Next Friday is Manchester United’s testimonial for the great Paul Scholes. The opponent will be the New York Cosmos. Now if you are like me you may be asking yourself, does the Cosmos still exist? The answer is, not really. As far as I can tell, the Cosmos is an old name and youth football. The–rather uninspiring– Cosmos roster for the Scholes testimonial comprises of some of these youth players and big retired names (some of whom being former United players who came through the ranks with Scholes.) The “Cosmos” is the first American team to ever play at Old Trafford. I weep and so should all MLS fans.
Former United legend Eric Cantona is the Cosmos’s “director of soccer.” Again, if you are like me you may be wondering why crazy, insane Eric Cantona, a man who has given absolutely no indication that he knows anything about being a director, got that position. Or what connection he has to the New York Cosmos. I have no good answer for that beyond the cynical. Ask the seagulls.
And speaking of the seagulls, this new incarnation of the Cosmos is completely media-driven. I know of no fans who want the Cosmos back, yet I listen to Cosmos paeans on World Football Daily or I read articles like this or this, and I think to myself, am I just crazy? Fans of MLS deride those of us who prefer the European game as “Euro snobs,” and I suppose they have a point. One should support one’s own league. (Of course, do these critics support WPS?) Of course, around the world many leagues have the exact same problem in that fans prefer the major European leagues to their own local one, so the MLS is not special in that respect. People want to follow the best product.
But whenever the Cosmos is mentioned, I am glad that the league I support is across the ocean. This kind of insanity would not happen in a league that is confident in its own product. The Cosmos is all smoke and mirrors. There is no team; it is just a name. Yet, already Cantona and Pele are involved and no doubt David Beckham will be too if it ever gets off the ground (Beckham is the type of celebrity who would go to the opening of an envelope.) By involved, what I mean is that the Cosmos gives Cantona and Pele a paycheck to show up every once in a while and make a push for the Cosmos to enter MLS. That is why they are director of football and honorary president respectively.
Despite the best attempts of the media and some wealthy investors, MLS is not exactly clamoring for a second cross-town rivalry. Chivas USA/Galaxy does not make for scintillating entertainment. There are not enough fans in New York City to support two teams, and Red Bull fans, such as they are, are not really excited about the return of the Cosmos. Despite what Goal.com would have you believe, the return of the Cosmos will not help the Red Bulls.
I understand that MLS is doing respectably and the league wants to expand to places that do not have a football team. It seems wrong that New York should get a second team when legitimate soccer towns like St. Louis have none. Why not Atlanta? Or Detroit? Or somewhere in the Southwest which could tap into the immigrant communities? (Miami is trying to get another team even after the Fusion folded, but Miami is the absolute worst place for non-American football sports?)
Forced rivalries that no one cares about is not going to fill seats (see: Chivas USA/Galaxy). In contrast, Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver are all relatively new to MLS, but those three teams have battled each other for years and have created the league’s most compelling rivalry. MLS is desperate to capitalize on a New York/Los Angeles rivalry because those are the two biggest media markets, but fans have been stubbornly resistant, and with good reason. Regional rivalries are the bread-and-butter of MLS. A fan can travel to away games, and American sports generally favor regional rivalries (especially in league play.) Americans don’t really do cross-town derbies or cross-country ones.
Back to the Cosmos. One of the media’s tropes about the Cosmos is that they still have worldwide name recognition despite not having played since 1984 or so. Frankly that says more about how poorly American soccer is seen than praise for the Cosmos. The reason the Cosmos are so recognized is that some of history’s greats played for cosmos, including Pele, Carlos Alberto, and Beckenbauer. A new Cosmos will not have name players, just faded glory and overpaid, uninterested, honorary administrators. When Pele left the Cosmos, the popularity of the franchise, and NASL as a whole, took a nosedive. The Cosmos was keeping NASL afloat. The massive names that were the attraction of NASL (also including players as famous as Best and Cruyff), were also a big part of the decline. That includes Pele.
The Cosmos is not a panacea for MLS. A Cosmos/Galaxy rivalry, although it sounds stellar, is not going to turn the unenthused into diehard fans. Let the Cosmos remain in history, and let MLS build its own Cosmos-free legacy.