In our new book Soccer in a Football World, David Wangerin charts the troubled history of the game in the United States. In this extract he chronicles the short-lived euphoria that surrounded the NASL, the league that brought Pelé, Beckenbauer and Muhammad Ali to New Jersey, but still ultimately failed to ignite nationwide interest in ‘soccer’

Having convinced Pelé to come out of retirement for an unprecedented amount of money, Warner Brothers saw no reason why a similar offer wouldn’t entice Franz Beckenbauer. Initially, Beckenbauer insisted the earliest he would come was after the 1978 World Cup, but an offer of about $2.8 million over four years helped change his mind. He arrived in New York in May 1977. Few could see it, but the Cosmos and the league had begun to take leave of their senses. If Pelé’s arrival had boosted the NASL, Beckenbauer’s signalled one club’s intention to overwhelm it. Some were sceptical of his appeal. “He’s a great player, don’t get me wrong,” Giorgio Chinaglia brooded. “But is he going to help us with the crowds? No. He won’t draw in this country.”

As it turned out, fans flocked to see the Cosmos that season, with or without their new star. More than 45,000 witnessed Beckenbauer’s league debut, a 4-2 defeat in Tampa. When the two teams met a month later at Giants Stadium, Pelé scored a hat-trick in front of an eye-popping 62,394, a figure that prompted the head of the USSF to claim, somewhat thoughtlessly: “When they write the history of soccer in this country, that afternoon will be Day One in all the books.” It wouldn’t, because Day Ones kept cropping up. On one memorable Sunday the Cosmos even outdrew the Yankees, with a gate of 57,000. Admittedly, they did not play 81 times at home, as their baseball rivals did, but the Yankees went on to win the World Series that year and there wasn’t a serious sports fan in the nation who couldn’t recite most of their starting line-up. The Cosmos, on the other hand, used 26 players during the season, some famous, such as Brazil World Cup defender Carlos Alberto, some unheralded, such as English striker Steve Hunt – an emerging star – and others, such as Bosnian Jadranko Topic and Brazil’s Rildo, who disappeared after a handful of matches.

The unprecedented number of fans flocking to Giants Stadium at last established a presence where the NASL needed it most. Elsewhere, a familiar ratio of failures remained. Membership had declined to 18 clubs, with the passing of Boston and Philadelphia, and the league began to show a proclivity for hasty franchise relocations and daft nicknames. Miami moved up the coast to a smaller market in Fort Lauderdale and renamed themselves the Strikers. Hartford became Connecticut after a move 40 miles to Yale University, but remained the Bicentennials even though the nation was now well past its 200th birthday. The San Diego Jaws migrated to Las Vegas as the Quicksilvers – or was it the Quicksilver? – and the San Antonio Thunder moved to Honolulu, where they gave up on nicknames to become Team Hawaii.

Most of the new entries were short-lived. Hawaii, a logistical nightmare, became a dismal one-season experiment. Las Vegas finished last in their division and then left Nevada, while Connecticut disappeared after playing to the league’s smallest crowds. Only Fort Lauderdale showed any real promise. Ron Newman, their coach, gave the club a predictably English look, emphasising fitness and a tight defence. Gordon Banks came out of retirement, despite having lost the sight in one eye in a road crash, and played capably enough to be named in the league’s all-star team – though not without misgivings (“I felt like a circus act: ‘Roll up, roll up to see the greatest one-eyed goalkeeper in the world’.”). Seemingly headed for Soccer Bowl 77 as the latest first-year success story, they were undone on the soggy artificial pitch of Giants Stadium by a Cosmos team at its free-flowing best. With Beckenbauer playing in front of Carlos Alberto, and Chinaglia, Hunt and Tony Field combining up front, the home side pumped eight goals past Banks, all but eliminating the Strikers before the return leg.

The wild 8-3 scoreline was witnessed by an audience even the Cosmos’ NFL cohabitees failed to match that year: 77,691, a figure soon to assume iconic status in American soccer. For years to come, the illuminated proclamation of the Giants Stadium scoreboard that August evening would be reproduced whenever the NASL’s “meteoric” rise was charted – something that now began to happen with increasing frequency.

Often misconstrued as the new incarnation of American soccer, the exceptional Cosmos and their sudden throng of fans distracted attention away from more earnest upsurges. An appreciable proportion of Dallas began to follow the Tornado, whose combination of American and imported talent claimed a divisional title. Yet average crowds of 16,500, respectable as they might be, did not make for good copy when four times as many were turning East Rutherford, New Jersey, into the soccer capital of the continent. Nearly 74,000 returned for the Cosmos’ next home play-off match against the Rochester Lancers and the 4-1 victory sent them into Soccer Bowl 77. The next day, Seattle drew more than 56,000 to the Kingdome and reached the final by beating Los Angeles 1-0.

Suddenly, the modest 27,000 capacity of Portland’s Civic Stadium, the venue for Soccer Bowl 77, seemed utterly inadequate. Temporary seats accommodated an extra 8,500, but with the match promoted as Pelé’s last competitive appearance they were scarcely enough. A mistake handed the Cosmos an early lead. Tony Chursky, Seattle’s Canadian goalkeeper (who attracted the attention of sportswriters by admitting to practising ballet to help his game), rolled the ball to the edge of his penalty area, only for Hunt to steal in and whack it into the net. The Sounders quickly equalised, but ten minutes from time Chinaglia won the match with a rare headed goal. Pelé’s American sojourn had ended as most had hoped. “God has been kind to me; now I can die,” he declared, having exchanged his jersey with the Sounders’ Seattle-born defender Jim McAlister, a kind of torch passed to the nation’s own young talent.

Two months later, a friendly at Giants Stadium between the Cosmos and Santos saw Pelé “returned to the people of Brazil”, playing a half for each team in a rainstorm that was braved by 75,000. ABC got in on the act, broadcasting its first live match and stage-managing proceedings with the help of such theoretical soccer fans as Danny Kaye, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and an elaborate ceremony involving Muhammad Ali and a host of others that threatened to supplant the actual game. But the charisma of the retiree shone through. Pelé scored, waved to the soggy crowd, burst into tears and was carried off the pitch as, some poetically claimed, “God cried”.

His mission seemed accomplished. Soccer had never been so popular. While the joy of playing it had been obvious for some time, Pelé had heightened interest in watching and reporting on it. Newspapers across the country now carried NASL results and wrote features on college and high-school teams, printing photos invariably captioned with a reference to players “getting their kicks”. Magazines with titles such as Soccer Corner and Soccer Express appeared on newsstands. Bookstores made space for All About Soccer, Inside Soccer and The International Book of Soccer. The unfailing cultural barometer of television advertising now featured soccer players muddying their clothes or working up a thirst for the benefit of commerce.

What some had prophesied in 1967 as “instant major league” had come to pass – it had just taken a few years longer than expected. Yet the handsome mansion the NASL had built for itself still lacked a sturdy foundation. Nobody had made any money yet, least of all the Cosmos, and most of the league’s membership remained anonymous outside a tiny circle of obsessive fans. But in the infectious spirit of the times, these seemed little more than bothersome details. Surely, soccer’s time had finally come.

From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month

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