Soccer’s explosion into vogue in USA in the late 1970s was indebted to the Cosmos. In 1974, the New York outfit had averaged attendances of just 3,578, but when they lured the incomparable Pele out of retirement the following year, they rocketed into a supporter-seducing hype machine.
This forced the Cosmos to move home to accommodate their popularity – not once, but twice. The second of these was the newly-erected Giants Stadium, which regularly played host to capacity crowds for New York Giants matches.
But the Cosmos threatened to lift soccer’s popularity to the level of American football. In June 1977, indeed, 62,394 – a record for a North American Soccer League game - turned up there to watch Eddie Firmani’s side beat Tampa Bay Rowdies, and when Fort Lauderdale Strikers visited the Big Apple two months later, that landmark was shattered by the 77,691 in attendance.
It was not the only record that would fall 35 years ago to this day, when the Cosmos met the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the first leg of a conference semi-final, yet nobody could have foreseen the goal-fest that would create the others.
We were just unstoppable that day. It was then that I knew the title would be ours.
The Strikers had, after all, the best record from the regular season, and easily the best defence. Moreover, their net was guarded by Gordon Banks, who was en route to being named the NASL’s top goalkeeper and, despite his 39 years, was described pre-match by Pele as “still the best goalkeeper in the world”.
However, just 97 seconds were on the clock when Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia combined to set up Steve Hunt for the deadlock-breaker, and ten minutes later, Franz Beckenbauer made it 2-0. The reigning FIFA World Cup™-winning captain then turned provider for Chinaglia to increase the Cosmos’ lead, and after Maurice Whittle had pulled one back for the Strikers, Hunt ensured the hosts carried a 4-1 lead at the interval.
Within a 54-second period after the restart, two rearguard-piercing Carlos Alberto passes had enabled Tony Field and Chinaglia to put the Cosmos 6-1 up, before the Italian striker completed his hat-trick.
The Strikers reduced the deficit through Norman Piper, but it did not concern Cosmos coach Firmani, who gave Pele and Beckenbauer an early rest. In the 68th minute, young substitute Gary Etherington got the Cosmos’ eighth and last goal, with another Whittle effort doing little to spoil the jubilant mood.
A record crowd had witnessed Chinaglia become the first man to net a hat-trick, and the Cosmos the first team to score eight times, in a play-off game in the competition’s tenth edition.
“The atmosphere was wonderful, better than anything we had experienced in America,” said Carlos Alberto afterwards. “We really wanted to put on a show, but none of us expected to put on such a show against such a strong, well-organised team. We were just unstoppable that day. It was then that I knew the title would be ours.”
Later that month, it was. And while the 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders in the Soccer Bowl was the most important of Pele’s tenure as the Cosmos No10, the most exhilarating was certainly that 8-3 thrashing of the Strikers.