The name still means something, three decades later. It means Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chiniglia. For many Americans, the New York Cosmos means soccer, then and now.
It was their first introduction to soccer, the first time they paid attention, the flagship of the first soccer league to flourish in the United States, the NASL.
Pele arrived in 1975, and American soccer was never the same, even after the Cosmos disappeared from the scene in the early ’80s. And now, it is back, the brand reborn as part of the new NASL, joining the Carolina RailHawks in what is now a nine-team league.
The Cosmos was a legitimate international sensation, an American soccer club that attracted attention around the world in a way none other ever has, before or after.
John Kerr Jr. was a 10-year-old ballboy when Pele joined Kerr's father on the Cosmos. Now the Duke men's coach, Kerr once scored five goals in a youth game before a Cosmos game. That earned him a hug from Pele in the locker room.
“It's hard for me not to think of what a grand club it was,” Kerr said. “For me, growing up, it was the franchise – the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys. And it was American. The next Cosmos has a way to go, but the name is established in soccer folklore.”
The original NASL flared briefly on the American sports scene, then burned out just as quickly, buried under salaries it could never sustain. Very little of the league’s history remains in the collective consciousness of sports fans, but the Cosmos lingers, a reminder of what once was and what might have been, decades ago.
The Cosmos makes its first visit to WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, without Pele or Beckenbauer or Chiniglia, but with a name that will still be familiar to many in the stands who remember the team or have merely heard stories.
(The new club secured a little star power as well: international ex-stars Eric Cantona and Cobi Jones fill management roles.)
The RailHawks have a stake in this as well. The Cosmos name still resonates, and having it in the new NASL is expected to drive the league forward, to the benefit of all. NASL commissioner Bill Peterson called it a “global brand,” an ambition underlined by the Cosmos’ pursuit of the Dubai airline Emirates as a shirt sponsor, joining massive clubs like Arsenal, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Paris St. Germain.
“That’s a team of the people, not only New York,” Peterson said. “People love that team. I travel all over and I meet people every week that say, ‘My dad was a big Cosmos fan, I can’t wait until they come back.’ It’s amazing, really, the emotion. ...
“They understand the legacy that they hold in their hands. They also understand the responsibility to continue the legacy and grow the legacy themselves.”
The Cosmos faced significant challenges before it ever kicked a ball. Instead of being New York’s second franchise behind the MLS Red Bulls, the Cosmos’ thunder was stolen when MLS awarded an expansion franchise to a partnership between the New York Yankees and English club Manchester City, two of the giants of global sport.
That team is scheduled to begin MLS play in 2015, giving the Cosmos a season and a half to establish itself, capitalize on its name and build viable links to a history that still means something to people inside and outside the soccer world before well-funded competition arrives.
But for soccer fans – sports fans – of a certain age, the name Cosmos still means something.
“You could feel the electricity,” Kerr said. “It was a special time and place. I have fond, fond memories of the Cosmos.”