MLS, the anti NASL: The Reason The Cosmos Never Came Back
For a certain set of fans the MLS team in New Jersey’s approach and culture never adequately connected to the city it represented. Even some MetroStars fans were unable to stomach the Red Bull rebranding, choosing instead to stop following the team. Many fans whether they rooted for the MLS team or not hoped that the league would eventually figure out a way to return the Cosmos to American soccer and make a direct connection to the history of the sport in New York.
“I was devastated, when on October 17th, 1995 they announced that the team was going to be called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars,” said Dr. David Kilpatrick, a professor at Mercy College and the official Cosmos historian. “I always wanted to wave a banner at Giants Stadium that said ‘This is Cosmos Country.’”
The estrangement of the MLS franchise and the Cosmos was by design. From its inception the league took every opportunity to distance itself from the free spending ways of Cosmos chairman Steve Ross and the boom and bust North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, former Cosmos star striker Giorgio Chinaglia’s ex-manager Peppe Pinton, the heir to the New York Cosmos copyrights, publicly questioned the MLS’s authenticity and held out for a lucrative offer for the nostalgic name and brand, all the while continuing to sell Cosmos merchandise.
MLS’s first large-scale acknowledgement of the previous league was forced upon it in 2007 when fans in Seattle voted to call their new team the Sounders after the city’s NASL franchise. Although the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers continued this trend, the league remained especially wary of the Cosmos brand. In 2009, Commissioner Don Garber told the North Jersey Herald News, “When the [Cosmos] spent 10 or 20 times as much as any other team and they had the best players in the world, that was certainly not good for the development of [soccer] in America." Despite this ambivalence, the MetroStars and Red Bulls occasionally held Cosmos tribute nights and even once dressed in the signature green and white Cosmos kits.
The idea of morphing the MetroStars into the Cosmos never progressed past fan dreams and preliminary talks. However, when Red Bull GmbH bought the team in 2006, MLS regained the legal territorial rights to place a second team in the region that had been limited by their agreement with Metromedia and AEG. The framework of a second New York professional soccer franchise quickly took hold at both the grassroots and corporate levels. In August 2007, Garber told the New York Times, that the league’s top preference for expansion was a second team in New York.
Two months later, a group of fans founded the Borough Boys Supporters Club with the express intent of bringing professional soccer to one of New York City’s five boroughs. The group formed online, on message boards of Bigsoccer.com. Founders Nick Laveglia and Paul Morabito led meetings, while others designed a logo and established a website. Their first club email was firstname.lastname@example.org. All they lacked was a team.
The Borough Boys lobbied local and state officials including New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose support they would need to build a professional soccer stadium within the city limits. At the same time they presented themselves to the league as proof of a viable fanbase for a new soccer team in New York City. They watched as supporters clubs like the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia and the Emerald City Supporters in Seattle took active roles in bringing MLS to their cities and thought they might be next.
The Glamour Team Reborn?: The Rebirth Of The Cosmos
Initially the Borough Boys concentrated their efforts on the Wilpon family, the owners of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, who floated the idea of a professional soccer team in Queens that would play near the baseball team’s stadium in Flushing. The Wilpons’ involvement in the Bernie Madoff investment scheme ended their interest in soccer, but in 2009, Pinton finally sold the Cosmos franchise to a British based consortium led by Paul Kemsley, the former vice chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. The Borough Boys contacted Kemsley and began a dialogue about how to ensure that when MLS placed a second team in New York City it would be the reborn Cosmos.
“At first I was weary. I knew of the old history and was unsure it would ever live up to the same hype as the Pele Cosmos, but as time went on I realized it was more than just a few stars. The Cosmos actually truly meant something to New Yorkers so I had a feeling fans could embrace the club on that level again,” said Laveglia.
When the new version of the historic team was introduced to the public, as a club independent from MLS on August 1, 2010, every effort was made to tie it to the glamour team of the its previous incarnation. Pele made the announcement, Chinaglia was named as an international ambassador and an online shop began selling kits and memorabilia awash with the names of the stars of the past. From the start, the idea was to return America’s most storied soccer franchise to the nation’s top league. At the time of the relaunch, Cosmos executive director Joe Fraga told the New York Times, “Our plan has several phases, but if you fast-forward, it’s our aspiration to play at the highest level in this country and that’s MLS.” The Borough Boys continued to drum up support for the franchise among locals.
“The Cosmos brought not only a history with them and a famous name but a connection to New York City. When hitting bars no one really cared about MLS but the idea of a Cosmos return sparked the interest of every day New Yorkers and it really showed that the Cosmos really are a part of this city’s sport history like the Mets or Yankees,” said Laveglia.
Despite these efforts, the team lacked players, a stadium and a league as MLS added franchises in Vancouver, Portland and Montreal, in each case adopting an existing team from a lower league into its structure, after the payment of an expansion fee and a purchase of the team’s identity. (In 1995, Vancouver and Montreal had been rivals of the Centaurs.) In 2012, the Cosmos joined the updated version of second division NASL that had reformed in November 2009. Unlike MLS, NASL placed no limit on player salaries and teams act as independent entities rather than as franchises of a single league. At the same time, the team signed an agreement with Hofstra University to play in the pre Pele home of the Cosmos at Shuart Stadium on Long Island with plans to build a new soccer specific stadium on the border of Queens and Long Island in Elmont. The Cosmos would return to the field in August 2013 for NASL’s fall season.
If The Borough Boys’ goal of a professional soccer team within the city limits was not fully realized, the move to NASL and the Elmont stadium plan brought it into much clearer focus. If they could prove that the team was viable with large crowds and passionate support, everything appeared in line for the Cosmos to be the next lower division club to make the leap to MLS. The league had laid out four expansion criteria: a committed owner, a soccer specific stadium plan, a large market, and an established fanbase. These along with an expansion fee between $70 and $80 million allowed new teams to gain entry into the top tier of American soccer. Even in announcing their decision to join NASL, the ownership of the Cosmos reiterated their intention to join MLS in the near future and the organized supporters remained vigilant, setting up an online petition to name the Cosmos as the league’s 20th franchise.
The biggest hurdle appeared to be finding a stadium within the city limits that could host the team. The Borough Boys took part in local forums, as the league and the City sought to lobby neighbourhoods to their cause through a group called MLS to Queens that focused on building a stadium on parkland in Flushing Meadows Park. The Borough Boys did not endorse the plan, but remained in steady contact with the league’s office urging them to select the Cosmos group over one headed by Manchester City’s billionaire owner Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nayhan. The league broached the subject of the Borough Boys officially adopting the second New York franchise, in a similar way to the official relationships between supporter groups and franchises in other MLS cities. The group, however, chose to remain independent lobbying from the outside for the interests of supporters.
Soccer Returns To New York City: The Appearance Of NYCFC
On May 21, 2013, Commissioner Garber, Mayor Bloomberg, and Manchester City’s CEO Ferran Soriano gathered the press to announce that the English team and Major League Baseball’s Yankees would indeed form MLS's next franchise: New York City Football Club (NYCFC). Mansour paid the league a record $100 million as an expansion fee and the Yankees agreed to lend their local expertise and leverage as a stadium deal had not yet been secured in advance of the team beginning play in March 2015.
The arrival of MLS team in New York that was not the Cosmos left the Borough Boys in a peculiar position. From their start, they had pledged to bring professional soccer to New York City, but for several years they had spent nearly all their energy supporting the Cosmos. With NYCFC firmly planted in the city, the Cosmos appeared destined for the short-term to remain at Hofstra, far from public transportation and unable to gain access to US soccer’s top flight.
“There is no way to hide that the Borough Boys originally wanted a team in MLS east of the [Hudson] River but we also throughout the years were very into bringing even a [lower division United Soccer League] team to the city,” said Laveglia. “When the Cosmos approached us with their plan it really spoke to a lot of us as they were trying to build a proper club much like the English/Italian/Argentinian [sic] clubs that many fans here are obsessed with. While we wanted an MLS team (we wrote our mission statement before this new NASL) we could never imagine that there would be an opportunity to support a club in another league. It was tough, as many of us respect what MLS has done and is about, but in the Cosmos we saw a club that connected with New York and that was another thing we always desired. We not only wanted a team, but a club that would become part of our life and the Cosmos, with its history and deep roots in the city were that club. As New York soccer fans the Cosmos offered us something with a history in our area as well as something that offered a connection.”
About 10 of the most active members of The Borough Boys met at Jack Dempsey’s, their home bar in Manhattan, to decide if they would stay loyal to the Cosmos and or throw their support behind NYCFC, neither of which had played a game yet. After a lengthy discussion online and in person, they released a statement announcing their continued affiliation with the Cosmos. In the release they announced a shift in mission.
“The Borough Boys have satisfied their initial mission by not only helping bring one professional soccer team to New York, but two. At this time our mission has changed from promoting the idea of bringing a soccer team to New York to supporting one. With the New York Cosmos we are confident that we are behind a club that not only represents a piece of New York soccer history, but also one many fellow New Yorkers can positively relate to.”
The release took pains to point out how disillusioned the group felt with MLS, and the group’s rhetoric of authenticity, which reflected the team’s public statements, increased.
“While we are pleased that Major League Soccer has signalled their commitment to establish a franchise in New York, we are ultimately disappointed and concerned about their expansion announcement. For years we have been told by MLS that a stadium was required in order to award a club, for years we were led to believe that MLS was committed not just to obtaining a club here but also that the club would represent New York and what we stand for. While we always desired an MLS franchise, what we never desired was being forced to accept a foreign club’s worldwide branding ambitions, using New York City as a vehicle to promote a separate soccer club abroad. The news that Manchester City will be establishing a new MLS expansion franchise, using “synergies”, cross promotion and colour schemes of the parent club can only be described as disheartening.”
The primary reason for the Borough Boys’ rejection of NYCFC lay in the franchise’s lack of an authentic identity and historic connection to the city. Perhaps as significantly, although they chose to stick with the Cosmos they did not become the club’s official supporter group, but rather remained an independent entity. The Borough Boys took some flak for their decision and some of members left the organization. The article on the Soccer By Ives website linking to the announcement of their new mission, drew 155 comments in which they were called whiny, picky, xenophobic, childish, nostalgic, posers, hypocritical, and cry babies. But by remaining independent, the Borough Boys had decided that their philosophy of fan representation and the cultural identity that they had built for a team that had yet to play a game was more important than becoming part of the infrastructure of the top division.
“Most supporters around the world are independent,” said Laveglia. “Being official probably gives you some great perks but it also will mean you have to adhere to rules set down by the club. Supporters should support how they want to support with no one telling them what they can or cannot do. We chose independent because we wanted the freedom to support what we want and voice our opinions independently without worrying about any consequences.”
With tensions brewing, the Cosmos kicked off their inaugural season to a sell-out crowd of 11,929. The Borough Boys were joined by Le Banda Del Cosmos and the Long Island based Sagan’s Army in a goal line supporters section called The 5 Points, named after the neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan where many new immigrants settled in the 1800s. The supporter groups were closely connected to the club's ownership exemplified by an opening day tifo design that mirrored the team's primary marketing photo of Chinaglia with his arms raised in front of a silhouette of the New York skyline.
“We’re very involved in what the club does,” said Kevin O’Dell, one of the founders of Sagan’s Army, which has since changed its name to the Cross Island Crew. “I [have] sat on the bench like a media person. I can’t imagine the Red Bulls are letting their fans sit on the bench during practice.”
The team won the NASL Soccer Bowl in December 2013 and led the league with an average of 6,859 fans for 7 home dates (about 1,500 fans short of MLS’s lowest attended team Chivas USA). They made every effort to embrace the past, bringing back the Cosmos Girls cheerleaders, the old Bugs Bunny mascot and offering more jerseys with 1970s players than current players in the online store. But the team could not maintain its attendance in its second year, 2014. The per game average dropped by 27% to 4,959 per game (about a third of the stadium’s capacity). The team finished the season third overall and were knocked out of the playoffs in the initial round.
However, the summer of 2014 did provide the Cosmos with their first opportunity to go head to head with MLS. The Cosmos ventured into the city and dispatched with the Brooklyn Italians at Belson Stadium on St. John’s University campus in Queens setting up a US Open Cup match with the Red Bulls.
On June 14, with the soccer world’s attention still focused on Brazil and the 2014 World Cup, 9,364 fans including a packed away section of Red Bulls supporters and a raucous 5 Points brought Shuart Stadium to life. The Cosmos dominated a depleted Red Bulls team that played without stars Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry and with two reserve centrebacks. Upon scoring the third Cosmos goal, forward Alessandro Noselli leapt the advertising hoardings and ran for the 5 Points, smoke bombs ignited and the section surged with delight. In the far corner of the stadium, Empire Supporter Club continued to sing. The intensity of a local derby had finally come to the New York area.
“It was better than the day I got married,” said O’Dell. “Money doesn’t buy you everything, our entire roster cost less than their three [highest paid] players.”
The separation between the supporters of the two teams, however, goes beyond finance and runs deeper than associations of geography and team allegiance. In choosing to reject first the Red Bulls then NYCFC and remaining independent rather than official, the Borough Boys are part of a sizeable portion of American soccer supporters, who not only see flaws in MLS’s closed system, but are actively seeking to disrupt it. While by no means a monolithic group, activist fans have taken actions to support a system that would allow a greater degree of access to the top flight for non-MLS teams, a breakup of the single entity structure to allow teams to operate as independent clubs, and a role for the fans in clubs that goes beyond gameday support. In short, they seek a more democratic approach to the way their sport is run, which would break sharply with the model set by other American sports leagues.
Many, like the Borough Boys, have actively sought out non-MLS teams. Part of this is driven by geography. The sheer size of the United States means many fans who want to get deeply involved in the gameday atmosphere of their local clubs live prohibitively far away from the nearest MLS franchise. Even in cities where one of the league’s teams exists, there are other clubs, like the Cosmos, have no chance of gaining access to MLS. This means that any fan who chooses to identify with a non-MLS club is by default, choosing to affiliate outside the dominant power structure. Additionally, a small percentage of fans take this identification to its extreme by forming supporter run teams, effectively becoming grassroots owners of their own team. Among these are Nashville FC, San Francisco City FC, and Grand Rapids FC.
Beyond geography, it is key to understand that the supporters who have rejected MLS could be among the most dedicated fans of a top level soccer league in the United States. They have chosen, however, to affiliate instead with teams that have less cultural cache but more adequately reflect their values and their belief that sports teams are not only businesses but public trusts.
“When given the option of supporting a historic brand that has a connection with our area versus a Manchester City brand extension, the choice was easy for the fans,” said Laveglia. “Soccer teams should identify to their city and be unique to that city. We also wanted our club to be a proper club and MLS has some rules in place that would prevent that.”