The hubbub continued when Pelé played his first North American Soccer League game, on June 15 at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River. It was a decrepit home; workers hastily painted its dirt patches green because CBS had come to televise the big debut. More than 18,000 fans, triple the previous largest crowd, shouldered their way in to watch.
At every road game during Pelé’s three North American seasons, the Cosmos attracted enormous crowds and a press contingent larger than that of any other New York team, with many journalists representing foreign networks, newspapers and news agencies. Movie and music stars — including Mick Jagger, Robert Redford and Rod Stewart — showed up for home games, lured by Warner executives’ enthusiasm for their hot new talent.
The Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium in Pelé’s final season, 1977, and there, in the Meadowlands, reached the pinnacle of their — and the league’s — popularity. For a home playoff game on Aug. 14, a crowd of 77,691 exceeded not only expectations but also capacity, squeezing into a stadium of 76,000 seats.
That season, the Cosmos had added two more global superstars, Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Carlos Alberto of Brazil. (Later, in 1979, the Los Angeles Aztecs lured a third, Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands, to the league.) Soccer seemed poised to enter the American mainstream.
But as it turned out, professional soccer was not yet ready to blossom in America, not even after the Cosmos won the 1977 league championship, in Seattle, or after Pelé’s festive farewell game in October, when he led the “Love!” chant and played one half for the Cosmos and the other half for the visiting team, his beloved Santos.
The league had expanded to 24 teams, from 18, and lacked the financial underpinnings to sustain that many games and that much travel. Nor could other teams match the Cosmos’s spending on top-quality players. The league went out of business after the 1984 season.
But at the grass-roots level, and in schools and colleges, soccer did take off. In 1991, the United States women’s national team won the first women’s World Cup. (The United States has won it three times since.) In 2002, the men’s national team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. And Major League Soccer has established itself as a sturdy successor to the N.A.S.L. (In 2011, the inaugural season of a new minor league with the N.A.S.L. name included a New York Cosmos team, of which Pelé was named honorary president.)