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Leagues: MLS

Revisiting Once in a Lifetime


I wrote this review  of the Once in a Lifetime film when it was released two and a half years ago in South Florida theaters for another website. After the review from 2006, I have updated my thoughts on the subject and film which have evolved over the past few years:




I am avid watcher of documentary films. Whether it be PBS’ American Experience series, Errol Morris’ Fog of War, or anything done by Ken Burns, I enjoy a well done documentary probably more than I enjoy a fictional movie.Through the years however, sports documentaries have tended to be subpar works. Either they are too narrative or too analytical, but never the right dose of both. That is until Miramax Films in conjunction ESPN Original Entertainment, released Once in a Lifetime, which debuted in South Florida Thearters last week.Once in a Lifetime is the story of the New York Cosmos, the giant club of the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL). Growing up in Broward County, I was a Fort Lauderdale Striker liker, and actually served as a Striker ball boy for a match versus the Cosmos in 1983. Beginning in the 1980 my parents took my every Striker-Cosmos game we hosted at Lockhart Stadium, so I must admit I was eagerly looking forward to this film.The film begins somewhat slowly with a narrative history of the pathetic state of soccer in the US and the origins of the NASL, which was for all intents and purposes a sub professional league. But the story and film pick up when Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications and the biggest international media mogul of the 1970s bought the Cosmos in 1973. From this point in the film forward the character development is outstanding, and the filmmakers make a deliberate attempt to arouse controversy by asking provocative questions and pointing out differences in the recollections of the major players involved.

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.


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  1. Modibo

    March 9, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    “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”

    I don’t know, this sounds like hyperbole to me, especially considering the excellent interview with Wasser. MLS seems to be trying to control expansion even before the economy tanked and FCB backed out, foreign player spots have not increased that drastically on a per team basis, and the DP rule hasn’t even been utilized by some teams despite the glitz of Beckham. The salary cap is still a reality that teams have to deal with. This is part of the equation: MLS has no illusions about becoming a top-tier league in the next 5 years, which would result in the kind of NASL excesses that Garber and co fear.
    It seems to me that what NASL and MLS have most in common is a dearth of quality American talent to fill the spots on their squads, though MLS as you point out has not done a good job at all in nurturing talent – that is a job that’s outsourced (Montero, Pappa are case studies here of young foreign players who rose through their own youth ranks only to trade their home countries for MLS). What were the salaries of young Americans in NASL compared to MLS youngsters? I’m sure it was radically different if you were to compare, say, 1973 to 1979, but what would it show about NASL in the late 70s compared to MLS in the late 00s?

  2. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    March 9, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Quakes while an NASL name was not the original name of the San Jose franchise. The Clash was and it was only when the league decided to sell the team (they originally owned it) did the name change occur.

    Like the Tampa Bay “Mutiny” and the “Metrostars” the San Jose “Clash” was a silly attempt by the founders of MLS to erase the NASL’s legacy in certain areas and to start a new soccer history. (Daniel I’ve been told MLS/Stu Subotnick sp? were unwilling to pay Pinton a fair value for the Cosmos name. They basically wanted it for free, leading many to question whether they ever seriously wanted the name or were just window dressing.)

    DC United and the LA Galaxy were fine because the NASL clubs in those cities did not really leave a historic legacy of accomplishment or nostalgia. But as a Floridian, I still think the names “Mutiny” and “Fusion” were killers of those franchises. Rowdies and Strikers would have means better branding and more buzz.

    Although ultimately many Rowdies fans were snobbish and after a few years determined MLS was an inferior product to the NASL and stopped going to games. That among other reasons is why the Mutiny ceases to exist and unlike south Florida, the Tampa Bay area has never been mentioned for a new MLS team or relocated team.

  3. LI Matt

    March 9, 2009 at 4:35 am

    “Earthquakes” is an NASL name also, isn’t it?

    One thing the film didn’t mention: when Franz Beckenbauer signed for the Cosmos, he was the reigning European Footballer of the Year. It would be beyond impossible for an MLS team to sign Cristiano Ronaldo this summer, but in 1977 it happened.

    Personally, it took me a while to warm up to the MetroStars/Red Bulls, because I grew up with the Cosmos and I was suspicious of this new team playing in the Cosmos’ stadium.

  4. Mike

    March 8, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for your excellent interview with Dave Brett Wasser. I grew to love soccer through my hometown NASL Rogues. They captured the hearts of so many in Memphis. They will never be forgotten. Although I support the Crew with a fanatic interest…the NASL is still a golden age to me.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Angel

    March 8, 2009 at 10:52 am

    MLS will surpass NASL, once things are in place, stadiums, international competitions, better National teams appearances, economical recovery and corporations believing in the product as fans return in mass to the stadiums. MLS will be at par with any league in Europe, way better than Mexican league, if owners risk it more than just playing safe as a franchise like they do now. Keep the faith. Soccer is not an unrepeatable story.

  6. Cali Comet

    March 8, 2009 at 7:19 am

    Such great memories.

    So sad it had to end.

    The NASL was truly “once in a lifetime”

    It made the game in this country.

    Now we need to support soccer. Youth Soccer, AYSO,PDL, etc.

    MLS and USL are around only because of the NASL. That’s the bottom line.

  7. Ian

    March 8, 2009 at 7:09 am

    This was a great film.

    Steve Ross put so much money behind the sport and should be recalled as a titan of the game.

    The Cosmos cannot be compared to an MLS team. I’m glad MLS isn’t making the mistakes the NASL did but they must embrace the NASL legacy more fully to come close to fulfilling that potential you alluded to in this piece.

  8. JOHAS

    March 8, 2009 at 5:09 am

    MLS should never be compared to the NASL. While a respectable product MLS will never capture the nation’s attention the way the NASL did.

    While we didn’t make World Cups or have a particularly strong USSF in those days it is rightfully remembered as “when soccer was king” by many a pundit, even the skeptical sports media.

  9. Daniel Feuerstein

    March 8, 2009 at 5:02 am

    A very good article Kartik, but let me say that the legacy & shadow of the NY Cosmos still hovers over the tri-state area of CT, NJ & NY. Originally the league wanted to bring the name of the Cosmos back, but the owner of the clubs rights who use to coach my college’s men’s team in Ramapo College. Pepe Pinton will only sell the name for a very high price. He believes that name is very sacred and shouldn’t be used lightly if it will return.

    Once RBNY made the final last year and the building of Red Bull Arena will be finished I think we will have a complete & dedicated fan base.

  10. Chris B

    March 8, 2009 at 3:07 am

    I grew up during the NASL days and remember seeing friends have NASL posters on their walls. I bet that they wish they had kept that stuff now! I will always believe that some of the NASL crowds and fondness for it came from the fact that NASL was the only game in town. It reminds me of the MLS TV numbers of ten years ago when there was only Lionel Bienvenue’s Review show for competition, or maybe a Fox sports’ network showing of a four day old EPL match.

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