When Pele’ shocked the world in 1975 and signed with the Cosmos, after turning down Real Madrid and Juventus, the NASL went from being essentially a semi-pro league to a big time international first division. The courting and signing of Pele’ by Ross and the Warner Communications team is portrayed in riveting fashion by the filmmakers. After the signing of Georgia Chinaglia in 1976 the film much like the Cosmos took a turn into the risque and shady side. Chinaglia and Pele showed up for a playoff match against Tampa Bay famously hung over and the Cosmos were eliminated from the playoffs by a 3 to 1 score. By this time the Cosmos were regulars at Studio 54 and were drawing huge crowds both at home and on the road.
In 1977, the Cosmos bought several top foreign stars and became the predecessor of today’s Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona teams. In those days even the top European clubs were largely national clubs with very few foreign players.The NASL then went through a proliferation of purchasing foreign stars, most of whom commanded high salaries despite being well past their prime. This helped to eventually seal the fate of the league, but not before a lifetime of memories were formed. Georgia Chinaglia becomes the focus of the film at this point since his meddling in the Cosmos front office and his unwillingness to work with others contributed to the downfall of the entire league. Nonetheless the seeds had been sown to hook a generation of youngsters on the game, a generation whose parents did not even know what soccer was.
Ultimately the NASL did not fail but in fact succeeded. Even now, thirty years later when I travel abroad people are more likely to know the names “The Cosmos, or the Rowdies” than any current club in MLS or USL the top flight leagues in the US that replaced the NASL. (I will concede the best known names today of American clubs are two USL clubs who have kept the names of the NASL clubs in their cities: the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers) Youth Soccer was niche ethnic sport in the United States before the Cosmos craze of the 1970s and early 1980s and by the time the NASL died, it was the biggest participatory sport in the nation for kids under the age of 12.
The NASL planted the seeds for the US National Team success of the 1990s and a successful World Cup being staged on American soil in 1994. The negative leagcy of the NASL is simple and not debatable. The quality of soccer was so superior to today’s MLS or USL it spoiled many American fans about the game. Many of these fans today opt to watch European football which readily available on US TV instead of American soccer.
MLS and USL are indigenous products that are the logical successor of the NASL’s work. The American player largely irrelevant during the height of the Cosmos frenzy is now of a world class standard. Our leagues today have more American players at their disposal to sign and to develop and with the opening up of European club football to the world, an NASL like product on US soil with countless stars of world football may be impossible to replicate. It is imperative those interested in soccer support MLS and USL and not compare it to the NASL which was a product of a different time.
The debate about American soccer aside, this film is riveting and a must see for sports fans off all stripes.
The author, a lifelong fan of the beautiful game is an associate with the international polling firm Bendixen and Associates in Coral Gables. He resides in Coral Springs with his wife, dog and two cats.
While this review accurately represents my views at the time, in 2009 my views have further evolved on the subject. While I still find fault with American viewers who do not make the effort to watch MLS or USL in their local towns I have come to relate to many of the frustrations of the NASL generation with MLS in particular.
The NASL was a rogue league but in that atmosphere of promoting professional football in a soccer wasteland it almost had to be. But now the success of the sport in the United States cannot be questioned: when given a quality product Americans will tune in.
Americans do get this sport in a way we did not when the NASL existed. But MLS so obsessed with the perceived failure of the NASL has done everything possible to disassociate itself from the legacy of a league that was ultimately more popular on American TV and more embedded in popular culture than MLS probably ever will be.
While this has bothered me since 1996 (for example I have consistently been angry about the naming of the Tampa Bay MLS franchise the Mutiny instead of the Rowdies and believe the Rowdies name would have probably meant that club wouldn’t have easily failed) it reached a boiling point when the MLS tried to prevent Seattle’s new team from being named the Sounders.
Thankfully in that case, people power won out, and the MLS Sounders will begin play on March 19th following the footsteps of their NASL and USL predecessors. But MLS which I compliment for promoting an indigenous form of football in the US two and a half years ago has since gotten badly off track.
The league now has Designated Players which mimic the NASL’s spending without delivering today’s equivalents of Johan Cryuff , George Best or Eusiebo to American shores. Instead the DP rule has been used to bring to MLS what can only described as marginal figures in world football like Marcello Gallardo, Denilson and Claudio Lopez. Additionally the league seems less committed now to the development of young American talent than at any point since its inception.
Even when teams attempt to develop players they have to deal with a cumbersome set of rules. The NY Red Bulls were unable to sign the first graduate of their academy because they did not hold the next allocation place under MLS’ peculiar setup. Young American footballers are offered such insultingly low wages that often times they sign in USL, which is technically a second division or worse yet go to Europe at 18 or 19 and get lost in the competitive atmosphere at mid tier clubs in second tier leagues.
I strongly recommend reading Gavin Newsham’s Once in a Lifetime companion book. Written by a British journalist as accompanying material for the film, the book expands upon the events described in the movie at a supersonic pace. It gives an accurate portrayal of the Cosmos impact on world football at the time but also the devastation the free spending of the club caused the game in the United States.
The author was supportive of MLS but the book and movie were written before the league engaged in its own NASL like vices: out of control expansion, an increase in foreign player slots and the designated player rule. Part of my desire to revisit the NASL’s legacy this week and for the next few months is to honor to return of the Seattle Sounders to top flight football, but also enlighten those who are too young to recall the NASL or have heard nothing but what amounts to MLS era “spin” about the league. It also was necessary in light of my own evolution on the subject of MLS and to a lesser extent USL, and the change in attitudes of the top division of American football since this film was released.
MLS will not fail. Football is too developed in the United States in the 21st century in a way that it was not when the NASL began to really encounter difficulties in the early 1980s. But MLS is not fulfilling it’s potential as a league or not helping the development of American soccer the way it once did not so long ago.
NOTE: GOOGLE VIDEO, YOU TUBE AND AOL VIDEO ALL HAVE ASSORTED CLIPS OF ONCE IN A LIFETIME ONLINE FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM. ALSO MOST BEST BUY STORES CARRY THE DVD WHICH ALSO INCLUDES THE BONUS FEATURES OF TWO ABC TELECASTS OF COSMOS GAMES, ONE VERSUS THE FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS AND ANOTHER VERSUS THE CHICAGO STING.