This week’s Throwback Thursday looks back at a unique club who assembled a team of international superstars in a country bereft of love for the game. Karl Graham discusses the rise, fall, and subsequent rebirth of the New York Cosmos.
While there was a lot of talk over the stature of football in the USA during the World Cup, efforts to popularise the game across the pond stretch back as far as the 1970s.
The New York Cosmos were founded in 1970 by the executives and president of Warner Communications (former parent company of Warner Bros.), Steve Ross. The club’s first act was to appoint Englishman Clive Toye as general manager.
When a disagreement over the club’s name had arisen, a “name the team” contest was announced, with supporters entering their suggestions. Two P.E. teachers entered “Cosmos” shortened from Cosmopolitans after following the example of the “Mets”. Their success in the competition afforded them a free trip to Europe.
The Cosmos entered the North American Soccer League (N.A.S.L) during its fourth season in 1971. They appointed another Englishman, Gordon Bradley, as player/coach and set about writing themselves into the history books.
The club struck a deal with the New York Yankees to use Yankee Stadium for home games. The agreement lasted for just one season, a season that saw the Cosmos finish second.
They moved to Hofstra Stadium in 1972 and went one better in the league by beating the St Louis Stars 2-1, to walk away with their first title.
Bermudan Randy Horton, who won Rookie of the Year during the Cosmos’ debut season, was named Most Valuable Player after scoring 9 goals in 16 games to be the league’s top scorer.
The following season saw the Cosmos make it to the play-offs once more but this time around they failed to make it past the semi-final stage.
The 1974 season began with the Cosmos changing their home stadium once again. This time they played at Downing Stadium, a stadium renowned for hosting Jesse Owens as he competed in the USA’s Men’s Olympic Trials during its opening in 1936.
Their first season at Downing Stadium was one to forget, with the team finishing bottom of the league. Despite Horton once more finishing as top scorer, he was flogged to the Washington Diplomats in 1975.
While Hofstra’s sale caused upset amongst the Cosmos supporters, replacing him with what became known in some quarters as “the transfer coup of the century” helped to quickly appease those fans.
Although he was almost 35 years of age, Pelé’s decision to sign for the Cosmos caused shock throughout the footballing world. The finest player to grace the planet, playing in a team of students, semi-professionals and a few foreigners was hard for people to comprehend.
The financial package offered to Pelé would have to have been huge, and it was. A salary of $1.4 million a year was unheard of at the time and it was paid via a number of different contracts, to ensure Pelé paid as little tax as possible. He was even under contract with Atlantic Records as a “recording artist.”
“We owned him lock, stock and barrel.” – Clive Toye on Pelé
Pelé’s influence stretched far beyond the pitch. While he increased interest and public awareness of the NASL, he also inspired the colours of Cosmos jerseys. The original colours of blue and yellow are known to have been a ploy to help lure Pelé to the club, while the change to an all-white strip in 1977 was in recognition of his former team Santos FC. His signing also inspired other great players to make the move to America, with players like George Best, Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore and Eusébio all following suit.
His arrival caused hysteria and his first game was broadcast live to support the demand around the world.
The team’s performances improved but they only managed third place in the league and Bradley was relieved of his duties. Fellow Englishman Ken Furphy replaced him and immediately set about adding another star name to the ranks.
Italian striker Georgio Chinaglia was brought in from S.S Lazio to partner Pelé. The transfer was another major coup for the Cosmos as he was a player in his prime, who was adored in his home country.
It was the start of a recruitment policy, which saw the Cosmos build a multi-national team. With the club signing more talented players, the increase in crowd attendance led to a move back to Yankee Stadium for the 1976 season.
“The standard of football was very good, we had players from Trinidad & Tobago, Germany, Poland, Israel and it was a good mix.” –Malcolm Dawes
A play-off position beckoned but they lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the league championship match. The 1977 season saw the team move again, this time to the newly built Giants Stadium in New Jersey.
Their move to the new stadium also saw them drop New York from their name and compete simply as “the Cosmos.”
Furphy was dismissed as coach in favour of a Bradley return but lasted only half the season, with Italian international Eddie Firmani replacing him.
1977 also saw Pelé’s last game for the Cosmos. It was an exhibition match between the Cosmos and Pelé’s beloved Santos. The game took place at a sold out Giants Stadium with the great man playing a half for both sides. As usual, he left his mark on the match when he scored the Cosmos’ first goal, a sweet strike from a free-kick in a 2-1 victory.
As one superstar was preparing to leave, another two were coming in. The Cosmos snapped up legendary Brazil captain Carlos Alberto and World Cup winner and ‘Der Kaiser’, Franz Beckenbauer. The two combined with Pelé to lead the club to the 1977 NASL championship.
Two more championships in 1978 and 1980 increased the stature of the team and by this point their attendances were averaging 40,000. New York had also been re-instated into the club’s name.
Following Pelé’s retirement, interest in the NASL started to slowly decline. Although the league still contained a lot of big names, there was nobody of Pelé’s stature. The turn of the century saw fans and media alike, lose interest in the sport.
Following an attempted takeover of Warner Communications by the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch, they decided to sell the subsidiary which controlled the Cosmos. Star forward Chinaglia bought the team but did not have the resources to retain all the well-paid players.
Despite the team working under numerous managers over the last few years, the Cosmos won another championship in 1982 but it was to be their last.
When live broadcasting was lost, the inevitable withdrawal of sponsorship ensued and the situation became serious. The franchises began to lose huge amounts of money, primarily due to the vast wages some of the players were commanding.
The NASL introduced a salary cap in 1984 to try to save the clubs but it killed the desire of players to play in the league and when too many clubs went under, the league folded.
The Cosmos played on and entered the Major Indoor Soccer League for the 1984-85 season but low attendances saw them withdraw 33 games in.
“They remain the biggest name in American football despite the fact they haven’t existed since the mid-80s.” – Tom Watt (Supporter)
The foundation of Major League Soccer in 1993 bred new life into the doomed sport in America and prompted many attempts to revive the Cosmos. However, former general manager G. Peppe Pinton refused for years to sell the naming rights, to protect the club’s legacy, until the revival of other historic NASL franchises led to a change of heart.
The Cosmos were back, with businessman Paul Helmsley at the helm, Pelé as the Honorary President and Eric Cantona as their Director of Football. Their reformation was announced in August of 2010 and after a failed attempt to enter the MLS, they settled for the second-tier of the new NASL in 2012.
They immediately made their intentions clear to rise back to the top of the game in America by winning the Fall Season Championship and the Soccer Bowl in 2013. They now boast World Cup winner Marcos Senna amongst their ranks and this writer has a feeling he won’t be the last big name turning out for the Cosmos.
A number of high-profile former players now stand as ambassadors for the club, helping them to recreate the buzz that once surrounded the famous team from New York. Just this week they have been heavily linked with a move for Roque Santa Cruz.
While the Cosmos still have a long way to go to get back to the level they once reached, the passion for the club and its history will ensure they will one day rub shoulders with the giants of the MLS.
With more and more big names moving to the land of the free, the draw of living in New York while playing for a team with a rich heritage should one day give the Cosmos the boost they need.
Karl Graham, Pundit Arena.