By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Sep 4, 2017) US Soccer Players – While the history of American soccer stretches back more than a century, it was 40 years ago that the game experienced unprecedented growth and the pinnacle of its mainstream popularity. It was 1977 and the North American Soccer League, which was entering its 10th year of existence, dazzled crowds nationwide with franchises stretching from New York to as far west as Hawaii. The 18-team league, which even included a team in Las Vegas, had a lot going for it, including an ever-expanding list of foreign superstars and skyrocketing attendance. When it came to American sports leagues, the NASL was ahead of its time.
The biggest story line in 1977 was Pele. The mainstream pick for best player in the world at the time, he dazzled the American public with his talent and personality since his arrival two years earlier. Could soccer’s superstar close out his career with a trophy?
On a team with such worldwide appeal they’d gone ahead and dropped the “New York” from their name, the Cosmos underachieved on the field. Pele’s arrival alongside other superstars hadn’t done enough, at least not yet. The franchise bankrolled by Warner Communications featured a star-studded roster and deep-pocketed owners willing to splurge. The intent was certainly there, with the Cosmos’s commercial appeal already transcending the city it represented.
The team had a starting lineup that featured Shep Messing in goal and a defense anchored by World Cup winners Carlos Alberto, Brazil’s captain in 1970, and Franz Beckenbauer, who captained West Germany to the title four years later. Let’s just stop there for a second. Two World Cup winning captains plus Pele in the same squad. The midfield featured Terry Garbett, an Englishman who had played for Middlesbrough, Watford, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United. Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and England-born winger Steve Hunt led the attack.
By season’s end, the Cosmos would win Soccer Bowl ‘77. Beckenbauer, who had come over from Bayern Munich in May, won the MVP award. The Cosmos met their reputation head on, becoming the dominant team in the biggest season the NASL would have. The team also featured the strongest roster of any club ever to play in a domestic US tournament.
New York was going through a tumultuous summer that year. A massive blackout plunged the city into darkness for a few days in July. The “Son of Sam” murders became page one news across the country. The New York Yankees, led by Reggie Jackson, became the talk of the city and won the World Series that fall. Celebrities like Jackson hung out a Studio 54, the nightspot of the city’s rich and famous, along with Pele, Messing, and his teammates.
The Cosmos were a side that featured lots of egos, no one larger than Chinaglia. Eddie Firmani had started the season coaching Tampa Bay, but he abruptly resigned. The Cosmos, meanwhile, were in turmoil. Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley benched Chinaglia ahead of a June game. The player, furious over the decision, got the team to instead give Bradley a front office position and replaced him with Firmani. Chinaglia cemented himself as the team’s unofficial general manager. Despite the internal turmoil, defender Werner Roth recalled that the dynamic between Pele and Chinaglia, while often contentious, was one of the factors that allowed the Cosmos to succeed.
“Pele, the ultimate humble player, and Giorgio, the ultimate egotistical scoring machine,” Roth told USSoccerPlayers.com in 2012. “It mostly meshed, occasionally jammed, but when it worked it was a thing of beauty.”
Giants Stadium, the New Jersey venue the Cosmos called home, wasn’t the only place where large crowds flocked to watch soccer. Across the country, in Seattle, rabid Sounders fans went to games in record numbers to watch their heroes play. Seattle had become a soccer hotbed, something that endures to this day with the current incarnation of the club. In an interview last month with The Seattle Times, then-Sounders captain Adrian Webster looked back at those amazing home-game crowds.
“I think the pinnacle was the semifinal when we had 56,000 in the Kingdome,” Webster said of the two-game series against the Los Angeles Aztecs. “We’d gone to LA, beaten them 3-1 and then came home and finished the job. It was just electric, the crowd. And I think that was always one of the highlights for me – the relationship with the fans. It was incredible.’’
The Cosmos and Sounders met in the title match on August 28 before a capacity crowd of 35,548 at Civic Stadium in Portland, some 12,000 arriving from Seattle to cheer on the Sounders. Given what they’d experienced for clubs and countries at the highest level of the game, it was going to be tough to intimidate the Cosmos.
With 12 teams making the playoffs that season, the Cosmos knocked out the Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and Rochester Lancers. Seattle took care of Vancouver, the Minnesota Kicks, and the Aztecs to reach the championship game.
The Cosmos took the lead after just 20 minutes with Hunt, who stole the ball from goalkeeper Tony Chursky. The Sounders goalie had had placed the ball on the ground when Hunt charged at him and slotted the ball into the net before Chursky could pick it up. The blunder helped jumpstart Seattle’s attack. Five minutes later, Tommy Ord equalized. The Cosmos put the game away with 12 minutes left in the game. Hunt sent in a ball that Chinaglia, ever the opportunist in front of goal, headed the ball home for the 2-1 win. Hunt, with his goal and assist, won the game’s MVP award.
“To get to play in the final against the New York Cosmos, Pele, Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto — three World Cup winners — was just a boyhood dream,” he said. “Never did I ever think I would get the opportunity to play with and against some really great players. So, it was special.”
History does have this strange way of repeating itself. It’s not completely out of the question that a team from New York, either the Red Bulls or NYCFC, will play the Sounders in this season’s MLS Cup final. That really would be special, too.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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