It’s 1975, and the New York Cosmos of the NASL have just signed Pelé himself.
Immediately, the presence of the world’s most famous player brought immense media attention to the league.
With that media attention came a respectability and acknowledgement from the soccer community, a sense that maybe the Americans actually had done something right. A sense that maybe the NASL was something big after all.
Pelé’s signing helped the league in plenty of other ways. Huge crowds would travel to anywhere the Cosmos played just to catch a glimpse of the star. Pelé’s debut for New York drew a television audience of ten million people, and during his time at the club the Cosmos regularly drew upwards of 40,000 people to their matches.
New York would not only sign Pelé, but develop a selection of several all-time greats. Admittedly aging greats nearing the end of their careers, but greats none the less.
Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto were among the names signed by New York alongside Pelé. All quality, if not legendary, players.
Interestingly, the Italian Chinaglia was signed while in the prime of his career, in contrast to most of New York’s past-their-prime stars.
These players and more brought immense success to the Cosmos. Five league titles in ten years. Seven regular season championship in eleven years. Plus countless runner-up finishes and tournament trophies.
But what about the rest of the league? What could they do to compete?
Beginning of the End
The solution seemed to be obvious. Spend even more money on even more big names nearing the end of their careers. Big names bring in more fans, which brings in more money. What else could they do?
The rest of the league certainly did not slouch when it came to attracting players. George Best. Johan Cyruff. Geoff Hurst. All superstars. Superstars who happened to be nearing retirement, but just what the league needed to attract even more fans.
The problem was, as usual, money. The NASL as a whole was spending on average 70% of team budgets on player salaries. Money issues were bound to happen, and the league’s seemingly endless expansion didn’t help. In 1973, the league had nine teams. By 1975, twenty teams.
Although the NASL decreased to only eighteen teams by 1977, a group of owners encouraged the league to drop the weaker clubs and continue with only six teams. Their plan called for the NASL to expand at a much slower rate and focus on building up the league’s core teams, such as the Cosmos and Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Tornado.
Instead, the league added yet another six clubs for the 1978 season for a total of twenty four teams. That would be the most teams the NASL would ever field.
A Painful Death
Overexpansion isn’t the only thing that killed the NASL, but it certainly played a factor. Looking back, it seems crazy for the league to expand like they did. But it isn’t so simple. During that ’78 round of expansion, each new club paid a three million dollar expansion fee. Adjusted for inflation, that would be nearly twelve million dollars per franchise.
Money was hard to ignore for a struggling league. Unfortunately, many of the incoming owners new little about the soccer side of the business. They bought into it because it looked successful, and bailed as soon as they started losing money. That lead to more expansion to replace the lost teams and revenue, creating a cycle. A cycle of losing money, over and over again.
By the early 1980s, the quality of play was as high as it had ever been in the NASL. But the finances weren’t up to the same standard. Teams were folding left and right, and the 1980 economic recession certainly didn’t help.
In 1980, every single NASL team lost money. The same thing happened in 1981, with the Atlanta Chiefs alone losing seven million dollars.
At the same time, the league was combating issues with the NASL player’s union and the threat of the popular Major Indoor Soccer League.
In the end, it all was just too much for the NASL to bear. The league gave a last-ditch effort in 1984 to slow its demise through adoption of a salary cap and reduction of roster sizes, but it was far too little, too late.
The 1985 NASL season was cancelled after only two teams were ready to play. The league planned to return refreshed for the 1986 season. It didn’t.
Realizing the writing was on the wall, whatever teams that hadn’t already dissolved immediately jumped to other leagues.
The Chicago Sting and the New York Cosmos were two of the NASL’s best franchises when the league ended. Both left for the MISL along with most of the surviving NASL teams.
The Chicago Sting folded in 1988, as did several other clubs including the Minnesota Strikers and the San Jose Earthquakes.
The New York Cosmos briefly competed in the MISL for the 1984-1985 season, but low attendance forced them to withdraw. They attempted to compete as an outdoor independent team in 1985, but they never played a game.
It seemed like even the best weren’t immune.
Several former NASL teams didn’t even last a full season. The Tulsa Roughnecks tried to complete an independent schedule in 1985, but only played eleven games before folding.
However, two notable outliers managed to keep the memory of the league alive. The Tampa Bay Rowdies managed to play indoors until 1994, while the San Diego Sockers managed to somehow survive playing outdoors until 1996.
Suddenly, it was all over. The San Diego Sockers were no more. From Sports Illustrated covers, to the eyes of the world on Pelé, to the rise of soccer in America, the last survivor of the league had finally folded.
Twelve years after it ceased to exist, the last link to the NASL was gone.
This is the second piece in a three part series on the history of the NASL and its lasting effects. Read part one and part three in order to get the full story.
And as always, be sure to check out GritDaily’s sports coverage!