It’s not often you can tick off two things from your “bucket list” in one evening without it involving whipped cream, a private room at Spearmint Rhinos or Holly Willoughby but last week I managed to achieve it without really breaking into a sweat. It’s also not often that many visitors to New York would even think of trying to get to see one of the 50 Teams That Mattered (An excellent read from the pen of David Hartrick) in the development of the beautiful game. The New York Cosmos’s impact on the global game we see today cannot be underestimated. They were the first global marketing machine, realising the pot of gold that was on offer when selling football in the domestic market and abroad not as a ninety minute game but as a two to three-hour event.
The North American Soccer League, formed in 1968, was designed to try to win the hearts and minds of the attention-deficient Americans. The 1966 World Cup in England had surprisingly fueled interest in the game in the US, coupled with the strange United Soccer League which had seen European teams such as Stoke City, Hibernian, Sunderland and Cagliari imported into the US to play under the names Cleveland Stokers, Toronto City, Vancouver Royal Canadians and Chicago Mustangs respectively. The concept of Franchise Football was copied straight from the models adopted by the National Football League, Hockey League and Major League Baseball with 17 teams ranging from Atlanta to Vancouver taking part in the first season. The franchise from New York, “The Generals” lasted just one season, playing at Yankee Stadium, thus leaving the biggest city in America without a team. Three seasons later in 1971 the league accepted an application for a new team, paying the princely sum of $25,000 entrance fee. And so the legend of the Cosmos was born.
The NASL still needed to sell football to the North Americans, which was then completely foreign to the majority of them. A number of rules changes were made in those first few years to try to keep the fans attentions. A clock that counted time down to zero as was typical of other timed American sports, rather than upwards to 90 minutes was standard at all grounds. In 1972 they implemented the 35 yard line which meant that players couldn’t be offside unless they were in that final zone. But the most famous rule change was the introduction of the Shootout in 1974. The US didn’t do “tied” games – the concept that you could play for a couple of hours and still not have a winner was just as alien as referring to underwear as pants or not pouring porridge over bacon for breakfast. The concept of the shoot out was that a player had a five seconds to score from running from the 35 yard line. They could take as many touches or rebounds as they wanted but as long as it happened within 5 seconds.
The Cosmos became the NASL to many youngsters like me. They realised that the way to market the team overseas was to bring in the players everyone knew. Queue Pelé, Beckenbaur, Carlos Alberto and England star Terry Garbett (of course, Terry Garbett, ex-Watford and Middlesborough star midfielder) arriving to a great fanfare in the city. For a short period of time, they became the most talked about sporting team not only in New York but also the whole of America. But just like the dreams created by Pan-Am, TWA and Ronco, the NASL and consequently the Cosmos burnt itself out. By 1984 the dream had died. If you want to understand the who’s, the why’s and the wherefore’s of the Cosmos and NASL then grab a copy of Gavin Newsham’s excellent book Once In A Lifetime.
Ironically, the new reformed Cosmos would return to Long Island, forty years after they left in 1973 having won their first Championship (of five) in 1972. Their home would again be the James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University, some 45 minutes east of Manhattan. Now you can understand why Andy and me are sitting on one of those yellow School Buses, winding its way through the ‘Burbs of Long Island. Tick one – Seeing the Cosmos, tick two – a ride on an American school bus. I felt like I was on the set of Charlie Brown, Forrest Gump, American Pie and every other American film, although the fact we were sitting on it drinking bottle of Honkers Ale meant we were probably breaking a thousand laws.
It is fair to say that the announcement of a new franchise to be created in New York City a few years ago set pulses racing in the Cosmos camp. With the New York Red Bulls actually being camped across the Hudson in New Jersey (ditto the New York Giants and Jets), the opportunity for the re-birth of the Cosmos was never more alive. The club had been reformed through the efforts of ex-Spurs director Paul Kemsley, ex-Liverpool CEO Rick Parry and of course, Pelé in 2010. However, without a stadium, a league and more importantly a squad, the only hope the Cosmos had of playing was on FIFA 11.
The significant event in their re-birth was the decision that the Cosmos would be the opponents in Paul Scholes’s testimonial game at Old Trafford in August 2011. By that time Eric Cantona had been appointed as Director of Football, and although his squad for that first game included the likes of Viera, Neville, Pires and even Robbie Keane (obviously playing for the club he supported as a child), the Cosmos were back.
Alas, the dream of a return to the top tier of US football was dashed in May 2013 when the MLS announced the new franchise team in the city would be New York City FC, a joint venture between Manchester City and the Yankees. The Cosmos would stay forever in the second tier of US football, ironically now called the NASL.
In their first season at this level the club won the Soccer Bowl. With the season split into two halves, the Cosmos won the “Fall” championship and then beat the “Spring” champions Atlanta Silverbacks to claim the title. Building on the success from last season they claimed second spot in the Spring championship. However, it was in the US Open Cup (the US version of the FA Cup without any need for sponsorship from poor brewers) that the club have once again grabbed the nation’s attention. In their first season in the competition they drew the RedBulls out of the hat and proceeded to smash their richer, more caffeine-boosted rivals out of the park. They then took MLS Philadelphia Union to extra time before they lost 2-1.
Being in New York for business, it was a 100/1 shot that the Cosmos would be at home (honest) but once I saw they were, I had to be there. This would be like finding a Bejams or a Berni Inn, a chance to revisit something from my childhood.
New York Cosmos 0 FC Edmonton 0 – Shuart Stadium, New York – Wednesday 6th August 2014
Our big yellow bus arrived at the Shuart Stadium at 7.30pm, kick off time. Of course, being in America meant that the game didn’t actually kick off at the official time, but some 7 minutes later once the faffing had been completed. Whilst the official attendance was announced later as 4,524, there seemed barely half of that in the stadium. With the sun setting over Manhattan in the distance, the majority of the crowd’s applause was reserved for the impressive sunset rather than anything happening early doors on the pitch.
A handy guide produced by the Cosmos Media Team meant we understood the players from the visitors from Edmonton, with full pronunciation guide (Tomi Ameobi is:- Am-E-O-Be for your information), although every single event that happened on the pitch was announced to the world by the PA. He didn’t have a lot to talk about though during the ninety minutes as neither team could break the deadlock.
In the first half the highlights were three yellow cards and then the pint of Samuel Adams beer in the Beer Garden (a roped off area behind the Main Stand where we still had to prove we were adults. The second half saw the Cosmos try to break down the stubborn Canadians, having fifteen shots although the main talking point was the missed penalty in the 50th minute by the Cosmos when Senna saw his spot kick almost take out a flight departing from JFK. With the clock ticking down, Tomi Ameobi, the middle of the three Newcastle United Ameobi brothers, put in a two-footed challenge on Szetela which saw him red-carded.
The draw was a disappointment for all involved. The Cosmos fans including the Borough Boys behind the goal had kept up the beat during the game but even they had to admit defeat in the entertainment stakes. But football is never about just 90 minutes on the pitch. The evening was about catching up with old friends over a beer and taking a step back to my childhood and imagining what could have been.