International soccer legend Pele cheers children during a soccer clinic...

International soccer legend Pele cheers children during a soccer clinic at Chelsea Piers. (July 31, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Saturday's return of the Cosmos to Hofstra's Shuart Stadium -- after 29 years of suspended animation, kicking around nothing but nostalgia -- cannot proceed without a deep bow to Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

Better known as Pelé.

It was Pelé, the great Brazilian practitioner of what his countrymen raptly call "the beautiful game," who turned an invitation to play for the original Cosmos into an argument for Americans to investigate this "foreign" sport's appeal.

The chain of events he set in motion, first as superstar player at the end of his long career, then as soccer's globe-trotting ambassador, may have been incremental and protracted on these shores. But the accompanying timeline shows the U.S. men's national team going from the midst of a 40-year absence from the World Cup to being the regional power in North and Central America.

And now there exists, on solid financial ground, Major League Soccer, which intends to debut its 20th franchise in New York City for its 20th season in 2015.

There is irony to the fact that these Cosmos, resurrected to play in a second-tier league below MLS, now face as much catching up as all of U.S. soccer did before Pelé.

Before Pelé, the United States was a soccer wasteland. Only 3,746 people attended the Cosmos' inaugural game in 1970, prompting the team's early vagabond existence over the next seven years, from Yankee Stadium to Hofstra and Randalls Island's decaying Downing Stadium.

Upon Pelé's arrival, in June 1975, a reported 2,000 fans showed up for his first practice session; 21,278 packed the since-demolished Downing dump for an exhibition game two days later; three days after that, 22,500 somehow squeezed into the old joint for Pelé's official North American Soccer League debut.

His presence prompted other global stars to join him on the Cosmos, most notably German Franz Beckenbauer and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia. By 1977, the Cosmos had moved into the new Giants Stadium and were drawing crowds of 77,691, 75,646, 73,699.

Top-heavy with the Cosmos' talent and payroll, the entire NASL collapsed in 1984, but current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati long has cited Pelé's U.S. playing tour for "turning millions of American kids to soccer . . . and that influence continues."

He already was 35 years old when he joined the Cosmos. He had been playing professional soccer since he was 15, and had set the record for youngest player to score in a World Cup -- a record that still stands -- before his 18th birthday. (That was in 1958, the first of his four World Cups, three of which Brazil won.)

Now, at 72, he remains soccer's sovereign, recognized around the world, the sort of benevolent ruler who shakes hands and kisses babies and lends his aura to virtually any soccer event of significance.

In September, shooting will begin on a film of Pelé's life. (There is now a casting call on Manhattan's Lower East Side, among other places, to find a male, aged 17-25, who resembles Pelé.) Filming will be in Pelé's native Brazil.

But the Cosmos' revival is a reminder that his is a tale of triumph in the United States.

More soccer news


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months