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New York Cosmos: Reawakened in the city that never sleeps

By Tom McGowan, CNN
August 2, 2013 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Pele (right) joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 and led a troop of superstars who flocked to the North American Soccer League (NASL). George Best, pictured here with the Brazilian, was a Manchester United legend who enjoyed three separate spells in the NASL. Pele (right) joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 and led a troop of superstars who flocked to the North American Soccer League (NASL). George Best, pictured here with the Brazilian, was a Manchester United legend who enjoyed three separate spells in the NASL.
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Superstars stateside
Brilliant Beckenbauer
Boys from Brazil
Past and present
Return to action
Humble beginnings
The future is green
Leading light
Soccer in the Big Apple
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The New York Cosmos return for the first time in 30 years on Saturday
  • A team including Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto shone in the 1970s
  • The Cosmos drew crowds in excess of 70,000 to Giants Stadium
  • The Cosmos' first match is against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers

(CNN) -- Once upon a time there was a galaxy of stars which burned bright in the "Big Apple", a trio of world champions who played football from another planet and sparked a U.S. love affair with the beautiful game.

The star-spangled North American Soccer League (NASL) and the New York Cosmos, for a brief time, helped football take off on the other side of the Atlantic.

Pele, widely regarded as the finest footballer of all time, his fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto and German great Franz Beckenbauer formed the formidable spine of the New York Cosmos -- the most-celebrated team in U.S. soccer history.

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"Before joining the Cosmos I was playing for Flamengo in Brazil," Carlos Alberto, who left Flamengo to join the Cosmos in 1977, told CNN. "We'd read in the newspaper everyday how successful football was in New York.

"Every game they broke records for people at the game, 75,000, 77,000, 78,000... I thought, I can't miss out on this!"

A crowd of 73,064 watched on at Giants Stadium as the Cosmos beat the Seattle Sounders in August 1978 to win a second consecutive Soccer Bowl, the NASL's championship match.

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But by 1984, the team built around Pele, Carlos Alberto and Beckenbauer, along with the NASL, had sunk into a blackhole of obscurity.

"The Cosmos means a lot to me," reflected Carlos Alberto, who played 100 times for the club in two separate spells. "I had great moments during the six years I was in New York. We contributed a lot to bringing football, soccer to the States.

"I loved New York. My dream today is to see the new New York Cosmos come back and be a great success."

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His dream could be about to come true.

After nearly three decades in the dark, the fabled name of the Cosmos is staging a reawakening in the city that never sleeps.

This week Pele stood alongside the Cosmos' latest Brazil-born star Marcos Senna to turn the top of the Empire State Building green and announce the club's return to competitive action.

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An August 3 fixture against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in a relaunched NASL will be the Cosmos' first league fixture since September 15, 1984.

The latest incarnation of the NASL is an eight-team competition, which is unrelated to the U.S.'s current leading football competition Major League Soccer (MLS).

"I think the potential is enormous," the Cosmos' COO Erik Stover told CNN. "Everybody remembers the Cosmos and everybody has a story about it. We certainly have the potential to do that again."

The club was refounded in 2010 and a host of former stars have aligned to boost the returning team's profile.

The Cosmos are once again competing in the NASL, which has been up and running as an eight-team league since 2011.

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The league has the enviable task of matching MLS, which was established as part of the U.S.'s successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup and has housed star names like David Beckham and Thierry Henry.

Stover knows more than most about creating a New York soccer success stories.

For three years the Pennsylvanian worked at the city's biggest Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise the New York Red Bulls, helping the club move into the purpose-built, 25,000-seater Red Bull Arena.

He plans to repeat the trick for the Cosmos with plans already in place for a $400m stadium complex in Belmont Park area.

Stover also played a part in bringing Thierry Henry, a world and European champion with France, to the States from Barcelona in 2010.

While the Cosmos' history is littered with stellar names, the modern-day team are starting from humble beginnings -- namely the Matchroom Stadium in London.

It is home to third-tier English club Leyton Orient and the venue for a key exhibition match for coach Giovanni Savarese's newly-built team.

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The Cosmos lost 2-1.

"We're very careful to say this is not 1977, this is not 77,000 at Giants Stadium, we don't have Pele and Beckenbauer," Stover replies when asked about the task he faces in trying to live up to the Cosmos' stellar past.

"We have a good squad and we play good soccer and we will grow from there. It needs to be built up, we can't start at that level overnight."

But the Cosmos have been able to recruit one player whose caliber is undeniable.

Senna enjoyed a successful career in Europe with Spanish club Villarreal, helping the team reach the 2006 Champions League semifinals.

The midfielder also represented his adopted homeland at international level and he was a key member of the Spain team which won Euro 2008 and kick started La Roja's recent period of dominance.

The Cosmos' legacy is built on the recruitment of players like Senna and Pele, but Stover has more realistic goals this time around.

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"Marcos is obviously a great player and a recognizable star," he explains. "I think that's the type of player we're looking for.

"We also know that we have to have a sustainable model. We can't over spend, we can't bring in 11 superstars right now, that's not going to do anybody any good. We like our roster now and we like who we are, every team is always evolving."

Carlos Mendes is one of Senna's new teammates and a genuine New Yorker.

The defender boasts a respectable pedigree within U.S. soccer and is a veteran of six years with the Red Bulls.

Despite the weight of history on his new team's shoulders, Mendes is relishing the chance to represent a club with such an illustrious name.

"It's an honor," insists the 32-year-old.

"We can never duplicate that. You're never going to match that team, some of the best players in the world.

"Hopefully we can play attractive soccer, something the fans can be proud of and we can bring some championships back to New York. That's our main focus starting August 3."

Football continues as Brazilians protest

Mendes is part of a team which has been brought together in little over two months by the Cosmos' hierarchy, with coach Savarese at the heart of the effort.

The Venezuelan was a journeyman striker in the MLS, best known for a prolific two-year spell with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars between 1996 and 1998.

He has a team at his disposal which boasts a European champion, but also contains players looking for a second chance at a football career.

"We are very satisfied with what we're building right now, with the players and the family we're creating at the New York Cosmos," says the former Venezuela international.

"I'm having fun. I think this is a great job, with a great organization with a great name. We don't have time to think about pressure, we just have to keep working and make sure we build a new future."

What the future holds for the Cosmos is uncertain. Could the club one day join the Red Bulls in the MLS?

"It's possible," answers Stover. "We don't know. There are no discussions right now. There's no animosity between the groups.

"We just do things one way and MLS does them differently. You never know how things will grow and change over time."

After 30 years in the doldrums, the New York Cosmos are happy enough just being back on the field.

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