Resurrecting the New York Cosmos: A Scottish perspective

Pele's presence established the New York Cosmos as an international brand during their NASL days.
Pele's presence established the New York Cosmos as an international brand during their NASL days.©Miramax/Everett/Rex Features

Pele has just played his first game for the New York Cosmos, and is in the showers. As he looks up, he catches the eye of Cosmos Vice-President, Raphael de la Sierra, and gestures him to come over.

It’s then that the Brazilian, tempted out of retirement to transform ‘soccer’ into the next major sporting league in the States, drops a bombshell. “This is the first, and the last, game I play here.”

De La Sierra struggles to respond coherently. Everything the Cosmos had worked to achieve would vanish without their talismanic superstar. Soccer in the US would be dead before it had even been born.

Pele elaborates. “The most important thing in my life are my feet, and look at my them.” He points to a peculiar green coloration on his feet and exclaims, “Look, I’ve contracted some sort of fungus over here. I’m not playing with you anymore.”

De La Sierra bursts into laughter, much to Pele’s bemusement. Finally, he composes himself and the Vice-President delivers a punchline to relieve his new signing.

“It’s green paint. We painted the field green to make it look good for the television cameras.”

It’s a story that illustrates the charm of the Cosmos tale, and how, such was the emphasis on getting the three-time World Cup winner to the States, they forgot to actually find a suitable pitch for him to play on first.

Perhaps given that original oversight, it’s understandably prudent that the twenty-first century re-incarnation of the Cosmos have been told to find somewhere to play first, before they can fill MLS’s 20th franchise spot.

A worldwide icon of the Stateside soccer boom of the 1970s and 80s, the Cosmos attracted some of the biggest names to the fledgling NASL, before vanishing in a burst of over indulgent insolvency to become just a wistful memory of the nostalgic, football fan.

So when MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted that the league planned to continue its recent expansion with the addition of a second New York team, a full Cosmos comeback seemed a predetermined eventuality.

However, in typical Cosmos fashion, the bid to be admitted into the top flight of American soccer has descended into direction-less farce just 18 months after its hyperbolical, star-studded launch.

In October last year, Garber revealed he’d held a closed meeting in his private suite during a USA international fixture with three prospective investors to discuss plans for a new franchise.

The Cosmos were not represented.

For all the stardust and celebrity endorsement, the Cosmos didn’t even have a hierarchy to present to Garber.

Instead, the commissioner was forced to answer questions in the media regarding the Cosmos’ volatile ownership situation, commenting: “They’ve got some things that they’re trying to work out within their own ownership group.”

That ownership group Garber spoke of has now been removed with Paul Kemsley, the Englishman who had led the public resurrection of the Cosmos as CEO and Chairman, having his majority shares bought out by Saudi Arabian sports marketing company Sela Sports last year.

The new investors have already stated that they will conduct a “full restructure of both our business and staffing”, suggesting an end to the sickly, overstated promotion that heralded the ‘return’ of the Cosmos.

But in the Cosmos’ confusion others have risen.

A second New York franchise has always been the preference of Garber, but now any prospective team looking to settle in one of the city’s five boroughs, including the Cosmos, could well be considered outsiders in a battle, which now must be considered a nationwide affair.

Garber travelled to Florida last week to meet with mayor of Orlando Buddy Dyer, owner of Orlando City Soccer Club Phil Rawlins as well as fans of the USL Pro club, who aim to convince the league chief to back the first Floridian MLS franchise since 2001 rather than a second NYC side.

It was an impressive demonstration with the commissioner greeted by hundreds of Orlando fans and even a specially-erected billboard welcoming him to the city.

He said: “While New York City remains the league’s focus for our 20th club, it’s important to continue evaluating future opinions as we continue to grow the league.

“This growth has been built on a foundation of strategic expansion strategies and a growing passionate soccer fan base across North America.

“As such, I’ve been impressed with Orlando City’s success on and off the field and look forward to meeting with local supporters and speaking directly with key public officials about the future of professional soccer in Orlando.”

So what does this mean for New York, and specifically, the Cosmos?

Should the MLS, and indeed the new owners, discount what the Cosmos achieved under Kemsley and the previous regime when devising their new approach?

The Cosmos at present are undoubtedly a brand. They have no players (other than the franchise’s youth academy), no manager, and crucially, no stadium.

But they do have the sort of global appeal that many feel could attract the sort of attention to MLS normally reserved exclusively for European leagues.

They even boast an English supporters club; the Bristol Cosmos.

Commercial partners and kit manufacturers Umbro have exploited their romantic allure by releasing a comprehensive range of updated Cosmos branded merchandise, including a jersey for the first team that’s yet to be assembled.

So why have Umbro committed so unreservedly to globally marketing a team that doesn’t even exist?

Steven Dow, owner of Edinburgh based football store and online retailer Football Nation, thinks that the heritage of the Cosmos connects with fans outside of the US.

“The Cosmos was the success story of 2011 in terms of merchandise sales, and was only a little bit behind the sales of established Premier League club sales. I’d imagine the Cosmos accounts for more sales of replica jerseys than all of the MLS sides combined.

“Clearly they have the benefit of the Cosmos’ heritage on their side but the MLS needs to learn from the way the Cosmos are marketed. They don’t even have a team yet and they’re selling thousands of products across the world.

“In the space of less than a year, I would summarize that there are more Cosmos shirts on the backs of British football fans than MLS shirts from the last five years. It shows just what can be achieved and the long and short of it is that the MLS must allow the Cosmos in.”

MLS has arguably never been stronger, with last season’s average attendance standing at 17,870 in comparison to the NASL’s best season (1980), which only reached 14,201. This statistic means the MLS also surpassed both the NBA (17,319) and NHL (17,126) in average attendance per game last year.

Many have attributed this to the admission of former NASL franchises, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and from this season, Montreal Impact.

It seems unlikely there will be a 20th franchise before 2014, but would another expansion continue to strengthen the league? Furthermore, would a second New York team strengthen global interest in the division?

Would the Cosmos’ admittance establish MLS as a truly major league? And could they attract a new worldwide following to the MLS that perhaps a team like Orlando couldn’t?

“I’m not so sure about that”, says Derek Rae, who spent over a decade commentating on MLS games for ESPN.

“I think we’re still a long way away from reaching the stage where MLS holds the interest of vast numbers of football fans in other countries.”

However Rae, who now works for ESPN in the UK, adds that although soccer in the States has undergone drastic development since he first moved across the Atlantic in the 1990s, the Cosmos could further improve MLS.

“It’s changed beyond all recognition within a decade. Prior to the 1994 World Cup it was very much a minority sport seen by many not as a sport for Americans. But now the interest level in soccer has picked up greatly.

“In the early years of MLS there was an intense reluctance to have any association with the old NASL. It was viewed as damaged goods. Only in recent times have the MLS’ organisers come to terms with the fact that the NASL had many positives as well as obvious negatives.

“It’s hard to imagine the Cosmos, even in their modern incarnation, not enhancing the landscape. The league would without doubt be missing out on something if they don’t admit the Cosmos. MLS has had success with the introduction of other old NASL teams in the Seattle Sounders and such. The New York Cosmos name has a certain cache.”

The Cosmos need a stadium that much is certain. But if the franchise was to be instated as the MLS’s 20th team, would that be enough to persuade fans from outside the US to support them?

Paul Dalglish, former Hibernian and Livingston striker and 2006 MLS Cup winner with the Houston Dynamo, doesn’t think so.

“It’s a bit like a bootleg band at the moment. Right now, it’s not the same as the Cosmos that were so successful and popular in the 70s and 80s. The reason that the Cosmos were so successful the first time round was that they attracted Pele and some of the biggest names in the game to a whole new audience.

“For them to be a success now they need to go and get the Peles of the time. Of course that means players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and it doesn’t need to be said how difficult that would be, but maybe that’s what they would need to do.

“The old Cosmos caught the imagination of the world. If they can do that again, I think I’ll become a supporter. Fans all over the world will become supporters”, the Scot concluded.

Imagination is the principal driver behind the Cosmos bid sparking romantic memories of the celebrated team that once graced the Giants Stadium in the NASL.

But now they face a different challenge. They need to focus on how to re-capture the passion of not just soccer fans in the US and around the world, but more importantly Garber.

They need to concentrate on what they can offer MLS right now, not what they once were in the past or what they may be in the future.

It’s a tactic now being used by the competition, such as Orlando, to gain ground in the race for the prestigious 20th franchise.

Endearing tales from a bygone era may no longer be enough for the Cosmos.

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