The Metropolitan: Working on a Dream

by Clerical Staff

In a way they never left. After all, it was only literally that they went away in the first place: a dream leaves its traces long after the dreamer awakens, and the New York Cosmos were always as much a dream – a fantasy – as they were a reality. But on 1st August 2010 the Cosmos returned, this time with Eric Cantona as the ringmaster and this time ‘all about Cruyff.’ Almost arbitrarily identifying the revived project with Cruyff is unsurprising, of course; not even Madrid’s galacticos had a superstar line-up to rival that of the Cosmos in their heyday. If any player trumps Ronaldo, o Fenômeno, it must be Pele, o Rei, and once you add Beckenbauer to the mix you are talking about something truly special. As Brian Philips has noted, the Cosmos were far from the quotidian and at times resembled less a football team than a ‘disco starship’. And there is no better front to the operation: Cantona has prior experience with such projects (complete with sexy editing to the sound track of ‘A Little Less Conversation’).

This piece focuses on the fate of soccer in New York, and in doing so will look at a microcosm of the fate of soccer across the United States.[1] Due to the scale of this inquiry, stones will be left unturned and certain truths may avoid illumination. Nevertheless, the grand narrative suggested here (as fashionable as grand narratives are nowadays) possesses the robustness to shoulder these niggling complaints and provide structure for further inquiry.[2]

We shall begin by looking at the brief history of soccer in America. It cannot be denied that soccer has rarely inspired the same fervent support Stateside as it has in the Old World. Its cultural footprint pales in comparison to that of its bedmates in the sporting fraternity: football, baseball and basketball; tellingly, the dénouement of The Naked Gun was set at a baseball, rather than soccer, game. Perhaps this is peculiar given the large immigrant population that the United States enjoys, which this is nowhere more the case than in New York. The Big Apple is, by any stretch of the imagination, a cosmopolitan city – with a population approaching 9 million spaced over 300 square miles around 60% are immigrants. This population never forgot their roots, resulting in the phenomenon of ‘hyphenated Americans’ – German-Americans, Italian-Americans et cetera were common place; the rarer species was the elusive American-American. This was reflected in the nascent soccer leagues founded nationwide and within New York City. Archaeological fancies such as Brooklyn Hispanico, New York Hakoah, New York Ukrainians, New York Hungaria and New York Pancyprian-Freedoms give an idea of the link between the immigrant community and soccer. And given the passion for soccer in the home nations of many of these populations (Ireland, Hungary, and Italy, to name a few), one would have thought that there would be a strong base for football to grow in New York. Arguably, if the sport was going to take off anywhere in the US then New York was the place. Yet its image was tarnished due to violence at games in the early twentieth century – ‘NIGHT STICKS SWING FREELY’ wrote one paper after a New Jersey title decider – and it was burdened with the pejorative label of an ‘immigrants’ game’.

Violence aside, the American Soccer League had some early success, with franchises numbering in the hundreds across the States. Yet the Great Depression put a hold on this – as the nation became more isolationist, soccer began to be considered an un-American sport. Indeed, one congressman went so far as to suggest that attempts to propagate soccer in the US were attempts by communists to influence the American youth.[3] By the 1960s, however, there were multiple organisations seeking the permission of the confusingly acronymed USSFA (United States Soccer Football Association) to launch a nationwide league. The USA (United Soccer Association – again, a misleading acronym) was granted this opportunity in 1965, but, not wanting to miss out, the NPSL (National Professional Soccer League) was also launched in 1967 as an unofficial, pirate league. Eager to get the league up to scratch, the USA looked for a quick fix solution and began its bizarre policy of importing and rebranding entire teams from other soccer-playing nations. Teams in competition included the Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers), the Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City), the Vancouver Royals (Sunderland), Toronto City (Hibernian), the Washington Whips (Aberdeen), the Dallas Tornado (Dundee United), Houston Stars (Bangu), the Chicago Mustangs (Cagliari) and, in New York, the Skyliners (Cerro of Uruguay). Meanwhile the NPSL took the more organic route of signing players to its franchises, including notable names such as Cesar Luis Menotti. Yet since the NPSL was an unofficial league, it had no recognition from FIFA, meaning that teams from this league could not play teams from a recognised league, and players looking to move from the NPSL to a recognised league faced disciplinary measures. With support split between two leagues, doppelganging teams and a low standard of competition, both the USA and NPSL were moribund. In December 1967, the decision was taken to merge the two and form the NASL (North American Soccer League). Whilst this was necessary for the survival of a national league, it proved the death knell for many of the franchises, of which there were simply too many compared to the limited demand. In the inaugural season, there were 17 sides competing. The following season only 5 of these remained. The NASL would have to rebuild soccer in America, almost from scratch.

Not quite still born, but nevertheless suffering from its traumatic birth, the NASL got going in 1968. Needing to stimulate interest in the sport and make franchises financially sustainable, the league’s commissioner, Phil Woosnam, had a momentous challenge before him. But he would not face this challenge alone: it fell to Clive Toye, recruited by Woosnam from the Baltimore Bays, to sell soccer to the American audience. Working under difficult circumstances, Woosnam and Toye were buoyed by their grand ideas; chief amongst these was the need to establish a strong New York franchise. New York was the unofficial media and commercial capital of the United States. In order to achieve the level of sponsorship and attention that they would need to make the NASL work, Woosnam and Toye knew that they needed a team in New York City (something lacking since the collapse of the Generals and the Skyliners). By the 1970 season, crowds were on the rise and the number of franchises had increased to 6; for the following season, Toye intended to expand this to 8, including one side from New York. His task, therefore, became to search for investment to back this expansion. Amongst those whom Toye sought out was broadcaster David Frost. Frost himself declined the opportunity, but suggested one of his contacts at Warner Communications: Nesuhi Ertegun, the Executive Vice President of Atlantic Records and a big soccer fan. Intrigued by the idea, Neshui and his brother Ahmet took the suggestion back to their boss, the man behind Warner, Steve Ross. Ross was wholly taken by the idea, and it was in this way that the gestating New York club ended up being owned by an entertainment company.[4] Of course, at this time the franchise was still unchristened; it needed a name. Ertegun favoured the appellation ‘New York Blues’, but Toye had other ideas. Faking a fan poll he forced through his own suggestion over Ertegun’s. The franchise would be called the New York Cosmos.

On 10 December 1970, Toye got his New York team. The challenge then became to make them a success. In the 1971 season the Cosmos played in the Yankee Stadium, but managed an average attendance of just 4,517 in a 65,010 capacity stadium. The crowds would have been even smaller were they not bolstered with the friends and families of the players who were, for the most part, semi-pros, playing soccer in addition to fulltime jobs. There was some success on the pitch, with the Cosmos claiming the 1972 championship, yet the crowds still weren’t coming. Relocated to the Hofstra Stadium between 1972 and 1973, and then the Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, the Cosmos attendances remained low, dropping to a disastrous 3,578 in 1974. Toye, by this time the general manager of the team, tried a variety of marketing ploys, ranging from handing out Burger King vouchers at games to employing a micturating ape (officially named Harold the Chimp), but nothing was working. Indeed the only magazine that gave them any space was a magazine aimed at women, who paid one of the players to pose in a series of provocative (or pornographic, depending on your tastes) poses. Additionally, the coach, Gordon Bradley, visited local schools to run soccer clinics, in an attempt to foster the grassroots game. Yet none of this was working. The NASL was still not broadcast on a major television network and crowds were not increasing at live matches. With no audience, the league was being brought to its knees.

But capturing the public’s imagination would always be a challenge in New York. The city was not lacking for sports teams in the late 60s/early 70s: the Knicks, Mets and Jets were all performing admirably at the time. Raphael de la Sierra, who was the Cosmos Vice President noted:  ‘In NY we talk about Joe de Maggio and we talk about Babe Ruth and we talk about Mickey Mantle and we talk about Joe Namer. And we said what we really need in this team is a big name player.’ Steve Ross in particular knew the value of a star; after all, much of his background was in show business. Apparently intent on demonstrating that there are plenty of businesses like show business, the Cosmos set out to find a star. And of course in the early 70s there was no bigger start than Santos and Brazil’s Pelé, who, at the time, was the second biggest brand in Europe, after only Coca Cola.

In 1975, with the assistance of Henry Kissinger (who had to negotiate with the Brazilian government to ensure the transfer could go through), Pelé, the greatest player of all time, signed for the New York Cosmos. Admittedly the money was good, but still this represented quite a coup, both for the Cosmos and the NASL. There was tremendous fanfare upon the signing and a huge amount of scrutiny at his first match on Randall’s Island. Incidentally, the pitch at the Downing Stadium was in such poor shape that it was painted green prior to the match in order to make it more palatable, not only for the media but also for Pelé himself. Soon the city was infatuated with the Brazilian star. Demonstrating the increasing prominence of soccer amongst New York’s other sports, a Mets game had to be called off when Pelé was spotted in the stands, such was the excitement of the crowd. Attendances immediately rose to an average of 10,450 for the 1975 season. The following year they would increase again to 18,227 as the Cosmos returned to the Yankee Stadium. By 1977 they could draw 47,856 at the Giants Stadium, to which they relocated that year.

By this time, the Cosmos were pure showbiz. Following Pelé were a number of other big name signings: Giorgio Chignalia (nowadays a dead ringer for Tony Soprano, in both looks and personality), Franz Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto were the biggest names. Vladislav Bogecevic was another canny addition from Red Star Belgrade, whilst Buggs Bunny provided support from the sidelines, as the team’s official mascot. Cosmos matches were star studded affairs, with Hollywood’s darlings decorating the bleachers, and New York’s trendiest clubs were second homes to many of the players. Indeed, looking back on the period it looks more like a retro arcade game than real life.

Of course, one would be justified in asking: if it takes Pele, Beckenbauer, Chignalia, and Carlos Alberto to get you into soccer, then are you really that keen at all? Further questions could be raised about the quality of the football. Whilst they were successful domestically, when taken on tour to Europe, the Cosmos suffered humiliating defeats. Alongside the superstar names on the team sheet were players who would otherwise be considered to be semi-pros. This was exacerbated by the size of the league which, by the mid-70s, consisted of 20 teams. There simply wasn’t enough top talent in circulation to populate these teams, especially with the lack of grassroots development in the US. As such other teams had to adopt the Cosmos business model and sign stars from Europe and South America to attract fans. Figures such as Johann Cruyff (Washington Dips), George Best (Los Angeles Aztecs) and Gerd Müller (Fort Lauderdale Strikers) were signed to teams who, in truth, could not afford their wage demands. Matters actually worsened when the NASL was finally given the network coverage that it coveted. When ABC bought the rights to the NASL, they insisted on showing live matches in their entirety. This was contrary to the advice of Ed Bleier, who favoured the format of an extended highlights show. This would lessen the culture shock experienced by viewer more used to American sports such as baseball and football, which have significantly shorter periods of play and more natural breaks. As expected, ratings faltered and the networks lost interest.

By 1985, both the Cosmos and the NASL were dead. Franchises found it impossible to remain solvent in an environment where revenue was scarce and interest in their product was minimal. An attempt to win the 1986 World Cup was an attempt to provide life support to the flagging North American interest in soccer, but this, like so many other schemes, failed.

Yet this is not the end of soccer’s story in New York. The year before America hosted the 1994 World Cup saw the launch of the MLS (Major League Soccer) and, of course, New York City had a representative franchise in the inaugural season: the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. In 1998, the team was renamed the Metrostars and, more recently, the New York Red Bulls, after its acquisition by Red Bull GmbH. Like the Cosmos, the Metrostars were managed, for a period, by Eddie Fermani, played in the Giants Stadium, and were owned first by a television mogul and then by a sports entertainment giant. The MLS franchises benefited, of course, from the legacy of the NASL. There was now a generation exposed to soccer to whom the league could appeal. Furthermore, grass roots development meant that there were far more home grown professionals turning out for teams. This is not to say that there are no similarities between the MLS and NASL. Increasingly, star players are arriving in the MLS; David Beckham being the most obvious example. The Red Bulls too boast (designated) players such as Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and versatile Finn Teemu Tainio and have previously had names such as Djorkaeff and Donadoni on their books. In 2009, the team moved from the Giants Stadium to the Red Bull Arena, a 25,000 seat stadium, where attendances are currently respectable if not outstanding. There are also two 3rd division (USL) teams in New York City: the Rochester Raging Rhinos and F.C. New York.

By following this far more fiscally restrained and modest route, soccer has gradually found its way into American consciousness, not so much by changing this consciousness, but rather by adapting to it. Soccer fandom in the US is not particularly analogous to fandom elsewhere in the world and its presentation in the media also differs radically. By adapting, soccer has found a way in which it can exist in North America. It is because of this that the recent return of the Cosmos is a real blindside. If the Red Bulls are a typical MLS-era side, the Cosmos are the definitive NASL team (which is bizarre given that they were not the norm, but rather the exception, which is perhaps indicative of the flaw inherent to the NASL). Proclaiming the bombasticity of the NASL’s disco years, the Cosmos appear unchastened by the intervening decades: in their mind it is still 1977. One question, of course, is whether there is appetite for another New York team – the modest crowds for the Red Bulls suggest that there is probably not. More interesting, however, is the question of which business model the Cosmos will follow. As Terry Hanson, Vice President of the Atlanta Chiefs surmised, the Cosmos ‘were the best and the worst thing that happened to [the NASL].’ At this point in time the Cosmos are more of an idea that an actual thing – like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, they are an evil presence without body, a big eye suspended over a tower (or something). The only physical embodiment they have is their merchandise (which can now be found in sports stores across the world) – they have a kit but no senior players to wear it. In the summer of 2011, they were fleetingly represented by a line-up of global stars (including Fabio Cannavaro, Robert Pires and granite slab-man Brian McBride) in a testimonial match against Manchester United. This star studded approach is ominous. Certainly it seems hard to countenance their hyperbolic approach sitting comfortably amongst the conservatism of the other franchises.

So, at this critical juncture in the history of soccer in New York, it is more pertinent than ever to question why it is that soccer has failed to capture the imagination of New Yorkers as other sports have. One might claim that the reason why New York cannot be represented by one team is because there is no one idea that can represent the vast array of differences embodied in the populace. Of course this idea falls down fairly easily. Even if it were not the case that in other sports it has been possible for teams to represent this population, it remains the case that the abstract idea of being a New Yorker is as tangible an abstract idea as one is likely to come across, strengthened by shared traumas such as the September 11th attacks. Perhaps it is more the case, then, that the dominant identity, the prevailing idea of ‘New York’, does not include soccer? Perhaps they have more pressing ideals to cherish, resulting in a prevailing antipathy towards soccer. Positioned in New Jersey, perhaps the Red Bulls are a topographical metaphor for this, positioned on the fringes of awareness. If this is true, it certainly cannot be inferred from the location of the Red Bull’s ground. It is not uncommon for New York’s sports teams to be based along the commuter belt. Both the Giants and the Jets play in the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The Knicks and the Rangers play their respective matches in Madison Square Garden, but only due to the fact that this is a multipurpose venue. There physically is not enough room in central New York for a designated soccer stadium – the city is extremely densely populated and, of course, there is finite space within these metropolises. What about the argument, then, that not only New York, but America as a whole, does not have a history of soccer? This argument fares better, yet we should not overplay the history of soccer in Europe, where said history of soccer extends back only around 150 years. It is certainly true that America lacks the passion for soccer seen elsewhere – mid-twentieth century isolationism saw to that. But there is no reason why Americans objectively cannot learn to love soccer, and the way in which soccer is adapting to the American way of life and ingratiating itself from a grass roots level suggests that perhaps things will change sooner rather than later. The fact that the MLS is now amongst the top 10 most-watched leagues in the world is testament to this.

Over the last 50 years, the fate of soccer in the US has disproportionally revolved around New York’s teams and this is the case to this day. Will they repeat the mistakes of the 70s or have they learned from their previous fall from grace? Will the return of the Cosmos precipitate the collapse of yet another soccer project in the US? Will they disrupt the gradual identity that soccer has been accumulating in the US? Only time will tell. In the meantime, as a wise man once said (through the mouth of a teenage girl), I guess you have to have a little faith in people.

[1] For consistency’s sake, I’ll use the term ‘soccer’ throughout this piece. I am aware that this may irk some anglophiles, but I couldn’t give a shit. Moving back to the main piece…

[2] Much of the historical data accrued originates from Gavin Newsham’s Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, to which I am here thoroughly indebted. Like the chapters of Newsham’s book, this piece assumes the title of a Bruce Springsteen song – not that I need an excuse to crowbar Bruce into any given essay.

[3] Interestingly this beast reared its silly head again during the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps there is a positive correlation between the popularity of soccer in the US and McCarthyist nonsense.

[4] Given that this article is intended to be read in conjunction with Football in the GULag’s forthcoming piece on Paris, it is interesting that a parallel story could be told about the development of Paris Saint Germain. In the 1990-1 season, PSG were on the verge of bankruptcy.  Acknowledging the importance of having a Parisian team in Ligue 1, the TV channel that owned the rights for the league, Canal Plus, purchased the club. Just as the Cosmos were kept alive by Warner Communications, so too PSG were supported by Canal Plus. See Christov Rühn, ‘A TV Show Called Paris – Canal Plus Buys Paris St Germain’, in Christov Ruhn (ed.), Le Foot (London: Abacus, 2000), pp. 24-34.