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A Book that Kicks

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Once in a Lifetime : The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos 

I saw my first soccer game of the 2006 MLS season on Saturday. The Columbus Crew tied the Chicago Fire 1-1 in what was a slightly boring game. However, it was great to witness the birth of a new soccer season and enjoy the fantastic weather. The game topped off a kick ass weekend, full of soccer fun, which also included a great new book about a fascinating era in our country’s sports history.

Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos won’t be released until the end of May. But I was lucky to field an advance copy from the coolest publicist around and I can tell you this book is something you should pre-order today. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you’ll enjoy Gavin Newsham’s depiction of a brief moment in the late seventies when the Cosmos were the toast of New York City.

Warner Brothers chairman and team owner Steve Ross was determined to lead a soccer revolution in this country with the Cosmos as the vanguard. Ross compiled a roster that makes our modern day dream teams pale in comparison: Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and others all wore the Cosmos jersey.

In the team’s early days, they struggled to find adequate facilities. They played at Downing Stadium, under Triborough Bridge at Randall’s Island. The pitch was referred to as a dump, hellhole, or horror show and the locals termed the area “Vandal’s Island.” While the team wooed Pele, they employed some creative greens keeping.

“We were at practice on Randall’s Island, trying to avoid the broken glass on the field when all of a sudden we see a guy coming on the field and he starts spray painting the field green,” goalkeeper Shep Messing recalled. “Then we see a helicopter flying over, and the helicopter leaves. They had flown Pele over Randall’s Island to show him the stadium and they had painted the dirt green so he’d think it was a nice soccer field.”

As the team increased its success in the NASL and at the ticket booth, Cosmos games became the hip place to be seen. Mick Jagger, Robert Redford, Barbara Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and others were seen in the stands and locker rooms. For a brief moment, as fleeting as the extra time minutes a referee adds to the end of a game, the Cosmos and soccer were huge.

Once in a Lifetime also does an excellent job of capturing non-sporting aspects of that heady period of time. While Ross was running the team, he also lorded over the Warner Bros. empire and the book recounts his exploits as CEO. Particularly interesting is Ross’ 1976 purchase of an upstart computer game company in Sunnyvale, CA. Much to his son’s delight, Ross bought Atari for $28 million.

Soccer fans, sports historians, and casual readers interested in a compelling record of an amazing period of time should definitely mark their calendars for this book’s release.