour that came with seeing the names listed above was muddied by the introduction of many players who were not good enough to be professionals. As a result, the quality of many games declined, and when this is combined with the poor direction of the televised programming, it is unsurprising that the league, which had once shone so bright, began to fall apart.

In 1982, the Cosmos won their fifth championship, and their fourth since the arrival of Pelé seven years earlier, but the league was on its way out. Owners were desperately looking to jump the sinking ship, and when Warner Communication’s empire collapsed, the company was forced to sell the subsidy that technically owned the Cosmos.

Oddly, Chinaglia bought the club – through Global Soccer Inc. – but he was financially unable to keep many of the star names that had caused the Cosmos and the NASL to thrive in 1977. In the last season of the NASL in 1984, the Cosmos failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since Pelé’s first season in 1975. The NASL folded soon after and soccer didn’t return to the United States until the first season of Major League Soccer in 1996, a full two years after the World Cup was hosted.

As Rodney Marsh famously said, “The New York Cosmos were the best and worst of American soccer.” Very briefly they dazzled and delighted tens of thousands, but their glitz and glamour blinded them from the real focus of developing football in the United States. Whilst it would be unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of Warner Communications and other extravagant owners, their galáctico-esque policy undoubtedly contributed to the downfall of the league and delayed the growth of soccer in America.

Although soccer may never reach the levels it could – and perhaps should – the MLS has provided a stable league, albeit with a myriad of new issues, from which the sport in North America can hopefully grow. However, whilst it is easy to criticise the Cosmos, they should also be praised for their intent to grow and draw crowds to come and watch soccer, and whilst the NASL ultimately failed, it showed that there is a loyal and dedicated fan base within the USA, one that simply needed to be provided with stable, frequent soccer.

The NASL ultimately proved unable to do this but the league and the Cosmos provided a foundation upon which Major League Soccer could build – and lessons that can be learnt from. In that sense, $4.7 million for Pelé in 1975 could still yet prove to be a worthy investment, and Pelé’s aim to drive American soccer to compete against the best in the world may still be achieved.

By Jonathon Aspey @JLAspey

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