Cosmos and Cantona could take MLS to the next level
For all the progress made by Major League Soccer since it began in 1996, there is not one team in the league that can match the old New York Cosmos for name recognition – not globally and not in the United States.
But when the new owners of the Cosmos name announced in August that they planned to bring the team back to life and take them into MLS, there was a good deal of scepticism in the American soccer community. Now they have named former Manchester United great Eric Cantona as director of soccer.
Such a cynical reaction was understandable – for years there had been rumours of a return for the Cosmos name, which was owned by Peppe Pinton, an official of the old club, but nothing beyond youth soccer camps ever materialized.
When MLS announced a team in New York, there were attempts to make that team the Cosmos but no deal was ever struck with Pinton, who was reported to be holding out for a big pay-off at a time when MLS was very careful with every dollar.
The other cause for scepticism is a reluctance by some to embrace American soccer’s past. The old NASL, with the Cosmos, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Los Angeles Aztecs, collapsed in the early 1980s with the league unable to keep up with the costs of paying top international players such as those Cosmos brought in.
MLS has been careful to avoid any repeat of the past – it has used a conservative salary cap system to limit costs, it has wisely encouraged clubs to invest in stadiums, facilities and youth development, rather than expensive imported players and it has expanded gradually, keen to avoid the boom and bust of the NASL.
The Cosmos may mean glamour, excitement and a seat at the top table of the global game for many fans who remember them but for those who have devoted years to the painstaking task of reconstructing professional soccer in North America, they also symbolize a reckless waste of potential, the kind of flash-in-the-pan faddishness that the sport can ill-afford to repeat in this market.
Quite understandably, none of the hundreds of people who have devoted time and resources in all manner of capacities to rebuilding the game in the wake of the collapse of the NASL want to see all that work blown away by another few years of glamour and glitz that vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Yet, there are signs that this is a project that could work to MLS’s advantage and that this time the league is very open to the return of the Cosmos.
For a start, MLS is very bullish on the idea of a second team in New York, in Queens, to compete with the New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls having a lovely new soccer-specific stadium but it is in Harrison, New Jersey and not in the heart of New York.
MLS would love to capture some of the spirit of the rivalry between New York baseball’s Yankees and Mets or the NFL’s Jets and Giants. Certainly there is no reason to believe that a metropolitan area as huge as New York-New Jersey couldn’t sustain two professional soccer teams.
Secondly, MLS has begun to embrace the past, at least in terms of names, ending their ‘NASL-phobia’. The most successful new team to come into MLS has an old NASL name – the Seattle Sounders. This year the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, both ex-NASL names, join MLS as expansion teams.
Instead of being embarrassed about the past, many fans are embracing the ‘seventies soccer scene’ with websites selling retro NASL merchandise and the NASL name has also been adopted by the second tier professional league in North America.
More significantly, while the sceptics wondered whether MLS would back off in horror at the idea of the return of the Cosmos, the league has in fact been meeting with the British owners of the new Cosmos and plans to meet some more.
“The meetings have been very productive and we have more meetings scheduled with them in the very near future. We have been very impressed with their vision, commitment and passion for the sport and also for the legacy of the Cosmos brand,” Dan Courtemanche, head of communications for MLS, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“They have a vision of how to make this storied football brand hip and relevant for today’s marketplace and their goal is, as they have stated, to be able to launch as an MLS club,” he said.
The obstacle is the absence of a stadium. There has been contact with the Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets baseball club, aimed at securing some kind of partnership to solve that problem and MLS is keen for any new team in New York to have their own venue.
That could take years to bring to fruition and high-publicity announcements such as the hiring of Cantona may keep the ‘buzz’ around the Cosmos glowing but it is going to be planning meetings and financial deals that decide whether the dream of the New York Cosmos in MLS ever comes to fruition.
One of the many failings of the old NASL was that teams were rushed into existence and played in NFL stadiums with huge capacities for relatively small crowds and with hard Astroturf pitches covered in gridiron markings. The MLS rightly prefers stadiums such as Red Bull Arena and the wonderful new home venue for the Philadelphia Union.
Intimate, made-for-soccer, modern, compact stadiums help generate an authentic atmosphere which fans have appreciated.
But whatever the obstacles still in the way of the Cosmos project, soccer fans in North America should be hoping that progress is made because nothing could take MLS to the next level like a successful relaunch of the Cosmos.
David Beckham, who has links with some of those involved in the Cosmos, has helped lift MLS’s profile in the past few years and the arrival of more foreign players and the growth of domestic talent should ensure continued success for the soccer project in what was once considered a strangely barren land for the world’s most popular sport.
But the return of the Cosmos, with a stadium in New York, a cosmopolitan team in the world’s most famously cosmopolitan city which counts fans from all over the world among its residents, at a time when the game is globalizing at an incredible rate, would be something that could push MLS and the game in America to a new level.
If it all turns out to be hot air though – it may be many, many years before the Cosmos are heard of again.