The New York Cosmos weren’t always “The Cosmos!” Before the arrival of Pele in 1975, they were something less, despite their 1972 NASL title. In 1974, they finished 13th out of 15 teams in the regular-season standings. They weren’t much better in 1975, when Pele joined them in mid-season, finishing 12th out of 20. Before the day Pele stepped onto the field, the Cosmos had played 60 NASL home games and drawn a crowd of more than 10,000 only once.
Things turned around slowly once Pele joined the Cosmos in June 1975. His presence for part of the season helped to boost their 1975 home attendance to an unexciting season average of 10,540. In 1976 they moved from Randall’s Island to Yankee Stadium, and the attendance average rose to 18,571. Their results on the field in those two seasons were nothing special. In 1975, they failed to make the playoffs for the third straight year. In 1976, they did well in the regular season but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.
Although the home attendance figures were still unspectacular, they had begun to draw well on the road, where Pele was more of a novelty than he was in New York. In 1976, the Cosmos drew crowds of 58,128 in Seattle, 42,311 in Tampa, 46,164 in Minnesota and 32,247 in Portland. The first of those broke the 50-year-old record for attendance at a soccer game in the United States.
In 1976, the Cosmos had made some improvements to Pele’s supporting cast, adding Giorgio Chinaglia of Italy, Ramon Mifflin of Peru and Nelsi Morais of Brazil, and they added a few more, such as Englishmen Terry Garbett and Steve Hunt at the start of the 1977 season. Nevertheless, home attendance was still sluggish through much of the spring of 1977, and the wisdom of having moved from Yankee Stadium to the Meadowlands was still in doubt. Attendance at the Cosmos’ first five home games of 1977 averaged 20,381, and the home opener drew fewer than the home opener a year before at Yankee Stadium had.
In late May, Franz Beckenbauer arrived, and the addition of the German superstar seemed to make a difference. Beckenbauer made his debut for the Cosmos on the road, in front of 45,288 in Tampa. For his first game at home, against the Toronto Metros on June 5, the Cosmos drew 31,208, their biggest crowd ever at home and the beginning of their amazing streak of 70 consecutive NASL home games at which they drew crowds of 30,000 or more. That streak, which may be the most remarkable legacy of the Cosmos, more than any of their on-the-field successes, lasted into the 1981 season. A week later, for a game against the Minnesota Kicks, it was 36,816, another home-game record. And on June 19, Father’s Day, a crowd of 62,394 came out for a game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. That was the day when the Cosmos and the NASL realized that something extraordinary was happening.
The Cosmos’ home crowds for the rest of that 1977 NASL season were more of the same: 57,191 against Los Angeles on June 26; 31,875 against San Jose on July 6; 41,205 against Portland on July 17 (Carlos Alberto’s Cosmos debut); 34,189 against Washington on July 27; 46,389 against Connecticut on July 31; 57,828 against Tampa Bay on Aug. 10; 77,691 against Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 14, and 73,669 against Rochester on Aug. 24.
Ironically, the crowd that many in New York considered the most important of those was not one of the record-breakers. It was the 31,875 who came out on July 6 to see the Cosmos play on a rainy week night against a 9-9 opponent in a game that was on local television.
The Cosmos may not have always been “The Cosmos!” but by the end of the 1977 season, in which they won their second NASL title, they definitely were.
A version of this post originally appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on June 27, 2011