“Once in a Lifetime” Soccer Movie Review

Instead of pumping out another commentary piece on a subject within U.S. Soccer, I thought it would be fun to play movie critic and officially review my all-time favorite soccer motion picture, “Once in a Lifetime.” The documentary originally released in 2006, chronicles one of the most electric time periods in American soccer history, stemming from the sudden rise and precipitous fall of the North American Soccer League (NASL), as seen through the experience of its most famous club, the New York Cosmos.

The Original NASL
The United States first foray into top flight professional soccer, the original NASL was a fledgling operation from its conception in 1968. During its initial years of existence the NASL made very little impact in the United States, where at the time soccer had virtually no following. The paradigm shifted drastically however in 1975, when the New York Cosmos succeeded in luring the most famous player in the world, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, commonly known in popular culture as Pele.

With Pele in the fold, a curious sporting public took notice, and attendance for Cosmos games exploded. In an effort to strike while the iron was hot, the league expanded at an unsustainable rate. When Pele announced his retirement in 1977 his final game drew the largest crowd to ever see a soccer game in U.S. history. His retirement from the game began a swift decline for the NASL. Less than a decade after Pele’s retirement the NASL folded. To this very day, soccer pundits blame the leagues implosion on the reckless spending habits of the Cosmos, which led to an arms race of sorts between them and other clubs looking to stay afloat.

Be it that I am only 31 years old, I was entering the world essentially at the same time the NASL was leaving. Having read numerous publications about the NASL and being a Major League Soccer (MLS) junkie today, the NASL was always of interest to me. “Once in a Lifetime” is a must view for any U.S. soccer fan. You will grasp how and why MLS is here and operating today, compare the influx of foreign talent then to the run of international stars in MLS today, and how the NASL shaped the U.S. National Teams for future generations.

The Stars Align
The arrival of Pele is very reminiscent of David Beckham’s arrival to MLS, with the pomp, circumstance, hoopla, fanfare, and hype. The old cliché, “as things change the more they stay the same” is spot on when it comes to these two global football stars. While Pele is widely considered the greatest footballer of all-time, Beckham’s pure football status is often debated. Some deem him as a generational great, others consider him an average footballer with a massive marketing arm pushing him. What can’t be denied is the influence and credibility both brought to their respective leagues. Pele catapulted the NASL to unforeseen heights that inevitably were short-term, while Beckham launched MLS to a new prosperous era with long-term viability.

Major League Soccer recently kicked off season number 20, a feat the old NASL never reached. Beckham’s arrival unofficially transitioned the league into the era known as MLS 2.0. MLS 1.0 was the league pre-Beckham, 2.0 was with Beckham, and today we sit in the midst of version 3.0, the post-Beckham era. Regardless, the parallel between the two mega-stars is uncanny. I surmise it would be interesting to see an updated version of “Once in a Lifetime” that correlates the two leagues and their runs pre/during/post their anchor stars.

Who Was Steven J. Ross
In my opinion, the most inspiring aspect of the film is learning about former Warner Communications CEO, Steven J. Ross. I am embarrassed to say that prior to seeing “Once in a Lifetime” I was unaware of Mr. Ross. When I stumbled upon the movie back in 2009 I instantly became enamored with Mr. Ross, who is considered by many to be a pioneer in the entertainment industry. He took Warner Communications to unforeseen heights, successfully building it into the worlds first true global media empire.

Even with such a staggering resume and monumental achievements, every time I watched “Once in a Lifetime” I couldn’t quite grasp why Mr. Ross resonated with me so much, until now as I write this article. I realized that Mr. Ross is indirectly responsible for the life I have led since I was an adolescent. Soccer is my passion. Soccer is my life. I am unabashedly devoted to the sport. From the first time I kicked a ball at 10 years of age to now as I continue to play, I also coach, write, and podcast about the beautiful game. Who knows if that would have been the case without a pioneer like Steve Ross? My tight-knit circle of friends of the last 20 years comes from soccer. The greatest memories I have in life come from soccer, and I venture to say that the next chapter of memories will continue to come from soccer. Steven J. Ross championed the sport of soccer in America, during a time when nobody else did.

Memorable Quotes
“You look at global football now, and the Cosmos were 20 years ahead of the time.”
Former Cosmos Striker, Dennis Tueart

“Can you imagine a team like the Cosmos today with the talent they had on the field? They’d be worth a billion dollars. You talk about Real Madrid and Manchester United, in those days the Cosmos were it.”
– Late Great Cosmos Striker, Giorgio Chinaglia

“Not only is soccer here to stay, it will be the biggest big league of them all.”
Legendary Sports Broadcaster, Howard Cosell

“[The Cosmos] were the best and worst of what soccer in America was.”
– Tampa Bay Rowdies Striker, Rodney Marsh

“Nobody knows how much Pele was actually paid. Does Pele even know?”
– Warner Communications Executive, Jay Emmett

My Final 2 Cents
The Good:
A phenomenal retrospective of the superstar club and league that transformed American soccer forever.
The Bad: Surprisingly, the great one, Pele, does not appear in the film outside of stock footage. It has been stated that Pele declined to participate in the documentary when the producers balked at his $100,000 appearance fee. What a shame!
Final Verdict: Personally, it is my favorite soccer movie of all-time, I implore any and all U.S. soccer fans to view it if you haven’t before or view it again if you haven’t in a while. I imagine if you are reading this you are at the very least a casual soccer fan, and I highly recommend that soccer fans of all levels give it a viewing.


About Mike Crosky

A writer, podcaster, coach, player, and fan of the beautiful game! Former MLS employee and now contributor to TotalMLS and host of Crosky on Soccer Podcast. Lifelong USMNT and MLS supporter! I am making it my life goal to eradicate diving from soccer. Join me!