April 1, 2012
by Charles Cuttone
Chinaglia--The real straw that stirred the drink
In the 15 years that the North American Soccer League bounced its red white and blue star-laden ball across the continent, there were many great players who played in the league. World Cup winners, international superstars and legends like Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Gerd Mueller.
None dominated the league and the headlines like Giorgio Chinaglia, who died on Sunday at age 65 in Florida.
Born in Tuscany, Italy, raised in Wales and married to an American wife, Chinaglia joined the New York Cosmos early in 1976 and American soccer was never the same.
The arrival of Pele and Beckenbauer raised the stature of the game in the United States. Chinaglia scored goals --bunches of them--and helped the Cosmos win four NASL titles. There was no such thing as the Supporter's Shield then. If there had been, Chinagliaís Cosmos would have won six in a row.
When Chinaglia arrived, the all-time scoring record for the North American Soccer League was 79 goals, set by Ilijia Mitic over 120 games from 1967-76. Mitic retired after the 1978 season with 101 career goals. It took Chinaglia little more than four seasons to break the record, scoring his 102nd goal in the 1980 season. He didn't stop. By the time he retired he had scored 193 goals in regular season games, and another 49 in the playoffs, or 242 goals in 254 games. In all games, he scored an incredible 397 goals. The next best in team history was 73 by Roberto Cabanas.
To put it into perspective, MLS' all-time goal scoring leader Jeff Cunningham has 134 goals--in 365 appearances.
But Chinaglia was more than goals.
At a time when New York Yankees star Reggie Jackson claimed to be the "Straw that Stirs the Drink" it was Chinaglia who was doing plenty of stirring.
Having the ear of late Warner Communications Chairman Steve Ross, Chinaglia was long rumored to have far more control of the team than any of the club's general managers.
Not long after Chinaglia had a rift with well-liked coach Gordon Bradley, Bradley was out and Chinaglia's handpicked successor, Eddie Firmani, was in. It didnít' matter that Firmani had been under contract to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The contract was breached, the Rowdies later compensated and Chinaglia got his way.
And the team won its first Soccer Bowl and packed Giants Stadium with more than 70,000 people as the sport took off.
Moody, sometimes sullen, always outspoken, Chinaglia was far from a fan favorite at Giants Stadium. The league's perennial scoring leader was often booed during introductions, but it didn't matter. If he scored his goal celebrations were often jubilant and often conducted in the vicinity of Ross' midfield seat.
When Warner Communications hit hard times, it was Chinaglia who took control as "owner" of the team, at the same time that he took control of his former Italian club Lazio. Controversy followed. The Cosmos star no longer shone on the New York sports scene, crowds plummeted and the team moved to the Major Indoor Soccer League before ultimately folding amid a bevy of unpaid bills. Chinaglia was charged in a stock fraud scheme in Italy. When Cosmos reunions were held in 1992 and later in the MetroStars/Red Bulls era, Chinaglia was a no-show.
But during his career with the team, he was clearly the show and the showman.