FROM BASEBALL DIAMONDS TO SOCCER FIELDS
Words by Stephen Brandt
When someone asks you about the history of football in America, they just gloss over the NASL as that league that failed. The North American Soccer League had been around since the mid 1960s, but didn’t really pick up steam until US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger went to Brazil to bring up Pele’s transfer to the New York Cosmos. The military government of Brazil had declared Pele a National Treasure, a designation that prohibited the superstar from being transferred to a club outside Brazil. It took Steve Ross, chairman of Warner Communications (now Time Warner) years to get him. Eventually Ross sent team president Clive Toye and Nesuhi Ertegun (the co-founder of the incredibly successful Atlantic Records) to Brazil to get his man. Ross’ effort was also helped along by Kissinger, who was a well known soccer fan and Cosmos booster. “If this offer had come from West Germany, Italy, Spain or even Brazil, I would have said no,” the great Pele told reporters in 1975, just a few days before completing his move to the Cosmos. “But to play in the United States will be a different principle. I feel I can give something to U.S. soccer.”
It was rumoured that both George Best and Johan Cruyff were to sign with them too, but both ended up ironically with the LA Aztecs albeit at different times. Players came to the States, like they do now, to become anonymous, and live normal lives.
This was another stocked roster for the Cosmos. 1977 was also a year where the managers were changed, which was something that would become a common theme in their existence. Gordon Bradley was on his second stint with the club as manager in 1977 before he was fired mid-season for ex-Tampa Bay Rowdies manager Eddie Firmani. The reasoning behind the switching of managers has been the stuff of legends. The book Once in A Lifetime, and the follow up documentary puts forth the rumour that Giorgio Chinaglia went to the board of the Cosmos and demanded Bradley to be fired. Since most of the people surrounding the club are gone or very old now we will never know. Firmani is still alive. This was to be Pele’s last year as an active player, so the playoffs were an important part of the Cosmos season. They wanted to send the legend out on a good note.
But it wasn’t all about the Cosmos, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were also very good. They were led by future USA Soccer Hall of Famer Ron Newman as their head coach. They had some very good players, England World Cup Winning Goalkeeper Gordon Banks was one of the stars, former Newcastle United midfielder Ray Hudson another one of the great players. Hudson went on to coach in the USA, and is a pundit here in the States. They were first in the Eastern Conference and got the first round bye into the Divisional Championship where they met the Cosmos.
Their match-up would be on August 14, 1977 in Giants Stadium, and it would hold the record for the highest attendance in US Soccer with 77,691 until MLS brought Atlanta United in, and they kept topping in mid 2000’s. Back to the game, the Cosmos were very powerful at the time and handled the Strikers 8-3. This was a two legged affair, which days later the Cosmos won also.
The 8-3 match had three goals from Giorgio Chinaglia, two by Stephen Hunt, one by Franz Beckenbauer and Tony Field, and the last goal was by a young kid, signed out of a Virginia High School, Gary Etherington. The Cosmos would end up going to the Soccer Bowl against Seattle, winning their second Soccer Bowl, and sending Pele out as a winner.
The league folded for good in 1985, when most of the clubs had gone defunct. The Cosmos tried to stay around for a bit by being a barnstorming team, but failed. They really didn’t go away, though, as former GM Pepe Pinton owned the Cosmos’ name, and everything else with it. He’d trot the name out for camps in New Jersey.
Finally, after many attempts in 2010 the Cosmos were brought back, this time of the new NASL. The new Cosmos have been very successful, winning many titles. They even survived the NASL folding and going down to the NPSL. Many of the players in the old NASL would stay in the States. Ron Newman eventually settled into a career with the San Diego Sockers where he became a legend in the indoor game. Alan Hinton played for the old Sounders, and is currently a pundit here in the States. Thomas Rongen would coach all over the United States, become an actor in Next Goal Wins, and is now a pundit. Rodney Marsh would settle down after a minor coaching career to punditry.
“When I was a kid and you flew across the country,” Cosmos Historian Dr. David Kilpatrick told the club website in 2015, “you saw a bunch of baseball diamonds. Now, you see soccer fields and that’s because of Pele and his signing with the Cosmos. He and the club literally changed the landscape in America.”