March 10, 2012
by Charles Cuttone
Ghost of NASL still haunts MLS
It’s not clear if, when working late at Major League's Soccer's midtown Manhattan offices, Don Garber hears the wind blowing through long abandoned soccer nets, or if he hears the eerie guttural chant of “Cos-Mos, Cos-Mos” that once cascaded down on the now demolished Giants Stadium. But it is clear the Commissioner of Major League Soccer knows there is an otherworldly presence hanging over MLS, which kicks off its 17th season Saturday with 19 teams.
" I don’t think the ghost of the NASL will ever leave the offices of Major League Soccer. It always sort of seems to hang above the sport, and I think it will for the next number of years," said Garber on a conference call with media on Thursday.
In its earliest days, the league shunned anything having to do with the North American Soccer League, adopting ridiculous team names like Mutiny and Clash and Fusion in markets where the names Rowdies, Earthquakes and Strikers resonated with the soccer cognoscenti.
Under Garber's watch, the league has acknowledged the presence of the former league, which met an untimely demise after its 17th season, collapsing under the weight of heavy player salaries and over-expansion to markets it should never have traveled to, let alone put teams in.
But the acknowledgement didn't come easily. Indeed, it came kicking and screaming in the form of Seattle's soccer fans, who so overwhelmingly insisted that the name Sounders be a part of the expansion team's name that ownership and the league finally acquiesced.
The Sounders quickly became the league's biggest success, and last year drew an average of 38,496 fans per game. The only team to ever draw a higher attendance was the Cosmos from 1978-1981. Seattle’s success was followed last year by the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. If the San Jose Earthquakes ever get their new stadium built, they may experience the same kind of success.
Garber acknowledges the interest and love for the NASL is still there.
"I still travel around the country and have lots of people who are wearing old NASL jerseys at fan rallies and say that they came into or their interest in the sport grew with some relationship that they had with an NASL team. The foundation for the formation of MLS was structured in a way to not suffer the tragedy of the folding of the NASL. The single entity is related to that. I think it will always be a part of us. You've got the Sounders, you've got the Earthquakes, all this talk about the Cosmos, it seems to always want to be a part of the American pro soccer scene."
The completion of the 2012 season will mean MLS has lasted as long as the NASL, and there is no doubt there will be an 18th season, at which point the league will be in full adulthood. But the last remaining spectral presence from soccer’s past is still there.
Those who study the paranormal seem to believe ghosts hang around their earthly haunts because they have unfinished business. Perhaps that is why the spectre of the NASL is still felt by MLS. There is unfinished business, which might lie with the Cosmos returning and taking their rightful place in the future of American professional soccer.
Garber said on Thursday the league is putting unprecedented resources into the formation of a second New York team, taking the lead with the city on getting a soccer stadium built before selling the franchise to an ownership group. Whoever those new owners turn out to be, they should use the Cosmos name. True, the Paul Kelmsley-backed entity that has been using the name the last two years, sullied it a bit, but no worse the last ownership of the team, which left unpaid bills and folded the in the middle of the Major Indoor Soccer League season in 1984.
All of that bad taste will fade away on opening day 2014, when Pele steps out of the tunnel and lines up alongside the green and yellow clad XI for the first kick.