By J Hutcherson (Mar 24, 2020) US Soccer Players – The 1977 Cosmos normally get the nod as the best version of that club and, by extension, the best team in the history of the North American Soccer League. The NASL existed in a different era for the sport. Watching footage should reveal a few things. More time and space on the ball, legal back passes to reset through the goalkeeper, and the 35-yard offside rule used by the NASL. Those combine to create a tweaked version of the game in the 70s. If that was the era of the maverick player in Europe, the NASL doubled down on that. A playmaker mattered, unlocking defenses and allowing the attack to overload.
Let’s just get some names out of the way. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto. The Cosmos had a proto version of galacticos that made them the marquee team in the league and, arguably, the world. If you were picking between the 77 Cosmos and the 77 European Cup champions Liverpool, the obvious choice might lean the NASL’s way. That’s what happened when a big market team spent Warner Communications money to build one of the best rosters in the world. Relative to scale, the price of that squad today would be as ridiculous as it was then.
New York was at its disco era height in the summer of 77. Punk might have started to throw that into sharp contrast, but adults with money and time knew how to spend both. That was the midtown Manhattan scene that appealed to the bright lights of the Cosmos, along with the club’s direct connection to a massive entertainment conglomerate. Bugs Bunny in a Cosmos shirt was the team’s mascot. The 77 Cosmos put 62,394 into Giants Stadium on June 19 and 57,191 on the 26. That was less than what the Giants would draw that Fall but still an indication of what the Cosmos were doing that summer.
The Cosmos opened the 1977 season with a 1-0 loss at Las Vegas. A seven-game undefeated streak followed, but this was the NASL where ties didn’t exactly count. The Cosmos lost back-to-back games on April 24 and May 1 in the shootout. That season a win was worth 6 points, 1 for winning the shootout, and then up to three points for goals scored. Back-to-back losses at the end of May preceded another undefeated streak. This time it was five games with June 12 a shutout win at Minnesota. The evidence was already there for what happened in late June and into July. A June 23 loss at St Loius came three days before that home win over the LA Aztecs in front of those 57,191 fans. The Cosmos lost 5-3 at Vancouver on June 30 and 4-1 at LA on July 2. A 3-0 home win at San Jose in front of just under 32,000 was it for coach Gordon Bradley. The coaching change Cosmos management moved to bring in Eddie Firmani immediately. A seasoned NASL coach and until recently in charge of their rivals the Tampa Bay Rowdies, he wasn’t the major name some NASL teams thought was necessary. Instead, he brought in a major name, adding Carlos Alberto to the Cosmos roster. Firmini’s Cosmos lost their first game under the new coach, 1-0 at home to Seattle and then dropped a shootout at Rochester. Three home games in a row defined the 77 regular season, beating Portland 2-0 on July 17, Washington 8-2 on the 27, and Connecticut 3-1 on the 31st. That game against the Bicentennials drew the largest crowd of the three at 46,389. The Cosmos dropped their final home game of the season, 2-1 at DC, finishing 2nd in the Eastern Division of the Atlantic Conference.
Showing that everything old is somehow new again in American soccer, the Cosmos relocated for their opening round playoff game. They moved to Yankee Stadium where they shutout the Rowdies 3-0 on August 10 in front of 57,828. The Yankees themselves were about to embark on a pennant run that would take out the Boston Red Sox in a classic matchup. The New York sports market in the Fall of ’77 was working towards a high. Back at Giants Stadium in the next round, the Cosmos were up against the Eastern Division champion Fort Lauderdale Strikers on August 14. In the screwy points system in play that season, the Strikers finished with 161 points from 26 games, 21 ahead of the Cosmos. That didn’t carry into the playoffs with the Cosmos winning 8-3 at home. This is the version of the Cosmos everybody remembers. A mammoth win in front of a packed Giants Stadium with 77.691 in attendance. The Cosmos took the second game by shootout after finishing 2-2 on August 17. Rochester waited in the next round with the Cosmos winning 2-1 away on August 21 and 4-1 in front of 73,669 at home on the 24. Chinaglia scored in every game of the playoffs.
Soccer Bowl ’77
Pele’s swansong happened in Portland, with Civic Stadium hosting the final and drawing an above capacity crowd of 35,548. Portland’s good friends Seattle advanced from the other side of the bracket. Seattle had finished third in the Western Division of the Pacific Conference, a point behind Vancouver and 14 points back of Minnesota’s 137 points. That would’ve had the Kicks finishing third in the Southern Division of the Pacific Conference. That inter-conference disparity wasn’t just a Western problem. The Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference had no team that would’ve made the playoffs in the Eastern Division. It’s no surprise to anybody who saw Seattle that season that two of their defenders represented them on the All-Star team. Beckenbauer and Pele were the Cosmos representatives with Beckenbauer winning the league MVP. On August 28 in Portland it was the Cosmos taking the lead through a Steve Hunt goal in the 20th minute. Seattle equalized through Tommy Ord in the 24th. Once again, it was Chinaglia scoring for the Cosmos with his 78th minute goal sealing the 2-1 win. Pele lifted the trophy in the final game and the Cosmos exited as champions, but how good were they really?
The biggest game of the season
Pele wasn’t done, playing his finale back at Giants Stadium against his former club Santos. A half spent with each team saw him exit as the champion he was, in front of another packed stadium. It was his final game as a pro, technically a friendly but more like the farewell he deserved for unquestioned contributions to the game. It was without question the biggest event involving an NASL team in 1977, part of the larger issue with how to judge that version of the Cosmos. the NASL regular season was a relatively short run, starting in mid-March and over at the end of August. Most teams made up for the lack of dates by adding more. The Cosmos were on the road at the Caribbean All-Stars on September 1, embarking on a swing that would take them to Japan and China before returning for Pele’s farewell on October 1. The next day, the Yankees played the Red Sox in a one-game playoff that would go down in history as the Bucky “Bleeping” Dent game. The Yankees would go onto win the World Series. The Cosmos held their own that season, drawing those remarkable crowds and holding attention through Pele’s finale.
The rest of the league
As a marketing device, the Cosmos were in full flight in ’77. They were the biggest away draw in the league, even though they played NASL games home and away with less than 20,000. Why are we so stuck on the attendance numbers? It’s the appearance vs reality situation the Cosmos dealt with in ’77. They played games home and away that drew less than 20k, including at Fort Lauderdale in the playoffs. The NASL as a league was already beginning to tilt through over-expansion and lack of the same interest across their markets. Connecticut hosted a league game that season that drew an announced crowd of 1100 people. Boston and Philadelphia both closed before the start of the season. By the end, the league would be without Pele. Though they had the next names on the list for world’s greatest player with Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff moving to the league in 1978, times were getting tough. That played out in ’77 with some teams not competitive in a league where three out of every four teams in the divisions made the playoffs. There’s a version of the Cosmos story that they were looking for teams worth playing and not finding it in the NASL. Instead, their biggest games were friendlies and later the Trans-Atlantic Cup. That may not be fair to the NASL, but the difference in strength of squad was tough to ignore. Imagine if George Best and later Cruyff ended up with the Cosmos as planned.
So how good were the ’77 Cosmos?
Good enough to come back from a rough patch to win the Soccer Bowl, but not quite living up to their own reputations. Any team with Chinaglia in the lineup would be dependent on his output. That wasn’t such an issue in ’77 in a lineup with Beckenbauer and Pele. Beckenbauer in particular was still innovative in his self-determined role. The 35-yard offside line limited the need for a true playmaking midfielder, but that was the NASL style and the Cosmos played to it. Insert them into any of the major European leagues and they’re certainly competitive, but not dominant. They weren’t dominant in the NASL either, but still managed to show a version of an American soccer club likely unattainable anywhere else. It’s that aspect of the story that still resonates, the big city team showing that they could make it there.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of the Cosmos