Club Marks 50 Years Since Inception

Published Dec 9, 2020

On December 10, 1970 the North American Soccer League announced the awarding of a franchise for New York City to a group of ten investors including brothers Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, Steve Ross, Jay Emmett, Ted Ashley, and Alan Cohen – executives at Kinney National and its music and film subsidiaries, Atlantic Records and Warner Brothers. Each investor chipped in $35,000 to meet the league’s expansion fee, joining a league that with new franchises in Toronto (also announced that day) and Montreal (announced a month later) would grow from six to eight for the 1971 season. Gotham Soccer Club, Inc. was in business, though the investors would soon sell it for $1 to Kinney National (renamed Warner Communications in 1972). With Gotham Soccer Club operating the franchise, benefiting from the financial backing and global connections of the multimedia conglomerate’s ownership.

The day had been a long time coming, as the NASL had been searching for new ownership to fill the void left when the New York Generals folded after the league’s inaugural 1968 season. Riding the crest of enthusiasm in the USA for the global game following the 1966 World Cup, the prominent soccer journalist left his native England to become General Manager of the Baltimore Bays, who along with the Generals competed in the ten-team National Professional Soccer League, launched in 1967. The Generals, owned by RKO General and Peter Elser, shared Yankee Stadium that season with not only the Bronx Bombers, but also the New York Skyliners, owned by Madison Square Garden and competing in the rival United Soccer Association. The leagues merged the next year to form the seventeen-team North American Soccer League, the Skyliners folding. Only five teams would remain to keep the league alive the next year, and as the NASL’s director of administration and information, collaborated or conspired with executive director (later commissioner) Phil Woosnam to keep their hopes of a professional soccer league in North America alive.

In late November of 1969, Woosnam boldly predicted: “In about 10 years’ time, New York should be the most famous soccer club in the world … with the domestic glamor and value of the Jets and Mets and the international glamor of a great soccer club.” Talking as he was about a team that did not yet exist might well have sounded delusional.

Toye approached his friend, fabled broadcaster David Frost, who declined but suggested Neshui Ertegun of Atlantic Records. Toye passed on the name to Woosnam, who ran into the record label executive at a cocktail party during the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico that June. Along with his brother Ahmet, Neshui Ertegun was there to enjoy his beloved sport as well as network, seeking an opportunity to invest in sport ownership, somewhere. Kinney National chairman Steve Ross had promised to help them own a soccer club in order to keep them involved with Atlantic Records after it had been bought by Warner Bros. in 1969. Some say Ahmet supported Galatasaray while Neshui supported Fenerbahçe making investing in a Turkish club too complicated. The chance meeting of Woosnam and the Erteguns began the process that culminated with the awarding of the franchise to the Gotham Soccer Club investors.

For Toye, who was officially named the fledgling club’s founding General Manager on December 22, 1970, the opportunity to launch the new franchise in New York came in the nick of time:

 What happened, and I can’t remember the exact date, earlier that year I had been offered the job at Leicester City. I decided to accept that job. My farewell party was planned that night and Lamar Hunt got ahold of me and Lamar wrote a letter to the chairman of Leicester City, Leonard Shipman, saying, “Look, we are trying so hard to get something going in New York, and we want Clive Toye here, and it may not happen and so therefore he might be available to you, but can you please hold on and keep the job open for a few months, because he might want it, but we are still trying to keep him here.” So I stayed on [at the NASL front office] and what happened in December … I was already told you should be the person doing it. They had to convince, be sure that the New York owners agreed. So I went to my farewell party, said “I’m staying here,” and I took the New York job.

The decision would change the course of soccer history, as Toye set about making his dream for New York soccer a reality, eventually bringing the world’s greatest player to the world’s greatest city, before leaving the club after the 1977 season, having proven Woosnam’s bold prediction from 1969 prophetic.

Toye conceived the name for the franchise operator-investor group, Gotham Soccer Club. “We needed a name and so Gotham being the old New York name, I came up with the name – that was my idea. It was the official corporate name. New York Cosmos was the name of the club. Gotham Soccer Club was the name of the entity.”

Origins can be difficult to date. The birth of soccer clubs can be especially tricky to pin down. Crystal Palace caused an uproar and became the subject of scholarly scorn earlier this year when they claimed to a birthdate of 1861, with their first competitive match played in March 1862, rather than the generally accepted year of 1905. Some clubs simply lose track, the accessibility of newspaper digitization making it ever easier to trace back sporting ancestors, provoking historical revision of accepted origin dates. Rangers FC of Glasgow, Scotland even celebrated their centennial in 1973, before realizing years later that they had been a year late. 

With 1971 often cited by the club as the year it was “born,” the Cosmos celebrated its first decade in 1981. However, an internal memo after the 1981 season titled “Cosmos Milestones – A Brief History” began with the statement: “Warner Communications in 1970 acquires the old New York Generals NASL franchise.” This of course ignores the fact that the name Warner Communications did not exist until 1972. The same document claims, “In 1975, Steve Ross and Neshui Ertegun shock the world by signing the incomparable Pele,” erasing Toye from his central role in the club’s formation. The document begs the question: should we celebrate the naming and/or commencement of play for the Cosmos in 1971, the awarding of the NASL franchise to the Gotham Soccer Club in 1970, or the founding of the Generals in 1967?

“I don’t remember any connection with the Generals franchise whatsoever. None,” insists Toye. “If it was, no one knew anything about it. I can’t believe at all. When I took the job the club was called Gotham Soccer Club, cause that’s what I called it, and took me a while to call it New York Cosmos.” Gotham Soccer Club would announce a naming contest the following January and eventually the Cosmos would be christened on February 4, 1971. Another story for another day…

In commemoration of the club’s twentieth anniversary, the program for the Reunion Game at Giants Stadium on July 21, 1991 (edited by Michael Lewis), lists December 10, 1970 as the first and April 17, 1971 (the club’s first league game) as the second among “Memorable Moments in Cosmos History.”

Which moment should we most remember, what date should we celebrate as the club’s birthday? Is December 10, 1971 the club’s birthday and February 4, 1971 the club’s christening or name day? “I would put it like that, quite frankly,” agrees Toye. Having brought the club to life, nurturing it until his vision became a reality, surely he has the decisive opinion, even if fans, critics, and historians continue to debate which date best marks the club’s birth.

Golden Anniversaries should be celebrated for an entire year, not just a day. So let the celebrations begin as we commemorate the birth of the New York Cosmos fifty years ago!