The NASL: Can Soccer Be Viable in the US?

By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman and Lucas Nevola
Edited and Updated by Matthew Darlow (2013)

Photo Credit: BBC UK

When David Beckham signed his lucrative contract to play soccer in the United States for the Los Angeles Galaxy, people wondered—could this be what American soccer needed?  Could a star player transform the athletic landscape to one where “football” and “pitch” had two different meanings? If only those people had looked to the past and realized that we had seen this act before — one performed by a player more famous and more skilled. In 1975, Pele, the greatest player in soccer history, signed with the New York Cosmos, a ragtag team composed of mostly American amateurs.  If anyone could make Americans appreciate a game that the world considered its favorite, it was Pele.

He used his charisma and skill to draw in fans, increasing crowd size from roughly fifty people to seventy thousand.  But soccer’s commercial success was as fleeting as a cosmic ray.  Soon after Pele left New York, soccer left the hearts of New Yorkers.

The story of Pele’s trek to the United States begins with a rich executive.  Steve Ross created the New York Cosmos from scratch, and by doing so he saved the entire league they played in.  With a few friends of his, the rich Warner Communications titan created the New York Cosmos.  They joined the struggling NASL—the North American Soccer League—with the main goal of making money.  “We knew that if the league was going to be a success,” said Clive Toye, who co-founded the NASL in 1967, “we had to have a successful New York franchise.”[1] Soccer was huge in other countries, and thinking as the capitalist he was, Ross thought soccer could make money here.  But while his desire for commercial success was very American, the sport he chose was not.  The NASL struggled in its beginnings because people saw the sport as foreign. The league struggled to get anyone to attend games.  When the Cosmos were created in 1971, their attendance was no different than any other team’s. “We’re sitting out in the stands in the pouring rain with 50-100 people watching the game,” said Mark Ross, son of Steve Ross.  “My father’s running down on the sidelines giving players towels to wash off.”[2]

The Cosmos needed a way to attract fans, and Pele had just finished his career for the soccer club Santos.

But when Pele retired he made it clear that he wanted to leave the game having only played for that one club.  He did not care about money.  What eventually convinced him to change his mind was the challenge of building up a sport from nothing.  Pele said of his decisions to travel to America: “It really felt like the start of something, like something exciting and fun to be a part of… bring[ing] a little samba to the Big Apple.”[3] Of course Pele was paid handsomely, anywhere from four million to seven million depending on who you believe.

Almost immediately the Cosmos were news.  The press conference to announce the signing was pandemonium.  “As the flashbulbs popped and Pele posed,” said Gavin Newsham, author of a biography of the Cosmos, “the sound of glass shattering caught [Pele’s] attention.  As the media scrum battled to secure the best picture of the Cosmos new recruit, two rival photographers had started fighting, turning over a glass-topped table as they grappled.”[4] Pele was a superstar, and the media loved it.  Like any true superstar should, Pele had shown up to the conference two hours late.  After he arrived, no one cared.  People showed up in droves for Pele’s first game.  “The guys worth 4 million dollars—I got to see him,” said one new fan outside the stadium.[5]

This soccer honeymoon didn’t seem to end.  With increased ticket sales, the Cosmos were allowed to move to Yankee Stadium in 1976 and eventually Giant Stadium in 1977.  The Cosmos’ average attendance eventually grew to over 34 thousand people per game.  The rest of the league was doing better as well, although there were signs of trouble ahead.  The Cosmos were leaving other teams in the dust; teams like the “Connecticut Bicentennials” and “Team Hawaii” attracted on average only 3,848 and 4,550 fans per game.[6]

Photo credit: SI Online

But, on the whole, 1977 was a magical year for the Cosmos and Soccer.  The Cosmos were winning, and soccer was winning over the average American sports fan.  Now famous ESPN reporter Tony Kornheiser declared in 1977 that soccer was “no longer an ‘immigrant’ sport,” and went on to marvel at the crowd sizes.  “The Cosmos drew 62,394 fans to Giant Stadium,” said Kornheiser. “The impact of the crowd was such that, Mike Martin, the general manager of the Cosmos, was shivering with excitement when he announced the attendance.”[7] Soccer enthusiasts in America always say if our soccer leagues had the talent of other leagues, the fans would come.  This is what happened for the Cosmos.  With their success, New York began to sign other famous players including Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer.  With their help, the Cosmos surged to the 1977 championship, which was to be Pele’s last non-exhibition game.  All of Pele’s teammates wanted to make sure they won that game for the sake of the man who was probably the sole reason they had jobs in America.  “It is Pele’s final year and we’d like him to leave the way he deserves to leave,” said Cosmos’ defender Werner Roth. “As a champion.”[8] Chinaglia made sure the Cosmos followed through by scoring a tie-breaking goal in the 81st minute.

Pele had a triumphant close to his career, and for a few years it seemed like the best soccer player in the world had become the best soccer ambassador in the world. Did Pele actually do the impossible?   In 1979 the Pope visited New York.  The main attraction? A meeting with Pele where he presented the pontiff with a signed soccer ball.[9] Was soccer finally mainstream?  Not exactly.  In the coming years it would be found out that the all-star roster assembled in New York cost money.  Even with the record crowds the Cosmos were not exactly a viable business.  At a meeting Steve Ross boldly claimed that all his lavish spending only cost the shareholder “two cents a share.”[10] What no one understood was that all those shares added up to millions of dollars in losses.  With Pele no longer on the field, the NASL began to crumble.

The crowds held for a few years after Pele’s retirement, but by the time the league folded in 1984 the numbers were near those at the beginning.  Overspending had done the Cosmos in.  Even when they outdrew other teams, their payroll was so high they still couldn’t balance their books.  The team tried to promote Beckenbauer as the new star of the club,[11] but the fans did not appreciate the attacking German the same way they appreciated the finesse Brazilian.  With the Cosmos going under, the NASL had no chance. (Map below courtesy of

The NASL at its height.  Image courtesy of

The NASL at its height. Image courtesy of Click for larger image

The fact that great American soccer ever existed is a surprise to some, but it did exist.  And it was great.  The most magical year was probably 1977, with record crowds and Pele winning the championship in his final game.  Soccer had made it—the only thing that could tear it down was a cosmic collapse. Unfortunately, that is what happened.  But, at least for a fleeting moment, all had been right in the soccer world. James M. Curley called 1977 “The summer of our lives.”[12]

When people say soccer can never make it in America, they are wrong.  Americans are attracted to the greatest of things.  When we have the best of something, we support it.

Want more information?  Click here for a documentary about the New York Cosmos called Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.

Click here to return to the main “The Soccer Market in the U.S.” page.

How to cite this article: Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman and Lucas Nevola, “The NASL: Can Soccer Be Viable in the US?,” Soccer Politics Pages, (accessed on (date)).

[1] Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. Dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower. Passion Pictures. 2006.

[2] Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. Dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower. Passion Pictures. 2006.

[3] Pele The Autobiography.  215

[4] Newsham, Gavin. Once In a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos. New York: Grove Press, 2006.  61.

[5] Once In a Lifetime. Dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower.

[6] “North American Soccer League (NASL) 1967-1984”. Dave Litterer. 8 Feb. 2005.  12 Oct. 2009.  <>.

[7] Kornheiser, Tony. “Americans Have Adopted Soccer, No Longer an ‘Immigrant’ Sport”. The New York Times. 5 July 1977. 61.

[8] Once In a Lifetime. Dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower.

[9] Fentress, Calvin. “Popery Potpourri: Pontiff Fever Hits New York”. New York Magazine. 8 Oct. 1979. 11.

[10] Once In a Lifetime. Dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower.

[11] Yannis, Alex. “The Americanization of Beckenbauer”. The New York Times. 21 May 1978. S10.

[12] Curley, James M. “The Summer of Our Lives”. The New York Times. 28 May 1978

3 thoughts on “The NASL: Can Soccer Be Viable in the US?

  1. Pingback: 10 Failed Sports Leagues That Changed The Game | ratermob

  2. Pingback: Soccer: A viable product for the U.S sports market? | All Sports All Business

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *