Major League Soccer’s development continues. The 2011 season will see the number of teams in the league rise to 18, the number of soccer specific stadiums continues to grow and the league tries to bring through young players to complement the high profile – though often past their peak – star names.
Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps are the sides to benefit from this latest expansion. Both are famous names from the past, now reborn and looking to make an impact in their opening MLS season. They will be joined for 2012 by Montreal, and the following year it’s expected that another franchise will be added, possibly from New York.
That final team could be New York Cosmos. Re-launched in a blaze of publicity towards the end of last year, the Cosmos are probably the most famous of all the sides from the former North American Soccer League (NASL). Backed by Warner Communications they were able to attract some of the biggest names in the game, played in front of massive crowds and won five league titles in the 1970’s and 80’s. However, the collapse of the NASL led to the demise of the Cosmos.
The man leading the revival is Paul Kemsley, formerly vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. He purchased the rights to the Cosmos name from former holder G. Peppe Pinton and hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet: a new kit has been launched (in a deal with Umbro), as have youth academies in New York and Los Angeles. Their most famous former player, Pele, has been appointed Honorary President while Rick Parry has joined the board of directors, bring with him experience gained from spells as chief executive of both the FA Premier League and Liverpool. In recent weeks there have also been unconfirmed reports that David Beckham may be interested in buying the Cosmos.
It’s been suggested that the Cosmos could operate as some kind of travelling exhibition team, almost like football’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Such an idea however, is surely a non-starter. If they plan to be viewed as a serious club, then the Cosmos must be playing competitive football. In the USA, that means joining MLS.
The primary benefit of the Cosmos in MLS is a second New York franchise, and some local competition for the Red Bulls. While the league has some fierce rivalries, the only genuine local derby is LA Galaxy v Chivas USA – yet some fans consider this rivalry to be somewhat contrived, particularly when held up against Galaxy’s history with San Jose and the animosity between the Red Bulls and DC United. The Seattle/Portland/Vancouver matches should also be interesting. A genuine inter-city derby therefore, would be welcomed, particularly by fans in the Big Apple. Initially, such a contest may not have the intensity (hatred?) of its European or South American counterparts, but that may come in time – after all Celtic and Rangers didn’t despise each other from day one.
The Cosmos return may also encourage former fans from the 70’s and 80’s to return to the game, though it could be an awkward situation for any former Cosmos supporters who now follow the Red Bulls. Do they remain loyal to their current team, or go back to their first love? Furthermore, the Cosmos name and the memories it conjures up could lead to an increase in the interest in MLS from people in the USA and beyond.
While there is a fairly strong argument for their being admitted to the league, does a second New York franchise have to be the Cosmos? Well in a word…no. While it appears that the new organisation has the expertise, the support and the funding to make a success of the second generation Cosmos, the landscape has changed. In the NASL, the New York Cosmos were the big attraction, with Pele, Beckenbauer and the rest, but that wouldn’t happen in MLS. Thanks to the salary cap, it’s a more level playing field, and one that prevents the domination of one or two ‘superclubs’.
Should the returning Cosmos be willing and able to fit into such an environment, then it would be nice to see the return of another old favourite. What’s most important though, is that any expansion teams are strong, progressive organisations who will make a positive contribution to the league. Whether they are called New York Cosmos, City, United or anything else, is of secondary importance.