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Earthquakes' Clash with Cosmos Recalls Memories of Pelé

No one brought more American fans to soccer than the great Pelé
HE'S A FOOTY GUY: No one brought more American fans to soccer than the great Pelé . Photo by History San Jose

An historical showdown will yet again unfold this weekend in the form of a preseason matchup at Avaya Stadium, where the San Jose Earthquakes take on the current incarnation of the New York Cosmos. The clubs have not faced each other in 32 years.

The Cosmos play in the current incarnation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), technically a "division-two status" league, but that designation is misleading and often used in a dismissive manner. The Quakes play in Major League Soccer (MLS), officially the nation's first-division status league, which wouldn't normally pit them against the Cosmos in regular league play, but since there's so much history between the two clubs they agreed to face off for the first time since 1984. Back in those days, the original NASL was the primary league in the U.S., but it was going through its final throes, circling the drain toward complete financial collapse.

The history between the two clubs is unique. In the '70s, the Cosmos brought soccer legend Pelé to San Jose, twice, resulting in unprecedented fanfare. Beginning in 1975, in attempts to further Americanize the terminology and mimic the Super Bowl format, the NASL began to call its championship game The Soccer Bowl.

San Jose was awarded the first Soccer Bowl, which took place Aug. 24, 1975. Three days later, Pelé and the Cosmos played a post-season friendly match against the Earthquakes. In front of 19,338 people at Spartan Stadium—at that time a few thousand over the stadium's official capacity—the Quakes defeated Pelé and company 3-2. This was long before the upper deck existed at Spartan, and fans sat on the dirt hill behind the north goal or even hung from the trees to get a glimpse of soccer's GOAT (greatest of all time).

One year later, in August 1976, Pelé and the Cosmos came back to town during the regular season and the Quakes triumphed yet again, this time by a 2-1 margin in front of 23,048 fans at Spartan Stadium. At the time, it was the largest attendance for any sporting event in San Jose history. The team even installed extra grandstands just for Pelé's appearance.

Spartan Stadium in those days was a tiny, narrow place with barely any room between the sidelines and the barriers. After extra grandstands were added to the sidelines, players taking throw-ins were practically in the grandstands. For opposing squads, it was liking playing in a cage, with fans on top of players. People who were kids at the time still talk about those games, as Pelé was the biggest sports figure to ever appear here.

The Cosmos, of course, went on to win numerous championships and became the subject of many books and documentaries. With record executives and entertainment industry moguls bankrolling the team and fielding squad after squad of international personalities, egoists and millionaire players, plus regularly touring to the corners of the earth for exhibition matches, the Cosmos were the first-ever global rockstar club, the first-ever world-recognized brand in any team sport. They were the Real Madrid of their day. In fact, the Cosmos built the entire stage that current clubs like Real Madrid walk upon.

At the same time, however, the Quakes were the polar opposite. There were the anti-Cosmos, a people's' club that connected with the local populace on a street level. As the Cosmos partied with Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger, the Quakes went to the movies and watched Slap Shot.

By 1984, after heady days of too much expansion and clubs trying to hire their own versions of Pelé with no extra revenue, the NASL went broke. The U.S. was not awarded the 1986 World Cup, so Steve Ross bailed from the Cosmos. League attendance plummeted and only nine teams remained. In fact, the very last game the Quakes ever played, in that league, was a 1-0 road victory against the Cosmos in front of 7,581—the smallest-ever crowd for a Cosmos match at Giants Stadium. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. This weekend, the history continues at Avaya Stadium.

SJ Earthquakes vs. NY Cosmos

Avaya Stadium

Sat., Feb. 27 7:00pm