It was a huge fiesta in the rain. The lucky ones sat in the stands and the rest on open benches, drying out a little when the sun fitfully appeared, and roaring their hearts out as if this were Munich on World Cup day, not a soaking Sabbath in Portland. All 35,548 of them were crammed into creaky old Civic Stadium that was built in the '20s with greyhound racing in mind but which in the future may be recognized as the place where soccer in North America had its coming-of-age party. The NASL final between the Seattle Sounders and the Cosmos—officials would prefer you to call it Soccer Bowl '77—was the culmination of a season that has changed the face of the sport in the U.S. And the game itself was a special kind of soccer, gaining in drama and passion because everything hung on the day. You could call it Cup Fever.
The pairing in Portland was classic underdog versus superdog. To the right, the Cosmos, a team on which millions of dollars had been lavished by Warner Communications. On the left, the Sounders, described by Seattle's own Post-Intelligencer last week as "a gang of [coach] Jimmy Gabriel's old cronies from the homeland." That was self-deprecatory flummery, of course. The paper made it plain that it really loved the bunch of hard-nosed pros from the lower divisions of the English League.
If not among the players, then in the Cosmos' camp there were certain airs and graces detectable before the game. "Wouldn't it be fine," mused a team official on the eve of the match, "if the Cosmos could represent America in the World Cup?" It was explained to him that only citizens could represent a nation in that competition, and clearly many of the Cosmos' leading lights were not U.S. citizens—Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, to name three.
"So why doesn't Warners buy Nicaragua or maybe Scotland?" was the rejoinder.
September 4, 1977
"Quiet," a third voice said, "or it'll be up at the next board meeting."
It was just as well he couldn't be heard at Civic Stadium, which was packed mainly by Sounders fans. THE YEAR SEATTLE SLEW THE COSMOS read one of the more literate hand-painted signs. Another, smaller one indicated yet a further reason for the day to be accorded a place in soccer history. FELICIDADES PELÉ, it said.
And the elegaic sky, low and weeping, was indeed a fitting backcloth against which to see the last of the great player. There will be other farewell appearances for him but not another game that matters in the record books. The neat, compact, wrinkle-browed magician has had a greater influence on the game than any other player of his time. Three years ago Pelé of Brazil became Pelé of the Cosmos, of New York, of the U.S.A. It would be dishonest to pretend this was still the Pelé of Brazil's three World Cup triumphs. The great skills were there, but necessarily doled out in smaller quantities over 90 minutes of play. It didn't matter much. In three years, not to labor the point, Pelé has made soccer big league in North America.
And so, in Portland on Sunday, the crowd was a little torn between seeing its side win and seeing Pelé go out with a bang, rather than something less. An exception was Jimmy Gabriel. "Pelé's won enough medals," he declared dourly, if understandably.
And the Sounders started as if they were going to make sure of that. In the first minute Dave Gillet bundled Chinaglia head over heels and Micky Cave blazed the ball over the Cosmos' crossbar in the first of what turned out to be an endless series of near things for Cosmos Goalie Shep Messing. Jimmy Robertson, Seattle's Glaswegian right wing, had Carlos Alberto, the Cosmos' most recent Brazilian acquisition, clearing wildly upfield in contrast to what would normally be his thoughtful pass to a midfielder. Only Steve Hunt for the Cosmos looked aggressive. And for long periods in the first half he was left alone up front.
The Sounders kept charging, committing almost everything to the attack, with the Cosmos' midfield apparently unable to exploit the huge gaps that this left. And they came close indeed to taking an early lead that might have unmanned the Cosmos, who appeared to have little stomach for offense. Jocky Scott hit a ball that struck the Cosmos' crossbar and rebounded to Cave. Cave slammed it into the net and was running back in joy before he realized the official had whistled for offside. It was a hairline decision, and it may have decided the game. For, shortly after that, almost 20 minutes into the half, Hunt's one-man army was finally rewarded for its repeated, unaided forays.
Chinaglia had hit a kind of vaguely hopeful ball upfield. It was far in front of Hunt, and Tony Chursky, the Canadian who keeps goal for Seattle, had it well covered and indeed gathered it easily. But Hunt kept running, challenging the goalie, who astonishingly chose to roll the ball along the ground to a defenseman. Amazed by his good fortune, Hunt intercepted and clipped it into the goal.
Cosmos 1-0, which meant only that they had weathered the initial storm. Four minutes later Sounder Forward Tommy Ord, who had been giving Cosmos' defender Werner Roth a difficult afternoon, got to a cross ball from Cave and the score was tied, 1-1.
The Cosmos' stars were not shining. Beckenbauer was uncharacteristically guilty of sloppy passing. Pelé, too, was making mistakes and it seemed that he might go out with a whimper after all. The Cosmos' attack would start up only to die out swiftly. Typically, when Hunt broke through alone again and tested Chursky with a shot that he could only parry, there was no Cosmo there to hit the rebound.
In the second half the Cosmos brought on Vito Dimitrijevic as an attacking midfielder to add some spine. It created more attacking chances, but even so there was nervousness in the side, an unwillingness to commit. Pelé spooned the ball over the bar from close in. Nelsi Morais crossed a low ball in front of the Sounders' goal, a center ball that had to be dived for. Three Cosmos watched it go by. Nobody dived.
The Sounders, although showing signs of weariness after their all-out first-half, were still in the game. Jim McAlister, the young Seattle-born defender, almost beat Messing with a low shot that the goalie fumbled, then held. Cup fever. The same affliction found Chinaglia, Pelé and Beckenbauer, the three most publicized Cosmos, in front of the Seattle goal, passing among themselves, each unwilling to take final responsibility for a shot. Yellow cards flew among the Cosmos like confetti. Cup fever.
Then Hunt took a hand again. Picking up a ball in the far left of the field, he worked it close to the corner flag, looked around carefully and put a perfect center onto Chinaglia's head, and the tall forward nodded it in. 2-1 Cosmos. By now Gabriel had played his last card, bringing on Dave Butler and Tom Jenkins to freshen the attack. Butler, in particular, was Gabriel's secret weapon. He had scored six goals from the bench this season.
It was the signal for a last Sounders blitz, and Hunt, who had done so much for the Cosmos that afternoon, almost brought his teammates to disaster. Later even he couldn't explain why he had found himself in the middle of the Cosmos' defense and right in the goalmouth, certainly not why he tried to dribble the ball clear, instead of passing it to Messing or a defender. Cup fever. He beat three Sounders, then lost the ball to a fourth, Steve Buttle, who hit the goalpost.
There were more escapes. In a 4 on 2 situation, Jocky Scott took the last pass and shot wide from close range. Mike England clipped a ball just wide of the post. The minutes ticked away as the Cosmos held on desperately. And they survived, and held the championship, the one Pelé had never won.
Which made it possible for Pelé, before they carried him off shoulder high, to strip off his shirt and give it to Seattle's Jim McAlister, who had just been voted the league's Rookie of the Year. American-born. The dying high priest from the exotic country hands the sacred flame on to the native acolyte. It would be hard to find a better symbol.
In their only previous meeting this year, the Sounders scored early and hung on to win 1-0. Admittedly, the game was played just a few days after Eddie Firmani had taken over as coach of the Cosmos from Gordon Bradley, and it is said that while it was going on he was still making the acquaintance of some of the players on the bench.
But for the Cosmos the game was a turning point. They were to lose only twice more in the regular season. The resurgence that followed was too late to prevent Fort Lauderdale from winning the Eastern Division, but from then on it was all roses for the Cosmos.
And Firmani's arrival had a marked influence on player morale. One telltale was the case of young Steve Hunt, a 21-year-old player with Aston Villa in the English First Division, for whom he didn't start in spite of his clear attacking talent. When he came to the Cosmos he was a starter right away. "I went off with a burst," Hunt recalls, of his days with Bradley on the Cosmos, "but then things started to go wrong.
"Halfway through the season," Hunt now confesses, "there was no doubt in my mind that I was going home. My wife had gone back to England already. She was badly homesick. So was I. It was nothing to do with the soccer, and I love America. What happened, see, they fixed us up in an apartment in North Bergen. In New Jersey, like. The area was not great. The rest of the players lived ages away, you know? We had no car. I had to get lifts into training."
Off the field Hunt's manner is peaceful enough as he talks with the flattened vowels of the English Midlands. He sometimes has a brooding, tense look, though, and when midway through the season his game fell off there were rumors of arguments, even punch-ups, involving Hunt and Chinaglia and of arguments with Bradley.
Things changed when Firmani arrived. "I'd been played out of my position. The tactics were wrong. I was put in mid-field," Hunt said before Sunday's championship game. "But Eddie has given me a lot more freedom and I enjoy my game again. He lets me roam around a lot up front. He lets me use all the field."
On their way to the finals, the Cosmos disposed of Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale and Rochester in fairly straightforward fashion. The Sounders, it could be argued, had a rougher, tougher passage to Portland in advancing past Vancouver, Minnesota and Los Angeles.
The attendance for the second game of the L.A. set would have attracted wider attention had it not been for the more extraordinary figures for a Cosmos playoff game against Fort Lauderdale at Giants Stadium—77,691. There were 56,256 fans at the Kingdome. "The highest recorded in the league this year," the P.A. system proudly announced. "Uh, that is, west of East Rutherford...."
And, unaware as it was of the way things would go in 1977, the NASL may regret that its showpiece final had been set so early for comparatively tiny Civic Stadium. Still, when it was all over on Sunday, the Cosmos certainly weren't complaining.