Nelson Rodriguez

Nelson RodriguezHello, I’m Nelson Rodriguez, and even though I’m the president and general manager of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire, I’m looking forward to attending the NASL’s 50th anniversary event in Frisco, Tex., in October. It’s a long story, but a story I’ve lived from when I was a youngster growing up in Manalapan, NJ., to today.

“I’m a Cosmos baby,” Rodriguez said.

The child of parents from Buenos Aires, Argentina (one a River Plate fan, other a Boca Juniors fan), Rodriguez’s memory was forever stamped as a 7 year old with a trip to Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island for Pelé’s debut with the Cosmos on June 15, 1975.

“There are certain things you can never forget,” he said. “It seemed like the entire town was piled into a couple of buses to see Pelé. I was sitting next to the kid who lived across the street from me, he had never played soccer. We’re looking at a magazine and he asked who was the guy in the picture. I said Pelé, and he said ‘You mean Pelé’s black?!!’”

Rodriguez was the first in his family to be born in the United States, and although his family is from Argentina and the rivalry with Brazil is long and tortured, he said that his parents had a special place in their soccer hearts for Pelé.

“My whole life changed because of that trip, that game,” Rodriguez said. “I think I owe so much of my life to the Cosmos and by extension the NASL. I’m so lucky to have experienced that time as a fan and kid, and now being a part of MLS. After that first game, we later bought season tickets when the Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium.”

As an avid student of the game’s history, Rodriguez ascribes to a long view of the soccer’s recent history in the U.S.

“I think, first, the history of the game is so important to share and to keep alive, just as history is in general,” he said. “We owe so much to those who came before. I remember some early MLS documents, some of them outright suggested that the Cosmos were to blame for the demise of NASL. In my view, modern soccer in America owes much to what Cosmos did and what the NASL did. It absolutely planted seeds that took a generation or more to grow. The NASL’s heyday was the late ’70s and early ’80s, MLS came 10-12 years later, but MLS really started to change in the mid-2000s. That’s when the children of the NASL, 20-25 years after the NASL ended, started to become the coaches and introduce their children to the game.

“The NASL was a fantastic ride. It was somewhat short lived. But it was great.”