By Michael Lewis
Little did anyone realize that when the New York Cosmos kicked off the 1977 North American Soccer League season on April 17 how much of a rollercoaster ride the team would endure.
The ride included a stunning coaching change, capacity crowds at Giants Stadium, the addition of not one, but two former World Cup championship captains and legends and an scintillating performances by a galaxy of stars that culminated in the team's first Soccer Bowl win in a memorable encounter with the Seattle Sounders.
That championship began the Cosmos' dominance and their glory years as they won three of the next five Soccer Bowls (1978, 1980 and 1982) to solidify themselves as a legendary side.
After playing a year at Yankee Stadium, the Cosmos moved to their new home across the Hudson River. In their home opener, they had a relatively easy time dispatching the Rochester Lancers, 2-0, in front of 26,752. Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia scored the goals.
Crowds of 26K, however, were soon to become rather pedestrian. Something special was beginning to brew in East Rutherford, N.J.
The turning and transformation points came in May and June.
Franz Beckenbauer, who captained Germany to the 1974 World Cup crown, joined the team in late May, to solidify the midfield.
The Cosmos replaced long-time head coach Gordon Bradley with Eddie Firmani, who had resigned as coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies (Firmani had directed the Rowdies to the 1975 Soccer Bowl title).
On Fathers Day on June 15, a then-NASL record crowd of 62,394 watch Pele register a hat-trick in a 3-1 triumph over Tampa Bay.
Suddenly, soccer fever had gripped New York and New Jersey and suddenly, attending soccer games at Giants Stadium was the in-thing to do as the Cosmos even outdrew the New York Yankees and their Bronx Zoo of talented players that included Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Craig Nettles and company, much to the surprise and chagrin of traditional sports fans and observers.
The final piece of the puzzle was added in July, when Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to the 1970 world championship, joined the team.
Before the team really caught fire there were some bumps in the road, particularly on the road. The Cosmos (15-11, 140 points) actually finished second to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (19-7, 161), bolstered by the likes of former England world Cup champion goalkeeper Gordon Banks and a standout midfielder by the name of Ray Hudson, in the Eastern Division.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Cosmos dispatched the Rowdies at home in front of 57,828, 3-0, as Pele found the back of the net twice and Chinaglia once on Aug. 10.
Four days later, more history was made -- on the field and in the Giants Stadium stands. Some 77,691 supporters jammed the venue to set a then U.S. record crowd, to watch the Cosmos roll to an 8-3 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and former England World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks in the first leg of the Northern Division. Chinaglia led the way with a hat-trick and Steve Hunt added two goals.
In the second leg on Aug. 17, the Cosmos did enough to defeat the host Strikers, 3-2.
In the Atlantic Conference finals, New York overcame the Lancers on the road, 2-1, and at home, 4-1, on Aug. 24 as 73,669 rain-soaked fans watched their heroes book a place in Soccer Bowl in Portland. Chinaglia led the way with a brace and Pele and Vitomir Dimitrijevic also had goals.
The Cosmos prepared to take on the Seattle Sounders at Civic Stadium on Aug. 28 in what was to be Pele's final competitive match.
But as it turned out, the game was memorable for other reasons, particularly for one of the most remarkable goals scored in a soccer championship game. The match was only 19 minutes old. Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky dived to gather in a long feed by Chinaglia that was out of the reach of Steve Hunt. Chursky got up and started to dribble away, ignoring everything and everyone. In came Hunt, who stole the ball and knocked it into the goal for the first goal of a 2-1 Cosmos triumph. Hunt lost his left shoe in the process.
Chursky, a Canadian international at the time, was deaf in one ear and could not hear his teammates' warnings over the loud crowd.
"I was watching out the corner of my eye and Chursky turned his back, so I thought I'd have a go at it," Hunt said.
Four minutes later, the Sounders equalized on Tommy Ord's goal but Chinaglia's six-yard header -- off Hunt's left-wing cross on the 77th minute -- decided the matter before packed house of 35,548.
"Championship games sometimes are decided on key breaks," Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing told the New York Times. "Today we created these breaks in a game that could have gone the other way. We proved that we can respond to the pressure."
Team captain and defender Werner Roth agreed and elaborated on that point.
"Pele is No. 1 and now we are No. 1 along with him. This team showed a lot of character in the playoffs."
The scene in the Cosmos' raucous locker room -- was surreal.
The Brazilian media kept singing and chanting the Black Pearl's name, "Pele, Pele, Pele!" before they took him on their shoulders and paraded him through the room.
Later, sitting at his locker, Pele was serene. "God has been kind to me. Now I can die," he said.
Of course, Pele has not died. He is alive and kicking (he turned 73 on Wednesday), as are the 2013 incarnation of the Cosmos, who will try to add another chapter to their glorious past with another visit to Soccer Bowl in Atlanta on Nov. 9.
Michael Lewis is Editor of www.bigapplesoccer.com