By J Hutcherson - On June 23, 1975, something amazing happened. A professional soccer player graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The player was Pele and the caption read "U.S. Soccer Finds a Savior." Pele... appearing for only the second club of his career, the New York Cosmos, a team that hadn’t even existed when he won his last World Cup in 1970.
At the time, the recently retired Pele was still considered amongst the world’s best players. Refusing to participate in the 1974 World Cup, Pele ended his club career with Santos at the relatively young age of 34.
Cosmos president Clive Toye had been after Pele to play for the New York club almost since it was founded four years earlier. Pele signed with the Cosmos for $4.5 million over three years, a massive contract by American standards, before free agency had fully developed.
The Cosmos were still playing in front of sparse crowds, usually at Downing Stadium, but the effect of Pele was immediate, demand home and away became almost impossible to satisfy.
When Pele’s Cosmos met Eusebio’s Boston Minutemen in Le Roi’s second league game there was a full-scale pitch invasion at Boston’s Nickerson Field, and the game ended with Eusebio making a looping run with the ball, right past the Cosmos keeper and down the tunnel to the dressing rooms.
For better or worse, the North American Soccer League had made a splashy entrance into the American sporting landscape and the eight lean years of the league’s existence began to dim as it looked towards a bright future. It almost happened.
Fueled by interest in the world’s greatest soccer player, attendance began to rise in a league that had already grown through two successive expansions from nine teams in 1973 to 20 in 1975. All the major media markets were covered, the league was negotiating a national television contract with ABC, but then Pele retired for the second time in his club career and the league was left without its bankable star. The Pele era lasted a little over two years and after a testimonial match with his old club Santos in front of a massive Giants Stadium crowd, Pele left the NASL for good.
The league responded by expanding yet again, adding six more teams for the 1978 season while attendance at Cosmos games actually rose by 10,000 in the first year after Pele. But the cracks were already beginning to show.
Poorly planned expansion, ownership problems in far too many cities, union problems, rampant franchise movement, and increasing indication that, with a few notable exceptions, interest in the league was already beginning to wane.
The last great year was 1980, when the league enjoyed its highest average attendance of a little over 14,000, but at the end of the season three clubs went out of business. Seven more followed in ‘81, signaling the downward spiral that would leave the league with nine teams for the final ‘84 season, the same number it had in 1973.
The NASL gave a glimpse of what Major League Soccer is working towards, a league of good and great players, of teams capable of drawing big crowds and general public interest, but it exploited itself though its own success.
The North American Soccer League stands as a period in the history of the American game where some of the greatest names in world soccer played their club football in North America for clubs that have become legendary. But when people remember the Cosmos, the Mutiny, the Atoms, the Sting, the Whitecaps, the Kicks, and a host of other clubs that mattered, they tend to remember the good times and ignore the realities that for the bulk of its history, the NASL was a spectacular failure.
For all the great games and teams, there were the clubs that moved cities on an almost yearly basis, marketing and promotional schemes that bordered on the ridiculous, players who’s primary enjoyment came when their checks arrived, and a general feeling of a league looking for a purpose that it never quite found.
Was it the second-coming of the National Football League, or an attempt to establish soccer as a viable and lasting professional sport? Ultimately, it proved to be neither. Pele was not the savior of soccer in the United States, he was simply ignited a period of massive public interest that died down a few years after it started.
The real saving of U.S. soccer came later, through things like qualifying for Italia ‘90, watching as American players began to show up in the top foreign leagues, and establishing an American first division built on American players.
It’s time to create new mythologies, new saviors, and new heroes, and let the NASL rest as what it was. A league of big dreams that almost worked, a wonderful time to be a fan of professional soccer in North America, and an indication of greater things to come.