By Michael Lewis
A professional soccer that couldn’t host a playoff game at Yankee Stadium due to circumstance beyond its control winds up playing at the Mets home ballpark.
No, we’re not talking about New York City FC hosting its MLS Eastern Conference semifinal match at Citi Field Wednesday.
City was forced to play in Queens, N.Y. because of the Yankees postseason schedule.
Back in 1976, the Cosmos couldn’t play at the stadium because of the Yankees’ regular-season schedule.
Let’s set the scene and give a little background.
After Pele joined the Cosmos in 1975, the North American Soccer League club realized it had to get out of Downing Stadium on Randalls Island ASAP. That stadium was not fit for the king of soccer. So, the Cosmos looked at their options and decided to take a chance at playing at the House that Ruth Built, as a rebuilt Yankee Stadium was unveiled for the 1976 season.
The Cosmos had played at the stadium in their inaugural season in 1971 before moving to Hofstra University for two years and then another two at Downing. This was a year before Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. was opened, so the Cosmos’ options were limited to the two ballparks.
There were few problems during the regular season as the Cosmos, like NYCFC, scheduled their matches when the Yankees were out of town. In 1976, each team played a 24-game regular season schedule, so the Yankees had to make room for the team during road games only a dozen times during the regular season, which ran from April 18 to Aug. 10 (yes, the season was much more condensed in those days).
The wildcard? Well, the postseason.
After failing to reach the playoffs in 1975, the Cosmos recorded a 16-8 mark the next season in the Atlantic Conference’s Eastern Division, good enough to play at least another day.
The first round of the NASL playoffs were to be played somewhere in the middle of August.
Since the Yankees were scheduled to host a nine-game homestand against Texas, California and Minnesota from Aug. 16-25, the Cosmos were forced to look across the Triborough Bridge for really their only other option. In those days, when the Yankees were home, the Mets were on the road, and vice versa, as opposed to both clubs performing at their respective stadiums at the same time on occasion in the 21st century.
So, on Aug. 5 the Cosmos worked out an agreement with the city of New York to host playoff games on Aug. 17, 20 and 24 and three dates in case of rain.
In the days well before the internet, the Cosmos got the word out in traditional way. They advertised in the local newspapers. One ad in the Aug. 13 edition of the New York Daily News had the simple headline, with a picture of Pele:
NASL PLAYOFFS AT SHEA STADIUM
The rest of the ad was more informational than anything else as the Cosmos gave New York sports fans several options. If they finished first in their division, home game would be Aug. 20 and Aug. 24. If they took second, game at Shea would be at Aug. 17 and 24.
And there was the catch: the ad said that fans should listen Sunday morning for the Tampa-Portland score, which would determine where the Cosmos would finish, which turned out to be in second place.
As for the playoff game, the Cosmos prevailed over the Washington Diplomats, 2-0, Aug. 17 before a crowd of 22,698 at Shea. Pele scored one goal and assisted on another by Terry Garbett.
Pele helped the Cosmos draw first blood at 37:06, as he split two defenders before beating goalkeeper Eric Martin for his 14th of the season (regular and post) and 1,255th of his career. Tony Field, off a give-and-go with Pele, pass to Garbett, who scored from 19 yards at 44:48. Yes, that was only 12 seconds prior to halftime because there was no stoppage time in American pro soccer in those days.
The Cosmos nemesis in that match was Paul Cannell. He had a target on his back already, having broke Cosmos goalkeeper Bob Rigby’s collarbone after two collision in Fairfax, Va. June 27.
Before New York scored its goals, Cannell already had a run-in with goalkeeper Shep Messing as the players had a pushing and shoving match after the Diplomat tripped Pele, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times. Cannell, who was slapped with a yellow card by referee Jim Highet, finished with nine fouls, six in the first half, three more in the second, the Daily News reported.
In the 42nd minute Cannell dragged Pele down with both hands after the Black Pearl scored his goal while the Cosmos forward near the Cosmos penalty area. “He had just scored a brilliant goal and he was running away from us again, and I figured I would rather stop him in midfield than in the penalty box,” Cannell said.
It wasn’t the last time Shea was used to host pro soccer games.
In 1980, New York United (formerly the New York Apollo) of the old American Soccer League played their entire season at the old ballpark.
But that’s another story for another time.