The world has lost a true icon as the legendary Pele passed away in his native Brazil on Thursday.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the Brazilian maestro dazzled the world in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, winning three World Cup titles during that period. And he spent almost 20 years making 636 appearances with Santos in his homeland – but his three seasons with the New York Cosmos had perhaps the biggest impact on the sport.
Pele in America: His Legacy
Pele arrived in the USA in 1975, signing with the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. The league had been around since 1968, and the Cosmos themselves since 1971, but Pele was a watershed moment for both entities and the game in America.
Pele arrived on these shores already established as legend. Three World Cups and a prestigious tenure at Santos has already cemented his status as the world’s greatest player. But when foreign stars signed in the US like today, they were legends many Americans had never seen before. A true legend. Unless you can catch newsreel footage of the World Cup once in a blue moon, even avid soccer fans in the US have never actually seen Pele play. It was as if Babe Ruth had magically signed with the Yankees to play in front of a generation that had only read about her in stories.
How Pele Turned the Sport Around in the US
A wonderful documentary Once in a lifetime Describes his time in New York. From green-painted fields to wild parties at Studio 54, NFL sold out stadiums to tricked-out high school fields, his tenure in America is the opposite. But his play lived up to the hype. He scored 37 goals in his 64 appearances and guided the Cosmos to the 1977 Soccer Bowl title. His final competitive game was that championship game, a 2–1 win over the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park in Portland, OR.
However, Pele’s influence goes far beyond the bright lights of The Big Apple. His signing opened the floodgates for more international stars to join the NASL. Johann Crieff. George Best. Franz Beckenbauer. Gerd Müller. Carlos Alberto. Gordon Banks. For a brief, shining moment in the late 70s and early 80s, the game’s undeniable gods plied their trade in the USA. These stars boosted attendance and viewership for the league.
The Cosmos in particular set records that stand to this day (the 1977 crowd of 77,891 at Giants Stadium remains the largest attendance ever for a domestic, independent game between two American soccer teams).
And while the finances and fortunes of the original NASL did not last, Peele’s legacy and those who followed him had a huge impact on the game. Youth soccer participation in the United States skyrocketed in the 1970s as the sport suddenly became a mainstream game. While the league failed in the mid-80s, the grassroots game remained as strong as ever, with millions of kids playing soccer in every corner of the country.
On the professional side, when there were dark times post-NASL, the seeds planted in those rockstar days bore fruit down the line. Many of the clubs Pele played against, including the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes and others, would be reborn in later years and still play today. The foundations laid by Pele and the NASL in the late 70s built upon the soccer infrastructure and stalwart fan base we enjoy in this country today.
Pele in the rebirth of the NASL
The nostalgia factor of the old NASL prompted a reboot of both the league and the Cosmos in the 2010s. The legend himself was on hand when the Cosmos returned to the field after 30 years in August 2013, taking on another NASL descendant, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, in Hempstead, NY. The Cosmos would go on to pull off a dramatic late win in that game. This was a match where I would support the strikers on the road. Regardless of the result, the atmosphere, two historic clubs and seeing such a hugely important man in person was surreal. It was like seeing a superhero in real life.
Unfortunately it was another fleeting moment for fans, as the modern NASL, neither the Cosmos nor the Strikers, existed in any meaningful way just nine short years after that game.
But aside from the lingering crises in the domestic game, it cannot be overstated how permanently Pelé’s arrival changed the soccer landscape in America. A similar landmark was David Beckham’s signing with LA Galaxy in 2007, creating a travel frenzy wherever he went and packing stadiums across the nation. But that wouldn’t have been possible if Peele hadn’t first conquered these shores all those years ago.
His achievements in Brazil with the national team and Santos were remarkable, had he never existed, both that nation and the club would surely have won many more titles, played remarkable football and produced brilliant players. But in America, Pele’s arrival and legacy changed the game forever, igniting the spark that led to five decades of rapid progress in the sport of soccer. Without Pele, the sport in the United States might not be where it is today. Without Pele, MLS never happened.
The man may be gone, but his name and spirit will live on in the sport forever.
Photo credit: Imago