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American's Soccer Brief Moment in the Sun

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From the NY Times

February 5, 2006


When the Grass Was Greener


Last month, Alexi Lalas, the great American soccer defender who in his playing days wore a goatee in the Hell's Angels style, was shown the new documentary called "Once in a Lifetime." The film's subject, the legendary New York Cosmos, is something of an annoyance to him. Although the Cosmos haven't played in more than 20 years, the club's name still rings in Lalas's ears. Last year, he took the job running the MetroStars, the Major League Soccer team that now inhabits the Cosmos' old pitch, Giants Stadium. Where the Cosmos played to crowds of 70,000, Lalas's club draws an average of about 15,000. And unlike the international cover boys who populated the Cosmos — Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia — the MetroStars must flip deep into the sports pages to find their 200-word game reports. "I wish a discussion of the present was a bit more prevalent," Lalas moaned, "but the comparisons to the Cosmos are inevitable."

"Once in a Lifetime," now on the film festival circuit, recreates the Cosmos' brief vogue in the late 70's. That's when Howard Cosell said soccer would become "the biggest big league of all." Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand and Henry Kissinger mugged with players and cheered at games. The film relives all this, but also has the honesty to portray the dark side of this glamour. It entertains the possibility that the Cosmos may have actually undermined soccer's growth here.

In the film's sprightly telling, the life and times of the North American Soccer League, in which the Cosmos played, resembled a cocaine-fueled night at Studio 54, where the Cosmos regularly frolicked. The N.A.S.L. binged on fat television contracts and rapidly expanded to 24 cities. But when ratings failed to materialize and expansion teams fielded incompetent squads, it all went bad. Instead of blaming mismanagement, the TV executives and sportswriters chastised the game itself. It was simply too boring, too unsuited for the American temperament, they reasoned.

"Lifetime" originated with Michael Davies, the British producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." One can see why the Cosmos attracted such a populist. Coaches found their players engaging in sexual revelry on the team plane. To ensure that Pelé and Chinaglia would party late on the eve of an important game, one opposing player says he sent women in a liquor-filled limo to greet them at the airport.

Even the Cosmos' front office had a compelling back story. Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, the Turkish brothers who founded Atlantic Records, persuaded their corporate father, Steve Ross of Warner Communications, to buy a team. Ross, mercurial and celebrity-mad, loved the idea. At a time when Henry Aaron, the highest-paid player in baseball, earned $200,000, Pelé received millions to resettle in New York.

While the Cosmos make for an irresistible narrative, they don't deserve to embody the game's glory days — which would be now.

The M.S.L. has survived for a decade, adhered to a prudent business plan and built a competitive league. The United States team reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and now ranks eighth in the international federation standings, ahead of England and Italy. In June, it will field perhaps its best World Cup team yet.

But American soccer has a hard time marketing its success. Thanks to the N.A.S.L.'s flameout, the game has sunk into a defensive stance, settling for niche audiences and harboring an obsessive fear of repeating the mistakes of the 70's. As Lalas left the screening room, he said, "Well, we learned our lessons." A few days later, he added: "To be honest, each year it gets easier. Part of that generation dies off or becomes less relevant. There's an entire generation that knows nothing of the Cosmos, and that's O.K."

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