The Beginning of Soccer…for Americans at least

By | April 14, 2020

It’s hard to imagine a world without soccer. Well not a world, just a country. While the rest of the world perfected their game, America didn’t even know the game was played with 11 players. Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006) is a film that tells the story of how professional soccer had a successful run, only to crash and burn years later. This movie depicts the beautiful story of Steve Ross and how he changed American Soccer.

There are certain themes of American sports that aren’t present in soccer. Football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse. Obviously, there are many differences between these sports and soccer. For starters, soccer is played with feet. But one of the most notable differences is stoppage. American sports are flooded with timeouts, quarter breaks, etc. Soccer is much freer flowing. There are hardly any interruptions for 45 full minutes. The documentary portrayed soccer games as more like a play where there’s an extended first act and a second act that is divided by an intermission. This intermission allows people to discuss and digest what they have just watched. American sports follow a very different timeline where cheerleaders and dancers rush the field during the breaks to keep the entertainment constant and yet varying.

While Steve Ross passed away before the creation of this documentary, many other members are able to paint a picture of who Steve Ross was. He was a businessman who more or less was pulled into the soccer world without really knowing what soccer was. Ross always wanted to own a professional team; I just don’t think he usually pictured a soccer team. From the documentary, it is evident that Ross jumped headfirst into this challenge in helping created the first ever professional soccer league in America: The North American Soccer League (NASL). In 1971, the New York Cosmo’s (named after cosmopolitan) was founded and Steve Ross was a t the forefront of the founders. The investors for the NY Cosmo’s invested in this team before they had even seen a soccer game before, and the vice president of the club didn’t even know how many people played on the field.

Not long after starting the team, it was evident to Steve Ross that they needed a star player because American sports love stars. Naturally, Steve Ross sought out Pele, one of the greatest players in the world at the time. During the negotiation process, Pele had many offers from other high-class European teams such as Juventus. But the Cosmo’s told him if he went to one of those clubs he would be winning just another championship but if he came to the Cosmo’s, well he’d be winning a country. Recognizing the unique opportunity he had to change American soccer, he chose to come to the Cosmo’s for around $4.5 million which at the time was the highest salary for an athlete in the world. It’s ironic that the highest paid athlete was playing in what at the time was more or less a semi-professional league. It was an incredible gamble.

Having played his first American soccer game on a field that was more dirt than it was grass, eventually the Cosmo’s made it the Giant’s stadium. After the team still didn’t find the success they wanted with Pele, the team brought in a plethora of other big international names: Giorgio Chinaglio, Franz Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto. Eventually, the Cosmo’s brought home the championship. This team was made up of players from 14 different nations and was bringing 75,000 fans out to the games.

The league attendance peaked in 1980, just to fall completely in 1984 as the league folded. While Steve Ross and the Cosmo’s are long gone, they left a legacy for America. They planted the seeds of the beautiful game in America. Towards the end of the film, Beckenbauer notes that when he first came to the team, he would drive out to the country side and never saw people playing soccer. Now he is thrilled to see children and even adults kicking a ball around a field everywhere. Today, soccer is now the most popular outdoor sport for children. While we could look at the story of the Cosmo’s and the NASL as a failure as they eventually went bankrupt, but this comment would ignore the social movement that Steve Ross began. American soccer owes a lot to the dedicated Steve Ross who took a gamble on a game he had never even played.


One thought on “The Beginning of Soccer…for Americans at least

  1. Rachel Simpson

    It is very interesting to see how successful and popular the Cosmos made soccer at one point in American history. In the movie, I found it very interesting that they had to change the dynamics of soccer a bit, a weak-link sport in which every player truly matters, by searching for a star player to make the sport more appealing to Americans. It was fascinating to see how once Pele committed and they had a star player the level of interest increased exponentially. I also found it to be interesting how one of the factors that convinced Pele to join the team was not
    only winning a cup, but also winning the country. In general, throughout the semester, it was interesting to see the significance of nationalism and how important soccer was to people because winning a soccer match always meant so much more than just financial gain. Winning a match often meant winning respect for their country internationally as success in soccer represented financial prosperity, modernity, and so much more.

    It is very unfortunate that the teams eventually went bankrupt and soccer hasn’t really been as popular in America again since. It is very interesting to see how popular soccer is amongst young suburban kids as you pointed out it is the most popular outdoor sport for children, yet that passion isn’t really translated into the professional league here in America. As a society, if we could figure out how to sustain that interest young players have in soccer maybe it can become more popular in America.


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