Now that we've reached the dog days of the baseball season and the quietest portion of the football season is reaching an end, it's the perfect time for MLS to roll out their pricey new arrival: David Beckham. Of course, no one should expect MLS to reach to level of the big three leagues, or even NASCAR, but maybe they can match tennis' or the NHL's level of popularity. In order to truly become mainstream, they would need someone transcendent, a singular talent on the level of a Gretzky or Jordan. They need Pele.
This weekend I watched Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, and it was fascinating. In the late 60s, Warner Bros. acquired Atlantic Records, where Ray Charles rose to stardom under the direction of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (featured in Ray). As a favor to Nesuhi, Warner head Steve Ross helped the Erteguns found the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (hereafter referred to as the NASL) in 1971. The team and the league floundered along until 1975, when they were able to lure Pele to New York. Pele is not just the greatest soccer player of all time, he's probably the greatest athlete. He scored more goals than Gretzky in fewer games, along with a record three World Cups.
Cosmos attendance skyrocketed from 3,578 a game in 1974 to 10,450 a game in 1975, 18,227 in 1976, 34,142 in 1977, and 47,856 in 1978. On August 14, 1977, the Cosmos sold out the Meadowlands drawing more than 77,000. Howard Cosell said soccer was here to stay, Cosmos players were fixtures at Studio 54, and soccer reached it's unquestioned peak of popularity in the United States.
The NASL was able to withstand Pele's 1977 retirement, but not an attempted hostile takeover of Warner Bros. by Rupert Murdoch, along with a collapse of Warner owned Atari. The Cosmos were sold to Pele's second fiddle Giorgio Chinaglia, who couldn't afford to keep the team afloat. 1984 was their last season.
So soccer has been been successful in this country before, but it remains to be seen if Beckham can bring the same level of sizzle that Pele brought as a soccer ambassador. But those that say soccer is doomed in this country need only look back 30 years ago to the Summer of Sam, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, and Pele.