Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

“Wow, those guys have some funny hair!” laughed a young kid while staring into a display case of old soccer memorabilia recently in downtown San Jose. “Wait, who is that guy standing next to the Earthquakes guy?”

“That’s Pele, stupid,” said his slightly older friend, also looking at a poster showing the Brazilian star with his arm around former Quakes great Johnny Moore. “I heard he came to play in San Jose.”

“For the Earthquakes?” was the response.

“No, no. He was on the Cosmos. I heard he was the best player in the world!”

While everyone should be directing their attention toward domestic soccer and the upcoming sixteenth season of Major League Soccer, the shiny lights of Times Square in New York City beckon us to take notice of a different product altogether. Yes, those marketing masters behind the rejuvenated New York Cosmos brand have done it again — with the announcement of Eric Cantona’s appointment to oversee soccer operations of the still-to-be-formed team, they have nearly eclipsed the collective news coming from the 18 clubs that are actually fielding players to play professional soccer in America this year.

Cantona joins ex-Los Angeles Galaxy assistant coach Cobi Jones on a management team that welcomes the greatest Cosmos player of all time — Pele — as a brand spokesperson and honorary team president. Big names for a brand with bigger name recognition not just on these shores but around the world, than any current MLS side enjoys. David Beckham’s Galaxy and Thierry Henry’s Red Bulls are starting to move the needle overseas, but nothing quite captures the imagination of the soccer community quite like the Cosmos.

And to be perfectly honest with you — I love it. Sure, the recently dusted off Cosmos have a long path to follow before they are actually playing soccer and not just peddling merchandise and a dream. Maybe Cantona blowing his cigar smoke into the camera in his introduction video is actually a metaphor for what the Cosmos are really up to — blowing smoke — but I am inclined to believe their interests in starting a professional team and joining MLS are genuine. The original Cosmos of the North American Soccer League were always an over-the-top marketing machine, and the new curators of the brand seem intent of continuing that tradition with announcements like Cantona’s hiring and flashy billboard advertising.

Is all this Cosmos hoopla good or bad for MLS? While Jason Davis expressed his views in his wonderful article yesterday, and I agree with much of what he wrote, I don’t think he goes far enough in answering that question. I believe the hoopla is fantastic for MLS, and should be a kick in the pants for all current teams and the league leadership as well to be bold and creative in marketing their unique brands. I also want to see MLS do more to embrace some of the legacy left behind by the NASL and connect themselves to some of the history of soccer in this country. MLS is ready to disengage the training wheels that were necessary on the slow and safe path to respectability built over the last 15 years. The individual franchises are now in a position to take their own fortunes to new levels. For those teams that can and are willing, the legacy of the NASL provides powerful leverage in that endeavor.

For the history buff, you’ll remember that this was not always the case for the powers that be that started MLS back in 1996. When the 12 original teams kicked off that season, the league’s efforts to distance itself from the failed NASL prevented any of the franchises from adopting the names of their defunct predecessors. In no community did that go over more like a lead weight than in San Jose, where George Best and Johnny Moore plied their trade as the Earthquakes back in the day. Instead of paying homage to a brand that spanned most of the NASL’s history, and then continued to exist in name as a professional club in the alphabet soup of soccer leagues that followed, the new San Jose MLS team was assigned the moniker The Clash. Bewilderment and amusement were the reactions of most longtime soccer fans in the Bay Area, but MLS was adamant that they did not want to be associated with the NASL in any way.

The San Jose Clash plied their trade at the same South Bay stadium that the NASL Earthquakes trod and the fans made do with the team’s identity for the league’s first four seasons until — just months after Don Garber became commissioner of MLS — they announced they would be rebranding the team in time for the 2000 season. Finally shaking loose of the MLS embargo of the NASL legacy — perhaps at the behest of the newly appointed commissioner — San Jose were finally able to again be called the Earthquakes. Okay, there weren’t billboards in San Francisco’s Union Square or splashy multipage features in the local newspapers, but the identity that many soccer fans in San Jose had with their team was finally going to reappear on the chests of their uniforms. Sadly, as a footnote to that 2000 season, the San Jose Earthquakes finished dead last in MLS.

But I digress; we were talking about legacy and how the NASL could help MLS grow into the general public’s consciousness. While the name change in San Jose was a great sign, the team did stumble when it came to the jersey’s that sported the rejuvenated Earthquakes name. Instead of bringing back the familiar red uniforms of the ‘70s and ‘80s Quakes, the franchise chose to go with dark blue. Maybe some marketing folk thought that would sell better in San Jose, but fundamentally it was a shame to lose the visual connection to the old NASL club that the choice of red jerseys would have provided. Good intentions to connect to the local fan base only went halfway, and instead of a passionate embrace of the NASL Earthquakes, supporters felt more like they were getting a hug from an ex-girlfriend. Well, she did sort of smell similar. That color palate stumble by the team set back the power the NASL legacy could have provided the team moving into the 21st century.

Juxtaposed with the marketing strategy employed by the new Cosmos, who reemerge with the same colors and logo that our hazy memories can recall, and the mistakes of the Quakes back in 2000 are readily apparent. The NASL legacy attention bump that could have been felt locally in the Bay Area never materialized, and unfortunately was forgotten to history when future MLS franchises faced similar marketing considerations.

When the owners of the Seattle Sounders of the USL-1 division of professional soccer were granted entry to the league in time for the 2009 season, ownership played a similar game of “Rename that Team” in plain sight of their fervent supporters. In a well documented on-line vote, Seattle gave the public a limited choice of team monikers that did not include the NASL legacy Sounders name. Not to be kowtowed into changing their clubs identity, voters submitted the Sounders name as a write-in candidate and successfully pressured ownership into the compromise title of Sounders FC. While getting away with a uniform and logo change, the franchise came close to alienating a key component of their fan base by straying away from their city’s soccer history. By 2010, with both Portland and Vancouver entering MLS as “expansion” sides, the acceptance of their NASL names came as a given, and we welcome the Timbers and Whitecaps to MLS in 2011.

Now I don’t pretend that any of these four NASL legacy monikers carry the same weight as the Cosmos brand does when looked at from a national and even international perspective. However, they do mean a great deal to the local communities of soccer supporters that have been evangelizing the sport as long ago as the late ‘60s. The traditions and rivalries of the three clubs in the Pacific Northwest especially span the better part of the past 40 years. 2011 may mark the official beginning of modern era top-flight soccer for the cities of Portland and Vancouver, but fans in both cities will carry the history of their clubs from the NASL days forward in bringing a gravitas to matches that other MLS expansion teams never enjoyed. Call them instead the Portland Beavers and the Vancouver Whistlers and the historical importance would not exist.

Linking your MLS franchise team to a historical namesake is not necessarily the best order of business — aren’t we glad we don’t have to cheer on the Philadelphia Atoms or New England Tea Men — but dismissing the NASL memories completely can prove to be a marketing catastrophe. When the San Jose Earthquakes returned to MLS play in 2008, they faced a fascinating dilemma of whether to fully honor their historical past and revert to the general logo and uniform of the NASL days, or honor the recent past of the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup champion Earthquakes that played resplendently in black and blue. On the surface, this appears as the proverbial rock and a hard place conundrum, as going with either identity might alienate fervent fans of the left-behind legacy. I think the new Quakes chose the better option, as the younger fan base would recognize the MLS brand while the older fan base had already become accustomed to it. Sadly, even with all that history behind the name, the San Jose Earthquakes never fully recaptured the legacy left by the NASL.

An important collection of soccer supporters in San Jose are banded together as the Soccer Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Among their many activities are preserving the history of soccer in the Bay Area through the collection and preservation of soccer related historical items in partnership with the History San Jose project. The SSVCF also provides philanthropy to individuals and organizations that promote soccer in the area. In preparation for the inclusion of the Seattle Sounders FC to MLS in 2009, the organization introduced the Heritage Cup to be awarded annually to the MLS team that finishes the season with the best record among those that are identified by their NASL namesakes. The Earthquakes took home the trophy in the inaugural year, while Seattle currently holds the cup after last season. With the Timbers and Whitecaps joining the league in 2011, four teams will now be competing for this unique trophy. The legacy of those old NASL rivalries will be introduced to a new generation of soccer fans here on the west coast.

Narrowing in on the effect of the NASL legacy on MLS to the Earthquakes, we see a franchise that is ironically last in line to the NASL well among the four teams represented. While Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver area all expected to enjoy banner years in attendance and publicity in the Pacific Northwest, San Jose has failed to fully capture the attention of a local soccer populace that routinely made the South Bay one of the best attended teams in NASL. A great deal of that comes from the lack of a proper stadium — take note Cosmos — but also from a feeling that the new iteration of ownership couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge those now halcyon days of Bay Area professional soccer. Not that the current team has ignored the past, but their efforts have not been as honest or effective as what we’ve seen from the other legacy teams.

In August of 2009, in the second year of the reincarnated Earthquakes, local supporters of the NASL Earthquakes hosted a reunion of former players to celebrate the 35 year history of professional soccer in San Jose. The weekend of activities culminated with the whole contingent attending the MLS Earthquakes game against the visiting Seattle Sounders. Unfortunately, the new team missed a glorious chance to fully connect the old-timers to the current crop of players. The idea of a retro-jersey match might scare most MLS teams — especially if you remember some of the unusual uniform designs from the early years of the league — but it would have made perfect sense that weekend to see the new Quakes playing in classic red jerseys from the ‘70s to match those many of the alumni players brought back to San Jose with them that weekend. (To make the afternoon in the way-back machine complete, Seattle could have worn replica Sounders uniforms from that city’s NASL past.) I still hope this idea of having a retro-jersey night becomes a reality for the Earthquakes, and what better way to have it than with another of the NASL legacy teams.

By 2013 at the latest, if current Earthquakes ownership is to be believed, San Jose will move into a new soccer specific stadium. The rather modest maximum seating of 15,000 planned for the new facility will undoubtedly be popular in town, but are unlikely to be sold out on a regular basis given the current connection the team has in the community. However, that far from perfect forecast can be proved wrong if the team take additional steps to connect with its past. New proposals to build permanent installations within the stadium to house soccer artifacts from the local collectors and History San Jose can provide an excellent showcase of the legacy soccer has in the Bay Area. Vintage uniforms, posters, scarves, banners, etc. would all have a home for fans to enjoy every time they visited the stadium. Connecting in that way with the young and old creates new bonds with supporters that will encourage them to return for another game, or two, or maybe even become a regular ticket buyer. Sure, the product on the field will be important, but the atmosphere of going to a live game is so much more than just the 90 minutes of soccer action. Conversations and stories before, during, and after the match, perhaps prompted by the history on display, will complete the evening for many fans.

Will this idea help the Earthquakes specifically, and perhaps translate to other teams throughout the league? Absolutely! Look no further than to that innocent conversation between the two youngsters I quoted at the beginning of this story. They were admiring a collection of NASL era artifacts that were recently on display during a charitable dinner in San Jose. These were soccer players and soccer fans; they both were wowed by the displays and seemed destined to remember that experience beyond that evening. Did the legacy of the NASL make two more people into fans of professional soccer here in San Jose? I sure hope so, and I know with the right respect for the past, many more of those fans can be created.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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