Neil W. Blackmon
Before there was the Cascadia Cup, the Texas Derby, DC United and the New York Red Bulls and the SuperClasico; before Real Madrid and Barca were truly global, not just European, brands, yes, well before there was Major League Soccer, there was the New York Cosmos and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The names of the men who played in this rivalry are large enough to warrant chapters in any comprehensive history of the game of soccer: Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, Gordon Banks, Ray Hudson, Werner Roth, Gerd Müller, Teofilo Cubillas, Carlos Alberto, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer. The stakes were nearly always gargantuan: a North American Soccer league championship or prime position in the league at stake. The stadiums were almost always full, a simple nod to the potential of soccer in North America. In one match, an 8-3 Cosmos playoff victory in 1977, 77,691 fans packed the Meadowlands to see the green and white clad Cosmos, led by Pele and captain Werner Roth, take on the upstart team from Fort Lauderdale, led by Ray Hudson and Gordon Banks, who, in an added bit of intrigue, made what is still considered what of the most miraculous saves in the history of the World Cup against the Cosmos’ Pelé, seven years earlier.
At ceremonies honoring the return of the Cosmos this week, Werner Roth recalled the tension as being “palpable” in the Meadowlands that day– “every bit the feel of a European final.” Most the Strikers-Cosmos games had that feeling, Roth added, noting that “We always had good competition against Ft. Lauderdale, it was always a special game.” Ray Hudson, now soccer’s unofficial poet laureate, remembers the Meadowlands match vividly. “Our team posted the best record in the NASL, 19-7, the best record over the Cosmos, the Rowdies, every team in the league,” Hudson said. “We were the best team. We got into the playoffs and we got knocked out the first game, 8-3 at Giants Stadium.” The two completed the playoff home and home three days later at a packed Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, and the Cosmos advanced, though not before a valiant Strikers effort forced a shootout. The Cosmos prevailed in penalties. The loss still haunts Hudson, who called the defeat “lunacy” this week in comments to the Cosmos.
The 1977 matches were the first between the two clubs, as that was the first year Fort Lauderdale played in the then burgeoning North American Soccer League. After the playoff shootout, the fixture quickly turned into a venomous rivalry, with the Cosmos often providing the foil to the Strikers desperate drive to win a North American Soccer League championship. The Strikers did everything possible to field a team specifically designed to defeat the Cosmos (often to their own expense, as the Tampa Bay Rowdies proved a foil they too often couldn’t overcome). In 1980, the Strikers finished again with the best record in the NASL, led by Gerd Müller, who until recently was the all-time leading goalscorer in European competition. All they had to do was defeat the Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl at RFK Stadium, and the championship they had sought for four seasons would finally be theirs.
Again, the New York Cosmos proved to be more than they could overcome. Pelé had retired a champion with the Cosmos, and this time, it was Franz Beckenbauer’s turn to go out a winner. After Müller left the game injured late in a scoreless first half, the Cosmos midfield took over. Giorgio Chinaglia scored twice and the Cosmos captured their fourth NASL championship, sending the great German Beckenbauer out a winner. More than 52,000 fans saw the match. For some perspective- only twice, in 1997 and in 2002, has the MLS Cup drawn more fans, despite hosting finals in stadiums capable of outdrawing that number on eight occasions.
The teams met for the final time in May of 1983, a 2-0 Strikers victory. A year later, the North American Soccer League, which burned so bright in the 1970’s and at the dawn of the 1980’s, had gone dark. Even with the greatest names, and intense rivalries, the argument went, professional soccer isn’t sustainable in the States. The Cosmos had been, above all, a grand exercise in what could happen with the game in America when it was bankrolled by a worldwide conglomerate (Warner Communications) and they fielded an assorted, global group of power footballing names. With them, the Cosmos gave North American soccer a global brand. That the brand failed in a decade- and with it, ended North American soccer’s greatest rivalry, was seen as a deathblow to the game in the States.
Soccer stateside went into a kind of dark ages. With no professional league and a national team of amateurs, soccer in America became largely a lily-white exercise in Baby Boomer parenting in the 1980’s, as parents turned away from sports like football- they were “too dangerous”- and enrolled their children in soccer- after all, it’s just “soccer”, went the parental line. Competition and results were de-emphasized behind juice boxes, orange slices, “having fun” and participation trophies.
And then Paul Caligiuri scored against Trinidad and Tobago. The US won the hosting rights to World Cup 1994 (with the Cosmos’ legend, Pelé, front and center, it should be noted/remembered), Alexi Lalas and company donned the Denim Kit, MLS was formed, began to take hold, Brian McBride scored against Mexico and here we are. There was plenty “in-between”, of course, but those timeline events serve as a backdrop to soccer’s growing popularity in the United States today, where the game is so popular that in just over 24 hours, Keith Costigan can tweet a scoop about the American captain Clint Dempsey moving to MLS’ Seattle Sounders, a US fan on Twitter can tweet a seemingly innocuous photo of Dempsey at the San Francisco airport, and boom– ESPN’s Doug McIntyre is confirming that the still-in-his-prime American star is choosing to return to MLS instead of playing for one of the world’s best clubs in London.
It is in this crazy universe, unthinkable after the NASL folded, that the New York Cosmos return 30 years later, only now, their station in the game stateside is a near-complete reversal. The North American Soccer League is back. So are the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, now owned by a player from the old North American Soccer League, Tom Mulroy. The two teams will meet on the field for the first time in 30 years at Hofstra University Saturday night. A glorious rivalry will renew, though on much less star-studded terms.
Indeed, there are questions about the sustainability of the North American Soccer League, which is now the second-tier of American soccer- and “tier” is in reality only a name given by the US federation– without promotion or relegation, the status is seemingly perpetual for all clubs involved. Still, the Cosmos are back. The truth is, they never left– Peppe Pinton, an advisor to the late Giorgio Chinaglia, owned the trademark for years and fought a long, losing battle to get the team into MLS–they just didn’t have a league until they were purchased by Seamus O’Brien, a savvy businessman whose Singapore-based sports marketing agency has Saudi Arabian money backing it. O’Brien has fought for a stadium (that New York state has not yet approved), and has an aggressive, yet spendthrift marketing program that has already yielded a TV deal. It is O’Brien’s hope that the presence of a brand like the Cosmos will lift the North American Soccer League as a whole from a second-tier entity to a sustainable, competitive league capable of competing with MLS- and yes, possibly opening the door to a promotion/relegation system. O’Brien told the New York Times this week he thinks New York City is about to become soccer-mad in a country, the United States, that “in the next ten-fifteen years” will be at the “center of the soccer universe.”
Former Cosmos goalkeeper and American broadcast personality Shep Messing agrees, telling Newsday this week that New York City is “an almost soccer-crazy town” that can certainly sport three soccer teams (MLS has announced that New York City FC, a joint venture with the Yankees and Manchester City, will begin play in 2015). “The history and evolution of these New York Red Bulls finally, finally has sorted itself out, and it’s on the right path and I think in the nick of time,” Messing told Newsday. “Pro soccer in the New York marketplace is about to, I don’t want to say explode, but this is a significant moment.”
O’Brien believes that the Cosmos, and their rivals, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, can be a centerpiece rivalry in this moment, just as they were in a different, but also important, moment for US Soccer in the 1970’s. He believes, genuinely, that the North American Soccer League can utilize its spendthrift model that focuses on local club support and infrastructure to challenge an MLS model he thinks individually isn’t sustainable.
“The M.L.S. is unique to world soccer with a single-entity structure that runs contrary to the global economy of the sport,” O’Brien told ESPNFC.com. “You can’t live in wonderful isolation forever, not when the rest of the world is based on a decentralized model that allows clubs to buy and sell players as they see fit. I’m not saying that we’re going to bring Lionel Messi to the N.A.S.L. next season, but if we had the resources, we wouldn’t be beholden to the other owners for their approval like the M.L.S. is.”
O’Brien has utilized the club’s brand star power to market the team- with both Pelé and Beckenbauer involved with promoting what he’s dubbed the “Cosmos Reboot”. The Empire State Building even lit up Cosmos green this week to honor the team’s return. But the players are mostly faceless, and in the short-term, fans that go see the Cosmos play won’t see of spending MLS-type money, nor will they see a team capable of challenging MLS sides with regularity on the pitch. They aren’t your father or grandfather’s Cosmos. Indeed, of the players who will take to the pitch tonight in Hempstead, New York, only former Spanish international Marcos Senna is remotely a “name.” The Strikers lack name recognition as well, as they seek a fresh start from a spring campaign that saw them finish dead last in the league and dismiss the only two players they had of any repute: Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers castaway Jemal Johnson and former Jamaica skipper Shavar Thomas. Johnson, for his part, joined the Cosmos after his Strikers’ release, and the Englishmen couldn’t be happier to participate in this rivalry, telling the Wall Street Journal that “the history of this team is untouchable.” “All around the world, people know the Cosmos name, Johnson said.
People know the rivalry too. Several hundred Strikers fans traveled to New York for the match, and sources close to the Strikers told us late this spring that they expect Cosmos supporters to make the return trip to Lockhart Stadium with similar numbers in September. Throughout the spring season, a group of Strikers supporters held a “I SKULL New York” flag to “honor” their northern rivals. The bitterness is still there.
Messing thinks the history can only help, but the players, on each team, must forge their own identities, aided by fan bases that respect their histories. “The challenge and opportunity for this team is not to dwell on the past,” Messing said. “It’s great to recognize all of us, but it’s time to move on—this is 2013, establish your own identity, your own connection to the fans. They’ll be making a mistake if they live off our memories.”
All that may be very astute advice, and Saturday night is indeed a chance to start anew. For the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, it is an opportunity to put a miserable spring behind them with a revamped roster and a new coach, Günter Kronsteiner, formerly manager of Austria Vienna, who he led to the UEFA quarterfinals with the help of an assistant named Joachim Low. For the Cosmos, it is that rare second act in an American life, a fresh start and a new beginning with an odd twist for an opponent, an old rival. It has all the trappings of a great story.
That such a story is possible in American soccer today, that, like in football-mad England, a second-tier rivalry could actually matter, is something new too. Something new from something old. And something very special for soccer in America.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt. You can also find him at Fort Lauderdale Strikers matches on Saturday nights throughout the spring and fall.