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May 15, 2007

Cosmos' legacy yet to be fully embraced by MLS

Peppe Pinton sits in his office in northern New Jersey, framed by the New York Cosmos' championship trophies. Piled on his desk are photographs that link to yesteryear, reminders of a time when the world's game was at its best in a country that barely knew the sport before the team's arrival. The way he lionizes the team's legacy is grand, yet his continued love of the Cosmos seems somewhat quixotic.

You get the sense that deep, inside, Pinton is heartbroken. It is easy to understand why.

More then 20 years removed from the NASL's (North American Soccer League) collapse, the New York Cosmos are arguably the most famous club in the world. They are certainly the most famous American soccer franchise to ever lace up for a match. Yet, the Cosmos remain a polarizing presence, even decades removed from their last kick.

"The Cosmos were the pioneers of everything that is happening in soccer today in this country," said Pinton, pointing to the ground.

Pinton is a figure of intrigue. As the last manager of the fabled team, he owns the rights to the Cosmos name. It's Pinton's contention that MLS has shunned ties to the former NASL.

"I can't understand how the league [MLS] has not branched out to us, to the Cosmos, to Pelé, he said. "No, they've got to do it all on their own. ... All by themselves they do it, not with us. Will the next New York team, if there is one, be on the cover of The New York Times? We, the Cosmos, we've been there.

"I have no idea who is putting the lock on the door of the Cosmos. I know I sound bitter. I'm not, I'm just disappointed."

Having been a ball boy at the first home of the Minnesota Kicks, MLS president Mark Abbott is familiar with the history of the NASL. Abbott refuted Pinton's claim that the league hasn't recognized the league the Cosmos flourished in.

"We've done a number of things to embrace the NASL," Abbott said.

"Our teams have done a lot of tributes," he added. "There has been quite a bit of acknowledgement from the teams and the league."

In their heyday, the Cosmos routinely drew the largest crowds in the league for regular season games. Now, the current tenants of Giants Stadium, the New York Red Bulls, have difficulty reaching those numbers in special doubleheader events featuring international teams, not to mention stand alone games. Through 171 league games, the current MLS franchise in New York has averaged just over 17,000 fans since its inception in 1996. After 1976, Pele's first full season with the team, the Cosmos never averaged less then 18,000 until their final year in 1984 when the team drew 12,817 and failed to make the playoffs.

"When we closed the Cosmos, we were averaging 15, sometimes 20,000 for a slate of exhibition games," Pinton said. "This was when the league was gone. I've been to MLS games where there are 1000 people. I know, because I've counted them!"

"I hope the league will still be around," said former Cosmos superstar Giorgio Chinaglia, who was the NASL's all-time leading scorer and has been a critic of the MLS. "After all, it is better this then nothing."

Indeed, the Cosmos were an entity ahead of their time, a truly global brand before the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of the world attempted such a reach. The club logo was plastered on lunch boxes and soccer balls; the offseason was filled with tours and exhibitions. Celebrities from Mick Jagger to Henry Kissinger frequented games. The team was bigger than the league, and it is a fear of a return to the excessive expenditure of the Cosmos at their peak, that has driven MLS to impose a strict salary cap, foreign player restrictions and a tight budget model.

"There is an embracing and a learning that has taken place," said Abbott about MLS' study of the NASL. "From a business perspective, there was certainly a failing of the old league. We interviewed a number of people from the league and a number of teams, such as the Cosmos, had eight to 10 times the salary cap of others. We believe single-entity corrects that."

In order to avoid the mistakes of the free-spending NASL, MLS has utilized a strict salary cap and limited spending and the signing of international players. Unlike many NASL teams who imported fading internationals for one last payday, the current league has pushed for youth development as the core players in the league. It can be argued that the league has gone too far in this direction, choosing to push very ordinary players and failing to pursue truly marketable stars.

The fact that the Cosmos remain the marquee symbol of American soccer across the globe is a testament to a drawing power that the world and MLS might never realize. It can be argued that MLS, in its attempt to learn from history, has avoided the NASL, shunning the former franchises and players of the defunct league.

Abbott, would disagree.

"We did learn where the NASL excelled," he said. "In particular, the grassroots outreach was something we tried to implement."

Thomas Rongen, the coach of the U.S. U-20 national team, played against the Cosmos in the NASL.

"MLS could have embraced the players and personalities a bit better," Rongen said.

However, he added that: "MLS did do the right thing in carving their own niche with the single entity structure."

Pinton, who terms himself as the team's "caretaker ... the curator of the legacy," senses an antagonism from the league offices of MLS.

"I often thought, that if by some mysterious reason that the Yankees went out of business, what would happen," said Pinton, who claims to receive multiple offers a day, throughout the world, to use the Cosmos brand. "I'd like to see the idiots who start another baseball league and say that the Yankees are a 'nobody' and ignore them.

"Am I comparing the Cosmos to the Yankees? Yes. Absolutely. Furthermore, we are an international brand -- we still are and the Yankees are not."

Chinaglia echoed Pinton's frustration with MLS.

"What do they [MLS] know?" he said. "Most of them never even played the game."

Truthfully, there should be no reason whatsoever that the Cosmos are not embraced by MLS. Despite the negative perceptions, the franchise was a trendsetter not just in the soccer community but for all professional sports.

Now entering Year 12 of its grand experiment, Major League Soccer could be poised to make a bet such as bringing back the Cosmos. Having already rolled the dice with the signing of Beckham, the mood might be right to bring back the NASL's most-storied franchise.

"It was more of a fad then anything else," Rongen said. "This league [MLS] has a better foundation, more substantiated with a longer-term vision"

It's because of this foundation and infrastructure that many like Pinton think it is time to revive the brand.

"The next New York team should be the Cosmos," Pinton said. "It would be a slap in the face to not do it."

Pinton said he has tried to bring the team back and was first approached prior to the league's inception. He refers to an attempt in 2002 to revive MLS' interest in bringing the Cosmos back and points to a series of discussions in 2006 with investor Andrew Murstein.

Pinton said that Murstein proposed to purchase Kansas City for approximately $11 million and bring the franchise to New York City. Pinton said he had discussions with Murstein to purchase the Cosmos name for $2.5 million. Pinton felt a deal was so close, he had a personalized Pelé jersey made and autographed for Murstein. According to Pinton, he was told that the league had no interest in reviving a brand.

Murstein's office had no comment and it's a point that MLS disputes.

"There is no deliberate attempt by the league to run away from the NASL," Abbott said. "I don't think the league would be opposed to naming a new team the Cosmos."

Rongen concurs: "No one sat in boardroom and made a conscious distinction," he said. "If you look at the hierarchy of MLS, I don't think there was a lot of attachment to the NASL."

In their best year, the Cosmos averaged nearly 47,000 fans -- about two-thirds of the capacity of Giants Stadium. Chinaglia said that MLS is envious of the team's success.

"I think they are jealous," he said. "Look at the positive things we did. Soldout matches all the time. The international tours. Have they done that yet? No."

He added that: "I don't think they [MLS] have good leadership to be honest with you. They don't come from the world of soccer. They have no clue. It's sad what they do in the league office ... not just the league office, the headquarters of the [U.S. Soccer] federation too."

Even in hiatus, the Cosmos are still victims of their own legacy. Perhaps it is the fear that the legacy of the team is bigger than MLS or because there are still people who view the team as the cause of the NASL's demise. Now, however, might be the right time to revisit the unmistakable magic that was the Cosmos.

Perhaps MLS is the right league to ensure that the Cosmos remain more then a memory.

Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com