The Value of North America’s Old Soccer Brands

North American soccer would be best served if even more historic and catchy soccer clubs were resurrected
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, April 20, 2012

North America's old soccer clubs

I once had an MLS executive tell me: “we don’t know the value of the New York Cosmos brand anymore, we’re researching it.” This was said as waves of support for resurrecting the club were coming in both domestically and globally on an emerging internet.

His title and the slapstick MetroStars eventually became nothing more than a memory and a bastion of some supporters’ nostalgia for opposing the corporate takeover of their club by Austrian marketing bigboys Red Bull.

But the non-belief from that executive gave the young me a lesson in understanding that some just cannot see the value in things that are intangible. Some horses have to be led to the water, even in times of dearth.

When Pele came to the USA and joined the Cosmos in 1975, that brand immediately became strong. The presence of both Pele and the suddenly in-demand, internationally and nationally recognizable Cosmos forever changed the path of North American soccer. With the Cosmos' big name star, the reachable rock-star decadence of the mid 70s, the trophies and ensuing glory - the legacy of the Cosmos exploded. To this day the Cosmos are still the best club to ever play in North America. This is despite the last competitive league game being played over thirty years ago, and regardless of MLS now matching the NASL’s sixteen year lifespan – with a much brighter future and no ending in sight.

There are many who’d say that without the NASL, and more specifically Pele and the Cosmos, MLS would not even exist. There are those that say the Cosmos could have continued and that the NASL may have become further engrained in American society than even today’s MLS with all its newfound promise, soccer specific stadiums and concrete roots.

No one knows the end-result of what NASL’s survival could have done, just that MLS is here today and it stands on the foundation of that league and those clubs.

For years MLS didn’t do much more for its NASL predecessors but a few reunion dinners and retro jersey matches. The league, as has been stated many times since, wanted to distance itself from the NASL’s failures and its past. MLS wanted to blaze a trail anew. But the shadow of the NASL and its most successful clubs was – even to this day – weighs heavily on the league’s decisions and path.

Before Seattle was brought into the MLS fold, the ownership publicly stated they would hold a vote to rename the team. This was happening in spite of the surviving Sounders brand being carried on and remaining strong in the minor leagues under the stewardship of the Hanauer family. We know how that went – the fans didn’t want any part of the new names and blank slate and pressured the Hanauers and their new partners into ensuring the Seattle Sounders remained. The club, though priding itself on democracy, to save a bit of face stubbornly added the FC suffix to the Sounders. So we get Seattle Sounders FC, but for all intents in purposes the FC is of little value as the ‘Sounders’ legacy was saved and carries on.

The Vancouver Whitecaps did similarly by closely rebranding to Whitecaps FC a tad earlier, but again the old NASL legacy won and the fans obliged. The Portland Timbers ownership was even wiser and never realistically broached the idea of changing their moniker. Now look at their success and the love affair of the city for their reborn and refreshed club.

The Pacific Northwest is granted a tri-soccer region, the strongest per capita in the nation, especially for MLS or American-made domestic league soccer. This may or may not be because they reclaimed the Timbers, Sounders and Whitecaps brands, but it surely did not hurt.

San Jose and the Pacific Northwest clubs brought NASL to the MLS

San Jose, however, was the first MLS team to break their original 90s era MLS mold and revert to an NASL club name. The club had been known as the Nike coined Clash and came complete with a horrendous logo and color scheme. Thankfully, for all those involved, the Clash brand was put to an early death in 1999 and the Earthquakes club name which represented the city from 1974 to 1988 was once again worn with NorCal pride. A modern hand was applied with a more interesting color palette, a modernized logo was released … and voila … the Quakes reclaimed decades of glorious George Best local soccer history and connected the soccer generations. Most importantly, they bonded the Golden generation of the NASL with the Steel generation of MLS; thus, all thankfully spackling over the dark days of the Missing Generation of the late 80s and early 90s sandwiched between post-NASL and pre-MLS.

In the new version of the NASL (ironically Division 2), already the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, both rivals in the 70s, have been brought back from brand coma. And as Commissioner David Downs stated in a recent interview with Soccer Newsday, it seems that the newfound NASL will not only try to reclaim former NASL markets that MLS does not play in like Edmonton, Calgary and San Diego, but that they will do their best to bring back some of those former brands as well.

Honestly, it’s genius, especially with MLS moving forward in other areas and not likely to enter some smaller-sized markets, at least for the foreseeable future. It gives the NASL a niche, reconnects the generations of fans to each other and immediately brings brand recognition and legacy to the sport in North America. The history of our game gets reclaimed before it is too old to be useful.

Now it’s not to say that the old club names were necessarily better than a modern marketing firm could come up with today. Frankly, no modern executives are going to walk out of a meeting and proclaim “Rowdies” is a good idea to stake their reputation and position on. Some of these names are stuck in their origin’s era, but that also makes them unique and historic. It solidifies to new fans and the wider general public that American soccer did not begin in 1996 with MLS’s inauguration, as surely some old enough to remember likely said back in 1968 with the start of the newly-merged NASL.

So there is no reason to suggest that MLS should rid itself of the great new brands it has created and built up in favor of their NASL predecessors. Though there is still some bumblebee pride left in Chicago for the Chicago Sting, the Chicago Fire and their iconic firehouse shield likely is now the more locally significant and deeply immersed brand. The same may be said for DC United and the Washington Diplomats and LA Galaxy and the LA Aztecs.

Though if long after we’re gone if MLS is so successful that it would add more teams in certain big cities to fuel rivalries and add derbies, then it should consider adding some of North America’s older clubs again.

Montreal Olympique - possible OM in North America

Perhaps we will see divided cities like London and Buenos Aires, with big (or in LA’s case bigger) local derbies. Imagine the New Jersey Red Bulls vs New York Cosmos (increasingly plausible) or the LA Galaxy vs LA Aztecs (There are already calls for Chivas USA to rebrand as the Aztecs). Possibly the Chicago Fire vs Chicago Sting, DC United vs Washington Diplomats, or Philadelphia Union vs Philadelphia Spartans. In Canada we could see Toronto FC vs Toronto Blizzard or even the Montreal Impact vs Montreal Olympique.

Then there are markets where MLS does not yet exist. Perchance MLS – NASL or USL PRO for that matter – could bring back a plethora of other clubs. If we are to expand, especially to former NASL areas, some of those clubs whose legacies MLS may want to include are:

- Austin Lone Stars (USL old boys, longer but possibly better than current Aztex)
- Atlanta Chiefs (not politically correct but that hasn’t halted the Braves or Indians)
- Calgary Boomers (NASL oil-based connection, just awesome as most “ers” are)
- Edmonton Drillers (another apt Albertan oil reference and success-to-be)
- Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (used in NASL today, colors & updated logo are amazing, no change needed)
- Memphis Rogues (not long-lived in the NASL, but nickname has much potential)
- Minnesota Kicks or Stars (Stars is used today & not too bad, but Kicks has NASL nostalgia)
- Pittsburgh Miners (played only in 1975 ASL but a great name that complements Steelers and is better than minor league Riverhounds)
- Rochester Rhinos or Lancers (Same, Rhinos are the modern USL legacy of even more historic NASL Lancers who had better colors of blue-yellow unless Rhinos sported all grays)
- Sacramento Knights (played 5 years in NPSL with this catchy nickname)
- San Antonio Generals (was a small indoor outfit, but the nickname is special & rarely used in US sports)
- San Diego Sockers (not ideal, but NASL vintage, perhaps Hispanic name would be better)
- San Francisco Seals (long USL PDL minor league history and even better locally significant name and colors)
- St. Louis Steamers (born in indoor MISL, this brand won’t go away, modern connection to a great old club name)
- Tampa Bay Rowdies (used in NASL today, no change but logo uplift necessary)
- Tulsa Roughnecks (there’s still post-NASL & Roughnecks soccer love in Oklahoma)
- Wichita Wings (also born indoors, but the brand has survived for over 30 years)

The groundwork has already been laid. And looking at that framework, and based solely on my opinion of moniker coolness, local nickname significance, colors and historical strength, the “Top 25 All-Time North American Soccer Club Brand” list looks something like this:

Top 25 All-Time North American Soccer Club Brands

Give their logos a modern makeover and a possible tweak to the colors, if need be, to create distinction from league counterparts, but otherwise these clubs should just be brought back and could likely help strengthen the roots of MLS by building upon America’s already established soccer foundation. After all, there is a history within North American soccer. The question is can MLS both reflect on its own promising future, while building upon the unstable yet enduring history of former American professional clubs?

There is value to be had in already established soccer brands in North America. Now it’s time for MLS, NASL and the USL to start building upon the antiquity of those past brands, so that soccer can put aside the fear of its own shadow, unify its generations and move forward with ambitious optimism in its eyes and proud history under its feet.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.