Can David Beckham's best friend revive the New York Cosmos?
Terry Byrne, David Beckham's best friend, is trying to bring the Cosmos to MLS
Byrne began his career as a taxi driver, before becoming the masseur for Chelsea
MLS wants expansion team in N.Y. in '13, but Byrne and his group face competition
Of all the figures I've encountered in soccer over the years, Terry Byrne is right near the top of my most intriguing people list. A 44-year-old Englishman, Byrne has gone on a remarkable life journey from London taxi driver to massage therapist for Chelsea and England to David Beckham's best friend and personal manager to a sports business career of his own.
Byrne's latest gig, however, may be his most fascinating of all. He has moved his family from London to the Big Apple to help relaunch the New York Cosmos. That's right: The Cosmos, the most famous soccer team in American history, the unforgettable outfit of Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto that made fútbol cool in the days of Studio 54 and spawned a gripping documentary film called Once in a Lifetime.
Recently I visited Byrne, the Cosmos' director of soccer, at the company's new headquarters in Soho, a hip, exposed-brick office space that was thrumming with activity. The Cosmos is run by four Brits: Paul Kemsley, the chairman and CEO, a former vice chairman of Tottenham Hotspur; Carl Johnson, a Cosmos board member who is the co-founder of Anomaly, a communications company; Byrne; and Rick Parry, a Cosmos board member and former Liverpool CEO.
Since announcing its return last August, the new-look Cosmos has been busy. It bought the Cosmos' logo for an estimated $2 million. It brought on Pelé as honorary president, Chinaglia as international ambassador and (just this week) Cobi Jones as associate director of soccer. It signed a deal with Umbro (now a Nike subsidiary) to market Cosmos apparel worldwide. It acquired two respected youth soccer academies in the New York and Los Angeles areas -- where the Cosmos, not the players, will foot the bill. And it took over the Copa NYC, a sort of Gotham-wide amateur World Cup.
Byrne and the Cosmos have big plans for 2011. They're planning a summer exhibition game in the New York City area featuring a host of the world's top soccer stars and a few select prospects from the Cosmos' academies. And they're hoping to push forward in their quest to become the 20th MLS team in 2013. MLS commissioner Don Garber has stated publicly that the league wants its 20th team to play in the New York City area, but there are other potential suitors, including the Wilpon family, which owns the New York Mets.
The Cosmos has been trumpeting the publicity horn louder than any of the other candidates, but there are several questions, too. Do Kemsley and the Cosmos have the money to back up their plans? Should MLS be concerned that Kemsley's British property empire collapsed in 2009? Is the new Cosmos more than an apparel and lifestyle brand? And will Beckham have a role in the Cosmos at some point? After all, Beckham has the option to buy into MLS as a team owner at a below-market price once he's done playing. And Beckham happens to be Byrne's best friend.
I was fired up to interview Byrne for a few reasons. During the reporting of my book, The Beckham Experiment, about Beckham's first two years in MLS, I tried repeatedly to arrange an interview with Byrne, who served as a paid consultant to the Galaxy and recommended the hiring of coach Ruud Gullit in 2007. In the end, Byrne never agreed to be interviewed on the record.
This interview marked not just my first on-the-record interview with Byrne but also the first time we had met in person. I had always been told that he's a good guy, a straight-talking guy, and that's exactly what I found. We spoke about a number of topics, including the Cosmos' plans for its youth and senior teams, his hopes to build a new soccer stadium in New York City and his detailed memories of consoling a weeping Beckham after his life-changing red card in the 1998 World Cup.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
SI.com: So how did you get involved in this Cosmos revival?
Byrne: Two years ago, Paul Kemsley came to me asking if I would like to be involved in a project. He called a meeting in London with several top people who have years of experience in football. He said, "I've got this opportunity to buy the New York Cosmos. What are your views?" I had a personal view: In 1979, I played at East Meadow in Huntington here representing London schools in a tournament. We got to watch the Cosmos train at the time. I've done so many different things in football, and this was another stage of progression. It was an interesting project. Back home I own a company called 1966, and we've managed the England players pool for the commercial program. We've done it for the last four years, and the company will still do it for the next four. I've restructured the company internally to run it as I'm leaving it, but that's the history of what I've been doing since I ceased managing David [in late 2008].
I then sat down with [Kemsley] to say, "OK, if we're going to do this, there's only one way you can do the New York Cosmos, and that's properly." It would be extremely difficult to replicate what it was unless you are Real Madrid with $500 million to spend, which the U.S. league doesn't allow you to do. To have had a team that had Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto, as much as I would love to assemble that tomorrow here for the Cosmos, it would be difficult to do so.
So I looked at it from the soccer perspective: How would you go about relaunching the Cosmos? For me, the key is you could develop a youth structure that gives you your feeder to the future, and you could build from the grassroots, from the bottom up. So the first project we carried out was to acquire an academy team, as well as signing Pelé as an honorary president. Over the last year we have assembled a very good structure internally.
Our long-term goal is to go into the MLS. We've had extensive talks with Don Garber, and that's ongoing. I'm under no illusion that we're the only option, but I do know that we will do everything within our power to try to be that 20th franchise team in 2013. For me, that has to be the end goal. And currently New York City doesn't have a team based in New York City. You've got the Red Bulls out in Jersey, but I think New York deserves a New York City team.