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

Opens at Metro, Fri., July 21. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.

Becks in the U.S.? It could happen, and it might make the MLS—for better and worse—just like the star-dependent debacle that was the NASL during its short-lived ’70s heyday, as recalled in this rather toothless soccer nostalgia-fest documentary. Having exited the recent World Cup in tears, his Real Madrid career in its sunset, England’s former team captain David Beckham hinted he might be willing to bring his traveling soap opera to the struggling American market—provided, one suspects, our tabloid-industrial complex could meet his multimillion-dollar quote. (Please let there be a reality TV show, too.)

We’ve seen it before, this documentary reminds us, with Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Franz Beckenbauer when they played for the Cosmos: The high-priced talent was supposed to raise American awareness of the game, secure a network TV deal, and perhaps lead to a grand trans-Atlantic football alliance that would line the pockets of the NASL’s sugar daddy, Warner chieftain Steve Ross. His story, though no better told than the others Lifetime unsteadily weaves together, may be the most compelling. It’s oddly parallel to Pelé’s: a rise from humble beginnings to an international brand, a freewheeling write-your-own-rules business style, a smile that won over countless celebrities, a cheerful early advocacy of what, decades later, would be tarred as globalization.

But Ross is dead and Pelé unavailable for the camera, so we make do with lesser lights reminiscing about their prime. (Local note: Sounders fans will not enjoy being reminded of Steve Hunt’s goal-front steal that earned the Cosmos their ’79 championship.) Lifetime mostly lacks any outside voices or revealing period interviews, and it recycles its limited game footage. (The best clips, tellingly, are of Pelé before he came to the States.) Matt Dillon’s narration doesn’t exactly put the ball in the net. For all the secondhand tales of coke and sex and Studio 54, the film’s just another artifact of New York’s guess-you-had-to-be-there ’70s glory. And if you weren’t, today the score still looks like nil-nil.