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Unearthing the Cosmopolitan Soccer League: Insights from James Nalton
In an interview with writer James Nalton, we delve into his background, his unique affinity for American soccer, and his recent coverage of the Cosmopolitan Soccer League in New York City.
James Nalton's commitment to exploring the lesser-known aspects of soccer shines through his work. James graciously took some time to talk to The Outfield about his recent piece for World Soccer where he delves into the New York City’s Cosmopolitan Soccer League, showcasing its significance as one of the oldest leagues in the United States.
Can you give our readers a little bit of background about yourself? Where are you from, and how did you get into soccer writing?
I'm originally from Warrington, England, which is between Manchester and Liverpool, so the town mainly has a mixture of support for Man United and Liverpool, as well as Man City and Everton.
Warrington itself is primarily a rugby league town, so I grew up following Warrington RLFC home and away while also playing the game for a local amateur team, and at school and college. But in any spare time outside of that, at that time there was almost always some form of soccer going on to play in, from the streets to local parks.
Even though I was a Liverpool fan, once I started going to soccer games more regularly I probably went more often to Everton games as it was easier to get tickets, as well as Man City. I've also followed Blackburn Rovers and Huddersfield Town (the latter as I went to university there) at various points, and have a soft spot for QPR (and its Loftus Road stadium).
After college I initially wrote about soccer in my spare time, starting my first soccer blog around 2001 as part of something internet technology-related I was doing at university, which is (maybe sadly, probably thankfully) no longer online.
Having moved to Liverpool around 2010 I started writing more about LFC, and later Everton. I began writing about rugby league for the Morning Star newspaper around 2014, and from there started covering the soccer teams in Liverpool and Manchester for the paper. I got some more paid work with the Liverpool fansite This is Anfield, which then made me consider the possibility of going full-time freelance, and I have been since.
I think if I didn’t do it for work, by now I would be supporting a local non-League team, City of Liverpool FC, more often, or Warrington Town FC.
As a Brit, you have developed an interesting affinity for American soccer, especially in New York City. Could you share where that interest originated from?
I would say it’s an intrigue with the quirks of the sport in the US and soccer’s place in the American sporting landscape. As I thought more about what I would ideally want to write about, for my own interest and not just for work, it would be this.
I still have a USA World Cup 1994 sticker album (incomplete) from the time, so maybe the interest started then, and it looks like I’ve been tweeting about MLS and the Open Cup since I became more active on Twitter around 2013/14.
I think there’s sometimes the idea that North American soccer is just MLS, but there is much more beyond that. I think the whole of North American soccer deserves coverage and attention, and I find that aspect interesting too.
In terms of New York specifically, again looking at Twitter to job my memory, I’ve been mentioning the Cosmos since 2014.
I was intrigued by the introduction of New York City FC to MLS and I registered the domain nycfcuk.com around the time they came into being. I did nothing with it due to other work commitments and other sites I was running, including one called Crossing The Pond which contained early attempts to understand American soccer.
When I visited NYC, I was surprised by how much soccer is visible in the city, but this then made me wonder why we hear so little about it beyond niche blogs and dedicated (in every sense of the word) writers. I think the best thing to do when you find an area that you believe deserves more coverage and for its stories to be told is to just start doing it.
It’s a diverse, interesting and impressive place and it is in such environments soccer often thrives. There are already soccer communities around the city—again that don’t get much mainstream coverage—but If the game can thrive locally to a similar level of support people have for their Mexican or European teams, for example, it would be something unique in the sport globally. I think in many ways, it already is.
One of the reasons I enjoy writing about American soccer is because there is so much to learn, and I know relatively little. There is always something new to discover or to try to understand. There are many great American soccer writers at both national and local levels from whom I have learned a lot.
Soccer’s place within the American sporting landscape, and delving into the whole culture of American soccer—from MLS Cup finals to games in McCarren Park— are, for me, among the most fascinating things to write about in the sport.
In your latest piece in World Soccer, you covered the Cosmopolitan Soccer League (CSL) in NYC, one of the oldest in the country. What inspired you to write this piece?
Some years ago, I read the book Soccer In A Football World by David Wangerin, and it encouraged me to dig deeper into what is actually, historically, an American game as much as any other in the US.
Soccer has a history in the US as much as it does in other regions—but the men’s game especially and the history of it seems to have been pushed to the sidelines or into the background, even by MLS itself.
My interest in New York City, its geography and culture, combined with this interest in soccer below the surface and its history meant the CSL became an obvious area for investigation.
I first pitched the idea to World Soccer in November 2020, but Covid was still playing a part in sports then so it was delayed.
Then when I did start getting into it, it was clear the Ukrainian teams in the region needed more than a passing mention in the article given what their country was (and is) going through. I was lucky that World Soccer agreed to a new standalone feature, so the first piece, in the June 2022 issue of World Soccer, was on teams of Ukrainian heritage in New York and Philadelphia.
During your research for the article, what did you learn about soccer in the city? Were there any notable insights or stories that resonated with you?
Several, which will hopefully turn into other articles if I can get them commissioned. I regularly speak to people like Michael Battista and Nicholas Alexandrakos (Cosmos Supporters Collective) learning about soccer organizations and culture in the city.
I have written related articles, most notably a story for Forbes on New York International FC’s collaboration with the EV Loves NYC soup kitchen and the relationship with Cosmos fans.
My chat with Sasha and Mammad of EV Loves NYC, and keeping an eye on NYIFC during their early seasons gave me more background for the article and potential others.
My articles about Randalls Island and NYCFC’s traveling, nomadic team—articles which NYCFC fans probably think are a bit weird—tried to tie in with soccer’s place within the geography of New York which is part of what makes it so interesting for me.
Soccer has various homes in the city, and I think there is more to investigate there too, not least with the new stadium planned at Willets Point.
I think its nomadic nature and its lodging at baseball fields are part of what drew me to NYCFC, despite it being a big-bad-MLS team, while speaking to Michael and others helped me understand more about the team formerly known as the MetroStars. I also like Philadelphia Union, and covering these teams can lead to similar repercussions on social media to covering rival teams in the North West of England!
What do you believe the MLS, as the top division, could learn from the CSL? Are there any aspects of the CSL's approach or structure that you find particularly noteworthy?
I get the impression MLS isn’t willing to learn from other leagues and only wants to further its own progress as a closed league, pleasing its shareholders, which I suppose is fair enough.
MLS is an interesting competition in its own right with good stories, teams, and players, but even with expansion, it seems to purposely cut itself off from and disassociate itself from the rest of the country’s leagues and competitions. To its detriment, I think.
If I were to say MLS can learn from the way the CSL along with other local leagues has implemented promotion and relegation to and from the EPSL, I don’t think it would want to.
I think USL still has the chance to learn from it, though. Opening up its lower leagues, which are themselves already regional, to local leagues around the country such as EPSL could be a game changer and potentially see USL become the top league in a true US soccer league pyramid. The Pro League Standards would need to be more relaxed and accommodating, but it’s imaginable.
Could you share where people can follow you and your writing? Do you have any upcoming projects or articles you'd like to mention?
I’ll have a Concacaf Champions League review in World Soccer’s summer issue, and I’m hoping to get a piece commissioned on how the New York Cosmos lives on through its fans in the city, even during its current “hiatus”. I also hope to do more on my Substack going forward and the current articles on there may give an idea as to what to expect on that.❧
Image: Vintage Postcard, Triboro Bridge (1960)