Commentary

Twice in a lifetime

Updated: November 29, 2010, 5:53 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

PeleNeilson Barnard/Getty ImagesAlmost thirty years after Pele captured the hearts of a city, the legend has returned as the honorary chairman of the newly reborn New York Cosmos.

NEW YORK -- It was the only U.S. soccer team America ever truly loved. So how do you even begin to breathe life back into the New York Cosmos without it coming off as a cheap imitation? How do you go about restarting a professional sports franchise with such a loaded name from scratch, anyway?

The original Cosmos zenith began in 1977, lasting a few years. Remnants of the counter-culture inspired people to try out new things, a lingering effect of having once yearned for new institutions to orbit their lives around. New York was turning apocalyptic. The Son of Sam was on the loose, crack was king and people ran riot during the blackouts. Elsewhere, Led Zeppelin gave its last concert. So did the Supremes and Elvis Presley. Apple was incorporated. And at the busy intersection of all these changes stood the lovable, hard-partying, star-studded Cosmos, which embodied the new, put together from parts of the old.

Good luck recreating that.

Something Special

"The Cosmos was something extraordinarily special," said Clive Toye, a consultant to the Confederation of North American, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, who once served as the team's general manager and vice president and then its president from 1971 to 1977. "In those days, 0.3 percent of the United States knew about soccer. You talked to people about the World Cup, never mind the Cosmos, and they said, 'What's that?' "

Not anymore, of course. The sport is growing. MLS is healthy and expanding, and soccer occasionally captures the imagination of the country, as the U.S. team's World Cup run in South Africa demonstrated. In the days of the Cosmos, soccer was a fad. Now it's a sport that has carved itself a nice niche in the American sporting landscape.

"It was a very different time than it is today," Toye said. "The present-day Cosmos will come into an environment where the World Cup has been played in this country, where American players play in Europe and the U.S. national team is indescribably better. Everybody knows what soccer is, and everywhere there are soccer fields."

It's in this environment that the Cosmos are looking to be reborn. A group of investors has purchased the Cosmos' naming rights, with the hopes of rejoining soccer's American big league, which this time around is the MLS. The club's soccer clout includes Paul Kemsley, chairman, who was prominent with Tottenham Hotspur; Terry Byrne, the club's director of soccer, who previously worked for Watford, Chelsea and the England national team; and Rick Parry, board member, who spent nine years as the CEO of Liverpool and was in charge of the development of the Premier League. Then there's Pele, who is the Cosmos' honorary chairman and a man capable of accomplishing just about anything in the sport, including bringing the World Cup to his native Brazil.

Of course, one thing will remain the same -- the club's name. "You had better not sully that," said Toye, who came up with the name in the first place. "If you screw it up, I shall come down there and haunt you."

"Down there" refers to Cosmos headquarters, a classic five-story SoHo loft. Inside, people design merchandise, marketing plans and a website in front of a brick wall with a Cosmos logo painted on it. In a glass-enclosed office sits Kemsley. He has been working on the reincarnation of the Cosmos since July 2008, gaining considerable momentum when he acquired the club's rights in October 2009 and formally announced its rebirth in August of this year.

The present-day Cosmos will come into an environment where the World Cup has been played in this country, where American players play in Europe and the U.S. national team is indescribably better. Everybody knows what soccer is, and everywhere there are soccer fields.

-- Clive Toye, former Cosmos' president

"We wanted to bring back the New York Cosmos so that we could write another chapter in this club's history," Kemsley said. While he was vice-chairman for Tottenham Hotspur and a real estate tycoon, he's best known for being Britain's scariest job interviewer on the UK version of "The Apprentice."

In the office next to him is Byrne. He is most famous in soccer circles as David Beckham's confidant -- he helped bring Becks to the U.S. -- and as the man accused of engineering Ruud Gullit's disastrous spell as head coach of the L.A. Galaxy. (Byrne said he was asked to suggest a name and to help evaluate the club's staff and had nothing to do with the hiring or decision process.) As director of soccer for the Cosmos, Byrne is responsible for putting a team on the field that will satisfy the burdensome expectations faced by Kemsley and two groups of investors who bought the storied Cosmos name.

The Cosmos evoke luxury and lavish spending. For years, the club pumped money into a conveyor belt that would churn out the fashionable players of the day. Pele came, then Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.

Bringing in all these stars came at a cost. The club overstretched itself financially. And then, following the Cosmos model, every other club made the same mistake until the balloon popped and the North American Soccer League (NASL) closed up shop in 1984.

But the break-neck days of NASL are long gone. If the Cosmos join MLS there will be no such extravagances. The league is built on austerity, as it's learned the hard lessons of NASL, and limits the number of expensive stars -- the so-called Designated Players -- to three per team. The Cosmos will not be given any special treatment in trying to land more stars to help support its legendary image.

"They'll play by the same rules as anybody else," Mark Abbott, MLS president, said.

"You can't sign a player like Pele," Toye said. "If you bought, say, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney, it would cost you a ridiculous fortune. And therefore a different job has to be done."

Building from the ground up

[+] EnlargeNew York Cosmos
Robert Riger/Getty ImagesTony Field, Giorgio Chinaglia and Pele get their game faces on in Giants Stadium in the mid 1970s.

"Our goals are, in some way, to try to replicate and do justice to what the Cosmos was previously," Byrne said. "I think you have to reinvent. You have to respect the heritage and try to contemporize it. We are lucky to inherit the baton … Everybody in soccer knows the name. We never changed the logo. We just contemporized it. So you've respected history. But how do you give it rebirth? Our homework showed that the grassroots investment that we've made, which is a significant amount of money, is the way forward."

In a sense, the new Cosmos are doing the exact opposite of what the old Cosmos did. Rather than a top-down approach, bringing in as many stars as possible and sprinkling the squad with domestic players, the club is building around homegrown talent with plans to add a star here, another one there at the right time. "We're doing this from the grassroots up," Byrne said.

The Cosmos have acquired two well-known youth soccer clubs in New York and Los Angeles, with the hope that they'll produce a few starters by the time the club kicks off its inaugural season. In all, the Cosmos have invested more than $1 million in youth soccer. That's twice the annual budget of D.C. United's soccer academy, which has delivered the best players of any MLS club to date.

At the Cosmos' academies, players ages 8-18 are schooled in an attacking 4-3-3 formation (a stylistic nod to the 1970s) that will stress creativity. Although the Cosmos won't have a senior team until they secure entry into MLS, they have a system in place for developing players that is consistent with the club's heritage.

"Our players are encouraged to express themselves going forward," said Teddy Chronopoulous, the head of the academy in Los Angeles.

Certainly, a youth-first policy is a departure from what is associated with the Cosmos. But Byrne said, "If you look deeper into the Cosmos' original team, you had Chinaglia, you had Pele, you had Beckenbauer and you had Carlos Alberto, but you also had players like Werner Roth, who were your stalwarts, who played week in, week out, and were the backbone for the stars. I don't think you can have a World XI. I think you need a combination of the two."

As for ultimately placing a head coach in front of the team, Byrne said he wouldn't again consider a manager like Gullit without the proper know-how. "I've learned that you need to have knowledge of the MLS league, which obviously Ruud didn't previously have," Byrne said.

Breaking into MLS

All this talk about players and coaches is enough to get you excited, but there's the small matter of gaining entry into the league. There's currently 16 teams, and with the next three spots taken by Vancouver and Portland in 2011 and Montreal in 2012 the Cosmos could be the 20th.

The good news is that MLS is keen on fostering a rivalry in a major market and looks kindly on a second New York franchise. Last week, commissioner Don Garber told Fox Soccer Channel that the league hopes to have a deal in place for its second New York franchise in the next six to eight months.

"We would like to see the 20th team in the league be a second team in the New York metropolitan area," Abbott said.

The Cosmos would appear to be the favorite for the spot. "We know the group well, and we've had some very productive conversations with them," Abbott said. "We like the Cosmos group. We think they bring vision and passion to the project, but we're not yet at the stage of discussing potential ownership in the league." Cities such as Las Vegas, St. Louis, Phoenix, San Antonio, Tampa, Miami and Ottawa could make a push, building on previous attempts to join MLS, in addition to rival bids from within New York, such as the one hinted at by New York Mets ownership.

New York Cosmos
New York CosmosUntil the Cosmos gain entry into MLS, the club will have to rely on the selling of team merchandise to help foot the bill.

"I'm under no illusions that we're the only gig in town," said Byrne of potentially having to beat out local bids. "I think there'll be two or three options at that time."

The Cosmos are orienting their business plan to gain entry into the league in 2013. The expansion fee for joining MLS is estimated at $40 million, which the club has at the ready, according to Byrne. But any delays in delivering MLS membership could throw a wrench into the plans. Joining the league is a tedious process. After all, Abbott first met with Montreal, which will join in 2012, in 1993.

The chief hiccup is finding a stadium, a tricky proposition anywhere but especially difficult in New York. "That really is the key issue that needs to be solved," Abbott said. "You can't have a team without a stadium."

According to the Cosmos, the team is in talks with the league about a piece of land in Queens. It would be far enough from Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., to not siphon off its predominantly New Jersey fan base but easily accessible for fans in and around Manhattan.

"It is a very large market," Abbott said. "If you look at where a team in Queens could draw from in addition to from the City -- [it could] draw from Westchester, Connecticut and Long Island. In our minds, there is no question that the market is large and diverse enough to support two teams."

The Beckham Factor

No matter how natural the fit would seem and no matter how poetic a Galactico leaving the Galaxy to take over the Cosmos would be, David Beckham is one person the Cosmos will not be adding to its ranks. Byrne might be his best friend, Kemsley a fellow Londoner, and Beckham himself the owner of a contractual option allowing him to take control of an MLS franchise when his playing career ends, but the Cosmos won't be the one.

"Although David does have certain rights for a team in the future, those rights do not include a team in the New York market," Abbott said. (According to Byrne, Beckham's option also excludes the Los Angeles area.)

"Everybody says, 'Are you just doing this for David?'" Byrne said. "David's been my friend for 20 years. I'm godfather to his kids. He's godfather to my son. We're best of friends. But that doesn't mean that what I'm doing is for David."

New York state of mind

New York Cosmos
New York CosmosThe Cosmos celebrated Pele's 70th birthday party in Times Square in October.

The Cosmos will have to walk a tight rope between honoring the old and ushering in the new, between capitalizing on the brand and rebranding the club's identity. "We are passionate custodians of a great legacy in the New York Cosmos, an icon of this city," said Dan Cherry, chief marketing officer. "Having said that, this is not simply a retro brand play. You do not try to recreate an icon."

The new Cosmos will aim to win over the community. "It's very hard to take a brand like the Cosmos and just slap it on a shirt and say, 'Hey, we're back,'" said Joe Fraga, executive director. "Since it's been out of memory for a while. I think that the way we're doing it, from the bottom up, is the way to bring the credibility back and to show the community that we're not just here to be an MLS team. We're here to be part of the fabric and the DNA of New York City."

In addition to an academy on both coasts, the Cosmos plan to run a grassroots youth league in all five boroughs and have taken over the enormous grassroots NYC Copa tournament.

"I think that the community outreach is what's going to differentiate us," Fraga said. "When we're running fully on all cylinders as far as academies, leagues, camps and Copa, you're going to see more access for kids to get off the streets and play [soccer]."

If New York can embrace the Cosmos again and the club can return the favor, the two can rekindle their love to the way it was it was those beautiful summers some 30 years ago.

That's the plan, anyway.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.