“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
- George Orwell, 1984
I feel sorry for football fans of a certain age. For those now in their fourth decade the concept of American football means a lot more than men in padded tights. We grew up with the glitz and glamour of teams playing proper football such as The Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Tampa Bay Rowdies and of course, The New York Cosmos who played in the North American Soccer League. But there was a history of football in the US before the cheerleaders, the strange shoot outs to decide results and the ageing superstars.
In the early 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to New York to play local sides in more than just exhibition games. The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success. In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.
In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play. The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season. The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final. Bayern Munich, Nice, Glenavon, Burnley and Kilmarnock competed with the New York Americans in a round-robin tournament played within New York State, with the final taking place at the New York Polo Grounds.
Little is spoken about the Polo Grounds, located on the banks of the Harlem River in Upper Manhattan. Opened in 1890, almost every sport was played at some point in the 34,000 capacity stadium. Back in 1935 the Scottish National side played an American Soccer League All-Star squad in front of over 25,000, winning 5-1. In 1950, Manchester United played a friendly here against Jönköping, winning 4-0. Ten years later, Cox chose the stadium, by which time it was in a state of disrepair, to host the final of his inaugural tournament where Kilmarnock shocked everyone by winning Section 1 and eventually went on to meet Bangu, from Brazil who had topped a group featuring Red Star Belgrade, Sampdoria, Sporting Lisbon, Norrköping and Rapid Vienna. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians took the first ISL title by beating the Scots 2-0 in front of 25,440.
The following year the tournament was expanded to feature eight teams in each section with Everton winning six out of seven games against Bangu, New York, Karlsruher, Kilmarnock, Montreal, Dinamo Bucharest and Besiktas before losing in the final to Dukla Prague 9-2 on aggregate. Such was the interest within North America that half of the games were played in Canada.
In 1962 the organisers decided to add in the American Challenge Cup, pitting the season winners against the previous year’s champions. The only British team to enter in this year was Dundee who finished fifth in a group won by eventual champions America RJ from Brazil. They then faced 1961 winners Dukla Prague over two legs in New York, losing to the Czech’s 3-2 although the combined attendance for the two games was just over 30,000. Less than six months later the stadium was demolished.
However, the tournament lived on and the following year West Ham accepted the invite to play in Section I along with the Italians Mantova, Kilmarnock, Recife from Brazil, Preussen Munster, Deportivo Oro from Mexico and France’s Valenciennes. With Bobby Moore leading the side, the Hammers topped the group in one of the tightest competitions yet, with just four points separating all seven teams. They went forward to play Section II winners Gornik Zabrze from Poland and beat the Poles 2-1 on aggregate at the new venue for the final, Downing Stadium on Randalls Island (The stadium would also be the venue for Pele's debut for New York Cosmos) to claim the title as well as Moore being named the tournament’s “MVP”, winning the Eisenhower Trophy, and Geoff Hurst the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals.
The following year the tournament had a number of drop-outs, reduced from fourteen sides to just ten, with Polish side Zaglebie Sosnowiec beating Werder Bremen to win the trophy, although the Hammers decided not to compete for the American Challenge Cup, passing the honour instead to 1963 runners-up Dukla Prague who beat the Poles 4-2 over two legs in New York.
The final year of the tournament was in 1965 and the Hammers were back, fresh from winning the European Cup Winners Cup against 1860 Munich who they faced again on Randalls Island. This time they finished bottom of Section 1 with the US team, New York Americans finally winning the group, although they had to settle for the runners-up spot after losing in the final to Polonia Bytom. This was the last season of the ISL. The United States Soccer Federation Association filed a law suit banning the “import” of any foreign teams to play in the competition, although Cox later won a court case to overturn the decision. However, it had given Americans, and more importantly, New Yorkers a taste of the game.
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 fuelled 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 exotic names such as the 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 of organised soccer in North America. 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. Any hope of selling the game to TV networks and thus corporate sponsors relied on the biggest cities having representation and so after significant pressure from the league's commissioners in 1971 an application for a new team based in New York was received and accepted, for the princely sum of $25,000 entrance fee. And so the legend of the Cosmos was born.
Nearly 50 years later "soccer” is in a confused state in the US. At the grass-roots level it is the most popular sport played by youngsters at school, especially by girls. And the interest among the younger generation in the Premier League or La Liga has never been bigger. With every visit I make to New York I see more and more bars now proudly displaying signs saying they show live Premier League games. And why wouldn’t they? A 3pm Saturday kick off in England means people spending in the bars at 10am, more often than not combining that cheeky first pint of the weekend with a full English breakfast. For visitors from England it means that they can still enjoy their football fix from back home and then be up the top of the Empire State with the family just after midday – everyone’s a winner.
But New York has lacked a true soccer identity since the original death of the Cosmos. MLS has come a long way in the last few years, becoming more competitive and being able to defocus from just the exploits of one team, or more pertinently, one man in Los Angeles and on the league as a whole. It may have surprised some observers a few years ago from outside North America that other teams actually existed, and the Galaxy were not the biggest team in the league. The “derby” between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders for instance is one of the biggest games in North America, I say derby in inverted commas as the two clubs are separated by 175 miles, whilst clubs like Toronto and Sporting Kansas City play their home games in front of sold-out stadiums. Average attendances across the league was up in the 2014 season by nearly 3% to 19,148
“Soccer” is fast becoming the sport of choice for many Americans. Why? Because it is seen as a global game, it doesn’t take all day to play/watch and the US national teams are getting better every year. In 2012 we saw the US women’s team take Gold in the London Olympics; the US men’s team continue to be dark horses at every tournament they play at, impressing the watching global audience of hundreds of millions in the 2014 World Cup where they beat Ghana and Portugal in the group stages before elimination in extra-time in the first knock-out phase by Belgium.
Without a team to call their own, New Yorkers have been missing a slice of the Apple Pie. Ask any resident of the city who their team is and you will hear either the Giants, Yankees or Knicks depending on which is their favoured sport. The Yankees are one of, if not the, biggest sporting brand in the world. Forbes magazine recently valued the brand at $1.78 BILLION. Their annual revenues are around $440m. It does help that they play around 75 home games a season with an average attendance of 40,000 AND once inside the stadium fans spend around $53 dollars EACH (bear in mind a beer at Yankee Stadium is a whopping $12!). The Giants on the other hand do not go down the “pile them high, sell them cheap” admission model. NFL teams only play 8 regular season games at home and can therefore charge an average ticket price well over $150.
No more than a 20 minute train ride from Lower Manhattan is the Red Bull Arena. Whilst they have gone through various name changes since their debut in the MLS in 1996, they still remain a side located outside the city, and outside the state of New York. In a country where identity proudly matters, this has been a big stumbling block to building a sustainable fan base. Does it really matter? For the real soccer aficionados, no. From most points in the city Harrison, New Jersey is quicker and easier to get to than the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx or CitiField, home of the Mets in Queens. But it matters to some. Ironically, some of those who do care will also support the Giants or the Jets, who play at the MetLife Stadium, less than 10 minutes away in a cab from the RedBull Arena. Whilst official attendances are sometimes hard to come by, crowds have been known to drop to less than a few thousand if the Red Bulls play on the same night as The Yankees. Apart from the now defunct Chivas franchise in Los Angeles, in the 2014 season, The Red Bulls had the lowest stadium "utilisation" at 77.10% of capacity.
The team, backed with the money and marketing know-how of the Austrian beverage giants have done a good job in trying to keep the interest high both in New York as well as in New Jersey. But there is so much untapped potential. Nearby Newark (the stadium is almost at the edge of Newark Airport’s runway) has a population of near 280,000 in addition to the millions who live across the Hudson in New York City, less than a 20 minute train ride away.
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. Back in the mid 1970's The North American Soccer League 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 Middlesbrough 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.
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. 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 camped in New Jersey (ditto the New York Giants and Jets), the opportunity for the re-birth of the Cosmos was never more relevant. 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 guest appearances from likes of Viera, Neville, Pires and even Robbie Keane (obviously playing for the club he supported as a child), the Cosmos were back, although many wonders whether they would simply be the Travelling Wilburys of the footballing world.
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. A number of commentators cried foul, accusing the MLS of thinking of the commercial aspects of expansion rather than heritage. The Cosmos would stay for the foreseeable future in the second tier of US football, ironically now called the NASL but like all other US sports, no opportunity for promotion to the top tier.
In their first competitive season 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 that first season they claimed second spot in the Spring championship in 2014. However, it was in the US Open Cup (the US version of the FA Cup without any need for sponsorship) that the club have once again grabbed the nation’s attention. In their first season in the competition they drew the Red Bulls 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 in the next round. However, crowds out on Long Island have fallen - the average in the 2013 season was nearly 7,000 falling to around 4,700 last season as the team finished third overall, a disappointment after a strong first half to the season.
Whilst the headlines during the 2014 close season seemed to revolve around the comings and goings at New York City, the Cosmos pulled off a coup of their own, recruiting Raúl, albeit a 37 year old version, although he has already been rolling back the years with nine goals so far in the new season. The Cosmos have also drawn up plans to construct a new 25,000-seat stadium next to the Belmont Park racetrack close to JFK airport in Queens.
Time will tell whether New Yorkers will back the new Franchise or one of the pioneers of the global game. Both clubs will benefit from moving to their own stadiums, with a chance to build their own brands within the local communities. It will be interesting to see whether the city can support two soccer clubs - the situation in Los Angeles of the Galaxy and Chivas sharing not only the stadium in Carson City but also the bragging rights didn't pan out as planned, with the Chivas USA being withdrawn from the league in 2014. For now the microscope will be on the goings on at Yankee stadium rather than on the Cosmos, but if they can pull off another Raúl-style transfer coup, then who knows? The growing strength in the Cosmos brand again may just influence the MLS into re-considering the most famous name in North American Soccer competing at the highest national level once again.
Stuart is @theballisround. Picture by Michael Asuncion.