On October 1, 1977, more than 75,000 fans, including Muhammad Ali, packed into Giants Stadium and millions more tuned into ABC's "Wide World of Sports" to watch the final professional soccer match played by Edison Arantes do Nascimento. The 37-year-old Brazilian, known to the world as Pelé, spent the first 45 minutes in a Cosmos uniform—scoring a free kick minutes before the referee blew his whistle—and the second half wearing the jersey of the only other club he ever played for, São Paulo's Santos. That match was the peak of soccer in America, a demonstration of what the sport could be in a country that never much cared for it.
But the popularity of the Cosmos also created an impossible standard for future leagues, a one-off opportunity that could never be competed with, much less topped.1 More than 35 years later, soccer struggles to gain a foothold in the greater American sporting consciousness, and the success of the team Pelé built continues to hurt the prospects of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the sport in the United States because it dramatically and unfairly altered the perception of what success should look like. In many ways, the completeness with which Pelé, the Cosmos, and the rest of the North American Soccer League (NASL) captured the imagination of the country during the late 1970s was the best thing to happen to soccer in the United States. In other regards, however, it was the worst.