Steve Ross didn’t know a goalkeeper from a zookeeper. American football was his game. Often, he would tell people that he had even played for the Cleveland Browns but a broken arm had put paid to his pro career. It was a nice line, but, as his close friend Jay Emmett (president of Warner Communications) explains, not exactly true. “He said he did but he really never did” it was just bullshit, you know. Steve could do a lot of that,” he says. “It was a Walter Mitty situation . . . in his wet dreams or whatever he played for the Cleveland Browns but he never did.”
Whatever the validity of his pro-football claims, there could be no doubting that Steve Ross was an Grade-A sports nut. As a kid running the streets of Brooklyn, he had harbored dreams of playing for or maybe even one day owning the New York Giants. Later, when his business interests had taken off, he would even have discussions about buying the New York Jets, but it had come to naught.
Quite what Steve Ross was doing with a soccer club, though, when soccer was one of the few sports he knew not a scintilla about was anyone’s guess. Still, if Steve Ross, the Steve Ross, thought it was worth a punt, there had to be something in it.
If there was one thing Ross did know about, though, it was making money. As the chairman of Warner Communications he had amassed an empire that spanned cars and cosmetics, music and movie studios and all from the humble origins of a Manhattan funeral parlor.
There was no denying that Ross had the golden touch. He was a garrulous, gregarious freewheeler, and his friends were always struck by how extraordinarily lucky he seemed to be. Rarely did his gambles fail to pay out. One friend would even joke that he had a “hotline to God”. While many of his contemporaries regarded Ross as one of life’s born winners, his good fortune, like his pro-football career, wasn’t always what it appeared. Often, he would engineer his luck just to preserve his image. At charity raffles, for instance, Ross would nearly always emerge with the winning ticket, not because of some divine intervention but because he always bought the vast majority of the tickets.
Born Steven Jay Rechnitz in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn on April 5, 1927, Ross had got his grounding in money-making at an early age. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in poverty after his father, Max, had lost his construction business and their impressive family house on Brooklyn’s East 21st Street during the Depression. Desperate to find work, Max Rechnitz changed the family name to Ross in 1932.
Although the family continued to struggle, Max Ross nevertheless instilled in his son the entrepreneurial ethos that would stay with him throughout his career and his life. By the age of eight, Steve Ross would run errands to the supermarket or the launderette for a nickel; he would borrow money from his family and walk twenty blocks to the cheapest cigarette shop in town, before returning home and selling the packs to his father for a profit.
On his deathbed, Max Ross had called for Steven to offer him some final words of advice. As Steve listened intently, Max Ross told his son that in life there are those who work all day, those who dream all day, and those who spend an hour dreaming before setting to work to fulfill those dreams. “Go into the third category,” his father added, “because there’s virtually no competition.” While his father would die in penury, his only inheritance would prove priceless.
Having graduated from Columbia Grammar School in 1945–he had earned a scholarship–Ross enlisted in the Navy, leaving in 1947 to enroll at Paul Smith, a junior college near Lake Saranac in upstate New York. It was during his time at college that Ross broke his arm playing football, an injury that required a metal plate to be inserted in his forearm. It was this accident that lent credibility to his pro-football fantasy.
When he had completed his studies at Paul Smith, Ross headed to Manhattan, first to take up a job with a sportswear firm, H. Lissner Trousers, and then a swimsuit company called Farragut, belonging to his uncle, Al Smith. In school and the workplace, Ross impressed everyone with his affable nature and his ability to spot a commercial opportunity.
He had also impressed Carol Rosenthal, the daughter of Edward Rosenthal, a Manhattan funeral parlor owner. Charming, handsome and immaculately turned out, Steve Ross was the ideal suitor not just for Carol but for her family as well. Indeed, Edward Rosenthal was so taken with him he took him under his wing at the parlor.
In June 1954, aged twenty-six, Steve Ross married Carol and having shown his talents at the funeral parlor began to branch out into ventures of his own; one even involved using the parlor’s limousines as cars for hire. By the late 1950s, he had started Abbey Rent-A-Car with a bank loan, later merging it with the Kinney garage business. Then, soon after, Ross added an office-cleaning business and Edward Rosenthal’s funeral parlor to his portfolio. In 1962, Ross’s company, Kinney National, was taken public with a market valuation of $12.5 million.
With the capital and reputation to indulge himself in virtually any sector he deemed suitable, Steve Ross finally decided, seven years later, that the time was right to make his mark in the world of entertainment and on July 8, 1969, Kinney National Service Inc. paid $400 million for the world-famous but underperforming Warner Bros.-Seven Arts film studio. “He was a financial genius,” insists Jay Emmett.
The key to all of Ross’s success stories was his knack for finding the right people for the right job. Ross believed that his workforce was the single most important asset that Kinney and then Warner Communications (the name was changed in 1971) possessed and that it was his and the company’s obligation to develop the talent they had.
Expertise in any of his company’s fields of interest was not of paramount importance to Ross. He owned publishing companies but never read anything other than the bottom line. He owned record labels but rarely listened to popular music. “He liked Crosby, Stills and Nash,” explains his son, Mark Ross, “but had no idea who–or what–Joni Mitchell was.” As long as Ross had the right people in the right positions, he was confident that his company would prosper. And besides, he could always learn.
The trouble for Ross was that soccer had never made it in America. Throughout the twentieth century, there had been a succession of national soccer associations, both amateur and professional, all striving to take the game to the nation, but they came and went like buses, their plans often doomed by internal bickering and external indifference. And all the while, the big three–baseball, basketball and pro-football–and the gentlemen of the press looked down their noses and laughed. Prescott Sullivan of the San Francisco Examiner was typical. “In Europe, as in South America,” he wrote on June 26, 1968, “they go raving mad over the game. Pray that it doesn’t happen here. The way to beat it is constant vigilance and rigid control. If soccer shows signs of getting too big, swat it down.”
When the East Coast’s American Soccer League (ASL) was formed in 1921, it had seemed as though professional soccer was finally on the verge of a breakthrough, especially when the American national team reached the semifinals of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 with a side drawn mostly from the ASL. But while the game had once been played by well-heeled members of the Ivy League colleges in the nineteenth century, soccer was now suffering from an image problem, largely of its own making. Increasingly, the game was being perceived as an immigrant’s game, awash with bad guys and brigands. In the 1920s, the nation’s newspapers were full of stories of on-field battles and fisticuffs. Soccer’s reputation, already tarnished, took another dent. On April 20, 1927, the New York Times reported FOUR HURT IN RIOT AT SOCCER CON-TEST” when a game between Boston and Uruguay at Maiden, Massachusetts, turned ugly. Then, on February 13 of the following year, the same newspaper ran the story “NIGHTSTICKS SWING FREELY”, a report on a bust-up in a northern New Jersey title decider.
The Great Depression, however, would dispatch the American Soccer League. With neither the money nor the inclination to sustain the operation, it would be almost forty years before another professional soccer league emerged in the country.
Despite soccer’s turbulent history in the States, there were still some prepared to persevere. One such person was Bill Cox. The former owner of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team–he had been banned from the game when he was caught betting on his own team–Cox was responsible for bringing a new soccer tournament, the International Soccer League (ISL), to the States in 1960.
Played mainly at New York’s Polo Grounds, (as well as Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island and Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City), the ISL featured eleven foreign teams (including England’s West Ham United and Everton, and European sides such as Dukla Prague of Czechoslovakia) as well as the American All-Stars. Unlike previous visits from foreign teams, when the meetings had been exhibition games, there was now a championship and a trophy to play for. While the event was never going to be the kind of success that would break soccer in the States, the ISL would nevertheless prove to be a sufficient pull for soccer fans to draw respectable five-figure crowds to many of the matches.
Those attendances and the public’s receptive attitude to the tournament would prove decisive in persuading a number of investors that there was potential in soccer. At a time when expansion was occurring across all the major league sports in America, entrepreneurs began to view pro-soccer as the next big thing.
By 1965, there were three organizations vying to launch their own nationwide professional soccer leagues, including ones backed by millionaires such as Lamar Hunt and Jack Kent Cooke, as well as huge corporations like RKO General and Madison Square Garden. The decision to ratify any official national professional league, though, rested with the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA), headed by Joe Barriskill. An Irish-American, Barriskill often would leave his shabby office in mid-town Manhattan and spend his evenings as a part-time ticket usher at New York Yankees’ baseball games. Public relations, it seemed, was well down the list of the USSFA’s priorities. Now, though, he was charged with deciding which of the pro-league proposals to sanction. He chose the United Soccer Association (USA).
By the spring of 1967, however, there would actually be two national professional leagues in America. Having lost out to the USA in the race for USSFA ratification, the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) had decided to go ahead and launch itself as a pirate league, regardless of the consequences.
With time against them, the USA resorted to importing entire teams from around Europe and South America to play in their league under different names. The English clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City and Sunderland all joined for the summer season in 1967, becoming the Los Angeles Wolves, the Cleveland Stokers and the Vancouver Royals. Hibernian, Aberdeen and Dundee United left Scotland to become the Toronto City, the Washington Whips and the Dallas Tornado. Bangu of Brazil morphed into the Houston Stars, Italian side Cagliari landed in Chicago and became the Mustangs and New York got its own club too, the Skyliners, which was actually Uruguay’s Cerro in disguise.
The rival National Professional Soccer League, meanwhile, had decided to actively recruit players for its franchises rather than just ship out teams for a few weeks in the summer. There would be some significant acquisitions. Dennis Violett, a survivor of the Munich air-crash in 1958 that took the lives of eight of his Manchester United teammates (and three of the nonplaying staff), signed for the Baltimore Bays, the Argentinian striker (and future World Cup winning manager) C’sar Luis Menotti joined the New York Generals and Phil Woosnam, a Welsh international, arrived from Aston Villa as player-coach of the Atlanta Chiefs.
The problem for the NPSL, however, was that it was an outlaw league, without official sanction from the USSFA and therefore from the world governing body, FIFA. Consequently, the ten NPSL clubs could only play against each other and, moreover, any player who wanted to return to a club or league within the FIFA family would first be subjected to disciplinary action for having played in the banned NPSL.
With teams masquerading as other teams, outlaw leagues in operation and players running the risk of suspension simply for taking to the field, by the late 1960s American soccer was in a mess. What little support there was for the game had now been divided between the two leagues, to the detriment of both organizations and their franchises.
The teams, consisting almost entirely of foreign players with little or no affiliation to the club or the area, simply could not attract the kind of crowds they needed to break even, often playing in vast 80,000-capacity stadiums with just a couple of thousand fans watching the action. Moreover, the standard of play on offer was mediocre at best.
In a country where even one professional soccer league had found it difficult to succeed, it was imperative that the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League should amalgamate if there was to be any chance that the game would prosper.
In December 1967, the decision was finally taken to merge the two operations. The new league, called the North American Soccer League (NASL), would have two commissioners, Ken Macker from the NPSL and Dick Walsh–a man who once confessed, “I hardly even know what a soccer ball looks like” –from the USA.
Now endorsed by FIFA, and with the threat of suspension lifted from those players who had turned out in the NPSL, the inaugural season of the NASL would feature seventeen of the twenty-two franchises from the NPSL and the USA. Over 350 players would make their debuts in the new league the next year, although, significantly, just thirty would be American.
While the standard of play improved markedly in 1968, culminating in Phil Woosnam’s Atlanta Chiefs winning the title with a 3-0 win over the San Diego Toros, the growth in support had failed to materialize. At the outset of the campaign, the NASL’s budget had been set with a break-even average crowd of 20,000 per game. It was an ambitious target and one that proved to be wishful thinking. By the end of the season, the average attendance was just 3,400. Casualties were inevitable.
When the dust settled, just five of the seventeen NASL franchises were left. The crash had been spectacular. Across the country, franchise owners bailed out and players’ contracts were shredded. Even the commissioners jumped ship. With the NASL on the edge of a precipice and in the absence of any other willing candidates, it was left to Phil Woosnam, the Welshman who had coached the Atlanta Chiefs to the NASL title, to take on the mantle of NASL commissioner. Despite interest from several clubs back in England, Woosnam opted to stay in the States to salvage what he could from the wreckage of the league. “What did we have to lose?” he says. “I wouldn’t have done it unless I thought we were going to succeed.”
CHAPTER 2 – NEW YORK CITY SERENADE
Since accepting the challenge of resurrecting professional soccer in the United States, Phil Woosnam had discovered that it was going to be anything but easy. Franchises seemed to vanish overnight, attendances were sparse, and confidence, not to mention competence, was at an all-time low.
At least he wasn’t alone. Alongside Woosnam, trying to convince America’s 220 million people that soccer was the sport of the future, was the former general manager of the Baltimore Bays, Clive Toye. “It seemed natural we would end up working together,” explains Toye. “Phil felt a sense of mission and in my case it was plain bloody-mindedness, a determination to make people like soccer.”
Originally from Plymouth, England, Toye had been the chief soccer writer for the Daily Express, when the newspaper was still a broadsheet and outsold virtually every other in the world. After the World Cup Finals in 1966, he had left England in search of a new challenge, eventually becoming general manager of the National Professional Soccer League team the Baltimore Bays. When the NPSL had merged with the United Soccer Association to become the NASL, Toye was then poached by Woosnam to become the new league’s director of administration and information. This made Clive Toye soccer’s chief salesman in America.
Between them, Woosnam and Toye would steer the NASL through the difficulties of its early years, but as a “professional” soccer league with designs on encroaching on the audience for baseball, basketball and pro-football, it was crucial that a veneer of professionalism was maintained throughout the organization. This was not always easy, when their office was a small corner of the visiting team’s locker room in the Atlanta Fulton County stadium. “We had no money and we got free office space and free telephone,” shrugs Clive Toye.
With their league down to five teams, Woosnam and Toye’s workload was light and they would spend hours, sometimes days, trying to think of new and innovative ways to sell soccer to the States. As Paul Gardner wrote in his history of soccer, The Simplest Game, “For them [Woosnam and Toye] a useful exercise for warding off the fear that the league might not last out the week was to leapfrog over the bleak present and to imagine the glittering future.”
Often, Woosnam and Toye would run through their wish list for the NASL. Some of their ideas were inspired, others less so. They agreed that they had to persuade as many American kids as they could to play the game and that they needed to improve their image if they were to secure any kind of useful media coverage. They should lobby FIFA to give the World Cup Finals to America and, they laughed, they may as well sign Pel” while they’re at it. “In retrospect, all ideas that if anyone heard of, [they] would have thought we were mad,” reflects Toye.
Crucial to the NASL’s progress, though, was the re-establishment of a franchise in New York. Without a team since the New York Generals folded in 1968, America’s economic capital was a key battleground in the drive to develop soccer on a national level. If the league was ever going to get that vital coverage in the press and on television–the major TV networks were all based in New York–they needed that ‘major league” appeal that other sports enjoyed and that meant bringing soccer back to the Big Apple. “In our youthful enthusiasm/arrogance, Phil and I decided early on that one of us would run the league and one of us New York,” explains Toye, who opted to handle the New York drive.
Having a soccer team in New York made sense, even after the failure of the Generals and the Skyliners. After all, here was a truly cosmopolitan city with nine million inhabitants, covering some 300 square miles. Within the city there were up to a hundred different languages being spoken and 60 percent of its population came from outside of the United States, which, of course, meant there were a huge amount of soccer fans not being catered to. “It’s the special milieu that’s created when you have the sons and daughters of every nation in the world living here and the sons and daughters of every state in the union living here or wanting to come here,” explained Ed Koch, mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989. “That’s an electricity that can’t be created anywhere else.”
There was some soccer heritage in the city too, as there was all along the eastern seaboard. At the turn of the century, there had been a flourishing amateur soccer scene in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, and the New York Times would carry regular reports on matches involving such teams as the Brooklyn Celtics, the Spanish-American FC and the Anglo-Saxons FC.
More importantly, there were few places in the world that accommodated sports fans as well as New York. There were heroes all over the city. There were Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and ‘dollar” Bill Bradley turning it on for the Knicks in the NBA; the Mets had won their first World Series, beating the Baltimore Orioles in 1969; and the legendary Joe Namath had led the Jets to a famous win over the Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III. Whatever your sport of choice, you could find the finest exponents of it at work in the Big Apple. As long as your sport of choice wasn’t soccer, that is.
The unenviable task facing Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye, then, was that of somehow trying to shoehorn soccer into an already buoyant New York sports scene, awash with superstars and steeped in history. But if they could make it there, they figured, they could make it anywhere. “It was imperative for us to get back into New York if we were going to have any impact/explains Phil Woosnam. “We just needed an opportunity.”
Woosnam and Toye’s efforts to keep the NASL afloat would also be aided by the backing of Lamar Hunt, the millionaire owner of the Dallas Tornado franchise. The son of Texas oilman H. L. Hunt, Lamar Hunt had been rebuffed in his efforts to establish a National Football League franchise in the Lone Star State and, irked, had simply started his own rival organization, the American Football League, in 1959 instead.
For a sports obsessive like Hunt–he was a founding investor in the Chicago Bulls basketball team and had also founded the World Championship Tennis Circuit in 1967–the game of soccer represented a new challenge and, certainly, he would throw his weight behind the NASL with gusto.
While a businessman with the profile of Hunt continued to lend both financial and moral support for the NASL, it was always possible that other, equally influential entrepreneurs would enter the fray, swayed by the fact that if Hunt was still keen on soccer then there must be something in this cuckoo sport after all.
Despite an uncertain future, the fact that there was clearly no money to be made in the game at least succeeded in exposing those potential new franchise holders that had jumped into soccer looking for a quick profit without any regard for the long-term viability of the professional game. “In the early days a lot of baseball owners bought into soccer. . . only to see if it’s going to take off. [They thought] “I better be there and if it doesn’t take off quickly enough for me I can kill it,” said Toye.
By the time the 1970 season came round, there was a sense that the NASL had turned a corner. Despite the closure of Clive Toye’s old club, the Baltimore Bays, who had ended the 1969 season winning just two of their sixteen games and drawing as few as two hundred fans to their home fixtures, two new sides had emerged. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Phil Woosnam, two American Soccer League teams, the Washington Darts and the Rochester Lancers, both found the $10,000 entrance fee to step up to the NASL, giving the league another shot at survival.
While Woosnam still had a league, it was, however, one with just six teams playing in it. Conscious of the need to create at least some semblance of competition, the commissioner enlisted the help of four foreign teams who would tour the States and play each of the regular sides in the NASL once, with the results counting toward the final league standings. Consequently, England’s Coventry City, West Germany’s Hertha Berlin and Varzim of Portugal would all play six games and Hapoel Petah Tikva of Israel would play five, their place in the game against the Dallas Tornado taken by Monterrey of Mexico because of the conflict with owner Lamar Hunt’s Arab oil interests.
With the season underway and crowds creeping up, Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye were feeling quietly confident. But with a new plan to increase the number of NASL teams to eight for the 1971 season, they needed an investor of sufficient profile and wherewithal to launch a new franchise in the all-important New York area. To that end, Toye had even approached the British television broadcaster David Frost to see if he would be interested in financing a New York franchise. Although Frost, an avowed soccer fan, would decline, he had suggested that they speak to a friend of his at the media giant Warner Communications. Taking a note of the name–Nesuhi Ertegun–Toye informed Woosnam, who then headed off to Mexico to catch the last week of the World Cup Finals. It was one of the few perks of being the NASL commissioner.
After watching Pel”‘s rampant Brazil crush Italy, 4–1, in the final and claim their third Jules Rimet trophy, Woosnam endeavored to find Ron Greenwood, his old manager from his spell at West Ham United. Arriving at Greenwood’s hotel, he was pointed in the direction of a cocktail party in a nearby reception room. He knocked on the door.
When the door swung open, Woosnam was greeted by a small man, offering his hand. “Hello,” said the commissioner. “I’m looking for Ron Greenwood, my name is Phil Woosnam.”
“Hello,” replied the man at the door. “I’m Nesuhi Ertegun.”
It was a chance meeting that would change the face of soccer in the United States. Ertegun was the executive vice president of the famous Atlantic Records label–a division of Warner Communications–and, like his brother and his Atlantic co-founder, Ahmet, was an affirmed soccer fan. As the pair chatted, Woosnam sensed that Ertegun was taken with his idea of launching a soccer club in New York. Finally, thought Woosnam, he may have found the solution to his Big Apple dilemma. “Ahmet and Nesuhi were Turkish and came from a football background,” he explains. “As such, they had a passion for the game that many investors didn’t.” As they left Mexico, Ertegun agreed that he and Woosnam should meet soon to discuss the idea further.
Back in Manhattan, Nesuhi Ertegun raised the idea with Ahmet Ertegun and his boss at Warner, Steve Ross. Surprisingly, the suggestion was met not with indifference, as Woosnam had suspected, but with genuine enthusiasm. ‘soccer,” Ertegun told his colleagues, “is going to be the biggest sport. It’s the biggest sport in the world [and] it’s going to take over America.”
Certainly, the facts reinforced Nesuhi Ertegun’s proposition. Even without a successful, high-profile professional soccer league in operation, there were still over three million kids playing the game across the country and the number was growing every year. Factor in New York’s ethnically diverse makeup and the local interest in the game within the neighborhoods, and there was every chance that they could have a major success story on their hands.
Convinced that the plan had legs, Steve Ross rounded up a group of like-minded colleagues and suggested that between them they privately meet the NASL’s expansion fee of $350,000, which was levied on new clubs entering the league. In total, ten men, including Ross, the Ertegun brothers, Jay Emmett and the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. movie studios, Ted Ashley, would all put up $35,000 apiece to launch Gotham Soccer Club Inc.
Within months, however, the team of investors would come to realize that financing a soccer club, even one as seemingly irrelevant as theirs, was a money pit, without any guarantee of even the smallest return and without the inherent kudos they would glean from owning a baseball or American football franchise. Fortunately, Jay Emmett, the president of Warner and Steve Ross’s closest friend, had an idea. He went to the chairman. “I said this is something that Warner should take, not us, because this is going to lose quite a bit of money and in order to build it up to what it ought to be and to be competitive with the other folks in the league we’re going to have to get some pretty players and it’s going to cost some money.”
Ross agreed. Between them, the owners hatched a new plan. They would transfer ownership of Gotham Soccer Club to Warner Communications. Then we sold our stake in this fledgling organization for one dollar,” adds Emmett. “It was an entertainment vehicle, we were an entertainment company.”
But the new club needed a new name if it was going to make a splash in the NASL. Trouble was, all the good ones had already gone. The Giants, the Knicks, the Yankees–these were legendary New York names loaded with history, saturated in success. Even the new expansion baseball team, the New York Metropolitans–a.k.a. “The Mets’–had stolen a march on the club.
Clive Toye started thinking. What the team needed was a name that was bigger than anything that had gone before in New York, a name that spoke volumes about the endless potential and glittering future this club could have. ‘so I thought, what’s bigger than ‘metropolitan” and came up with Cosmopolitan . . . that fits New York. [But we] can’t call them the Cosmopolitans or Cosmopolites. Suddenly it clicked–Cosmos.”
Intent on persuading the board that his idea, and not Nesuhi Ertegun’s suggestion of “New York Blues’, was the most suitable, Toye contrived a competition among the city’s soccer fans, with a prize of two free return flights to Zurich with Swiss Air for anyone who came up with the best name. He then sat down and wrote scores of letters purporting to be from fans of the team, all suggesting that “Cosmos’ was the name they wanted. Assured that the city’s sports fans and not the general manager had spoken, the Erteguns relented and the name stuck. “They [the Erteguns] weren’t paying real close attention in those early years,” adds Toye.
On December 10, 1970, the New York Cosmos officially joined the North American Soccer League, its annual fee, a mere $25,000. With Clive Toye as the Cosmos’s new general manager, Warner Communications had taken its first tentative steps into professional soccer and the NASL finally had its New York franchise. And if it all went belly up, well, it could always be written off as a tax loss by Steve Ross.
The man charged with assembling a team worthy of such a stellar moniker would be another Englishman, Gordon Bradley. Born in Sunderland in 1938, Bradley was a coal miner’s son whose promising career as a teenaged striker with Sunderland was cut short by a knee injury. After a two-year hiatus and a miserable spell down the pits at Easington Colliery, a coal mine, Bradley returned to competitive soccer with Bradford Park Avenue and Carlisle. His knee injury, however, had robbed him of the speed he once possessed, forcing a change in position to defender.
In 1963, Bradley made the move to the States, dividing his time between playing for Toronto City in Canada (alongside Stanley Matthews, Johnny Haynes and Danny Blanchflower) in the summer and New York in the winter, where he served as captain and coach of the New York Ukrainians. It was during his time with the Ukrainians that Bradley came to the attention of the new NASL franchise, the New York Generals. Impressed by his performances at the heart of the Ukrainian’s defense and his coaching qualifications, they hired him as coach Freddie Goodwin’s assistant.
If Bradley had ever doubted the wisdom of his conversion to a defensive role, the conclusive proof that he had made the right decision arrived in 1968 when the New York Generals played host to a visit from the Brazilian team Santos, who were on a tour of the States and boasted the world’s best player, Pel”, in their team. Moreover, it was Bradley’s job to mark him.
Dogged, resolute and seemingly unfazed by Pel”‘s reputation, Bradley stuck to him like a barnacle, barely giving the Brazilian space to breathe. Even at halftime, when Pel” went to the sidelines to get a drink of water, Bradley was never more than half a yard behind him, as Pel” recalls: “I said, “If I go to the restroom, will you come with me?”” Legend has it that Pel” even asked his coach to be moved to a new position just so he could be free of Bradley’s limpet-like attention.
“I was always a disciplined player, whether I played in defense or midfield, but when I tried to mark Pel” he threatened to run rampant,” explains Bradley. “We couldn’t stop him but we did subdue him a bit, and ended up winning. After the game, Pel” came into our dressing room with the ball, which he had got the Santos team to sign, and gave it to me. The Americans love an underdog and the headline the next day was “Bradley Stops Pel”.””
While the New York Generals would defeat Santos 5–3 that day in front of a record crowd of 24,000, it would be one of the last hurrahs for the club, who, like so many other franchises in that era, folded soon after. With no professional club in New York to take him on, Bradley accepted the offer of an assistant coach’s role under his compatriot Gordon Jago at the Baltimore Bays, but within a year they too would be gone.
With rent to pay and his soccer career seemingly petering out, Bradley returned to New York and decided to put his coaching qualifications to good use. He took a job at St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan, and managed to mold a bunch of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds that seemed more interested in basketball into one of Central Park’s most formidable young soccer teams. “I don’t believe we lost a game,” says the coach.
By 1971, though, Gordon Bradley would be back in the NASL, lured away by his old friend Clive Toye, to become the first coach of the New York Cosmos. Clearly, somebody, somewhere had seen what he had achieved at St. Bernard’s.
Hiring a coach and a general manager was all well and good but finding a team was going to be more difficult, especially as Toye and Bradley could only offer token salaries to potential players. Unperturbed, Gordon Bradley set about assembling his team, scouring the local leagues for promising players and calling in favors from old friends and teammates. Soon, Bradley had the makings of his first squad. In came his compatriot Barry Mahy and the Trinidadian Jan Steadman, both former teammates from the Generals. The brilliant Brazilian Jorge Siega arrived from Washington and an old colleague from Baltimore, the Ghanaian Wilberforce Mfum, also threw his hat in the ring. It was like Yul Brynner rounding up the Magnificent Seven, only trickier and on a tighter budget.
Within weeks, Gordon Bradley had his Cosmos. It was a testament to his boundless enthusiasm that he could create a team without the promise of enormous salaries or generous benefits packages. Moreover, it was proof that the appeal of living and working in the most vibrant city in the world more than made up for any monetary concerns the players may have had.
Despite being something of a diversion for Warner, the New York Cosmos represented an ideal route into sports ownership for Steve Ross, not least because the financial risk was all Warner’s. Moreover, the fact that soccer had yet to take off in the States and shown little sign of doing so, was, in Ross’s mind, a huge advantage. ‘my father was a big sports fan,” says Mark Ross. “I think the idea of developing a sport from scratch–because soccer was really nothing here–really turned him on.”
With Steve Ross on board and their place in the NASL guaranteed, Clive Toye decided to broach an idea that, if successful, had the potential to revolutionize soccer in America. While his and Phil Woosnam’s attempts to get the youth of the nation playing the game was showing real signs of progress, it had yet to translate into a wider interest in the professional game. What the Cosmos and, more importantly, the NASL needed was a legend, a player who had the kudos and the charisma to carry an entire league. It needed its own Babe or DiMaggio, its own Joe Namath or Walt Frazier. There was only one player in the world who could break through this crust of indifference/says Toye; “that was Pel”.”
Alongside the boxer Muhammad Ali, Pel” was the most famous sportsman in the world. He was even famous in America. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, he had won three World Cups with his native Brazil and scored over 1,000 career goals, and had emerged from an impoverished upbringing in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais to become the man universally regarded as the greatest player to ever take the soccer field.
Though fanciful, Toye’s plan to poach Pel” from his team, Santos, made sense. After all, here was a player who transcended his sport, a man so famous, so loved, that a survey had shown the name Tele” ranked behind only Coca-Cola as the most popular brand in Europe. Here was a player who could keep the Shah of Iran waiting at an airport for three hours just so he could meet him; a player who, when he visited Nigeria in 1967, persuaded the two sides in the ongoing civil war to agree to a forty-eight-hour ceasefire just so he could play in an exhibition game in the capital, Lagos.
Indeed, Pel”‘s fame, not to mention his unique ability, had, in 1961, resulted in the Brazilian Congress declaring that the then twenty-two-year-old had been classified as a “nonexportable national treasure”, in much the same way that Britain values the Crown Jewels or France does the Mona Lisa. In short, Pel” wasn’t for sale.
Still, it was worth a try. Certainly, Toye’s idea found favor with Steve Ross, a man drawn inexorably to celebrity names and supersized personalities. For Ross, Pel” was another Sinatra or Aretha to add to his roster. He was box office and Ross knew it. “[Ross] was sophisticated and urbane enough to have traveled the world, and he knew there was this one athlete named Pel” who was a global icon equal to Ali,” says David Hirshey, who covered the Cosmos for the New York Daily News. “Ross realized that the Cosmos would languish in the sleepy backwaters of soccer until it had a drawing card that would somehow galvanize the American public. There was only one man who could light that match, and it was Pel”.”
Buoyed by Ross’s response, Clive Toye, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam and the general secretary of the U.S. Soccer Federation (formerly the USSFA), Kurt Lamb, flew to Kingston, Jamaica in February 1971 to meet with Pel” and his adviser, Professor Julio Mazzei, the Brazilian having just played an exhibition game for Santos there against Chelsea.
When the parties finally convened by the swimming pool of Pel”‘s hotel, Toye took a deep breath and launched headlong into his best sales pitch, insisting that Pel” was the only man on the planet who could sell soccer to the American masses. “I told him that he had to come to America because he would have the chance to do something no one else could do–make soccer a major sport in the U.S.A.,” recalls Toye. “He later admitted he had no idea what the hell I was talking about.”
On April 17, 1971, the New York Cosmos, without Pel”, took to the field at the Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, to play its first game in the North American Soccer League. It would be a successful debut, with their towering Bermudan striker, Randy Horton, recording their first ever NASL goal in a 2–1 victory.
In the crowd of 3,701 that day was the Warner chairman Steve Ross, who looked around the ground, saw thousands of empty seats and, rather than cut his losses and run back to the relative safety of the movie world, set his sights on turning the situation around. “I didn’t let it get me down,” he would say. Instead, I thought about the possibilities. The growth potential from ground zero was tremendous.”
“Ground zero’ was an apt description for the state of the New York Cosmos. With a “roster”, or playing squad, largely made of local amateur players, only too keen to supplement their day jobs with a few extra bucks for playing, it was professional soccer in name only, both on and off the field.
From their microscopic office near Grand Central Terminal, Clive Toye, ably assisted by Pauline Badal, did what he could to raise the club’s profile, the odds stacked against him. While Toye badgered the city’s sports editors and handed out complimentary tickets, Gordon Bradley would spread the word of the Cosmos by hosting soccer clinics for schoolchildren, all the time trying to lure them away from baseball and basketball. “I cannot say how many clinics I gave,” says Bradley dispassionately, “but I had to get those kids playing school soccer and so as they grew from year to year it became their game.”
Between them, though, the Englishmen formed a formidable and persuasive partnership, talking up the club as though it were the next big thing in NYC and not some shoestring outfit offering players fifty bucks a game. Now, whenever they identified players they felt could make a difference to the squad, the full weight of the Cosmos negotiating team–i.e. Toye and Bradley–would swing into action, closing deals over the lobby payphone or over a cup of coffee at the local Chock Full O’Nuts. “Ninety-nine percent of the population had never heard of soccer,” laughs Toye. “It was an absolutely barren country in terms of soccer.”