The world has lost a a true icon, as the legendary Pelé passed away Thursday in his native Brazil.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the Brazilian maestro dazzled the world in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, winning three World Cup titles over that span. And he spent nearly 20 years making 636 appearances with Santos in his home country – but it was his three seasons with the New York Cosmos that perhaps made an even bigger impact on the sport.

Pelé in America: His legacy

Pelé arrived in the USA in 1975, signing with the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. The league had been kicking around since 1968, and the Cosmos themselves since 1971, but Pelé was a watershed moment for both entities, and the game itself, in America.

Pelé came to these shores already established as a legend. Three World Cups and a prestigious tenure at Santos already had cemented his status as the greatest player in the world. But unlike today when foreign stars sign in the US, he was a legend many Americans had never seen before. A truly mythical figure. If you didn’t happen to catch newsreel footage of the World Cup once in a blue moon, even avid soccer fans in the US had likely never seen Pelé actually play. It was as if Babe Ruth had magically signed back with the Yankees, to play in front of a generation who had only read about him in stories.

How Pelé turned the sport around in the US

The wonderful documentary Once in a Lifetime outlines his time in New York. From fields painted green to wild parties at Studio 54, sold out NFL stadiums to dodgy high school fields, his tenure in America was full of contrast. But his play lived up to the hype. He scored 37 goals in his 64 appearances, and guided the Cosmos to the 1977 Soccer Bowl title. His final competitive match was that championship game, a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders at what is today Providence Park in Portland, OR.

Pelé’s influence went beyond the bright lights of The Big Apple, however. His signing opened the floodgates to more international stars joining the NASL. Johan Cruyff. George Best. Franz Beckenbauer. Gerd Müller. Carlos Alberto. Gordon Banks. Undeniable gods of the game plied their trade in the USA for a brief, glittering moment in the late 70s and early 80s. These stars lifted attendances and viewership for the league.

The Cosmos in particular set records that still stand today (1977’s 77,891 crowd at Giants Stadium remains the highest attendance ever for a domestic, standalone match between two American soccer teams).

And while the finances and fortunes of the original NASL didn’t last, the legacy of Pelé and those that followed him did make a huge impact on the game. Youth soccer participation in the United States skyrocketed in the 1970s as the sport suddenly became a mainstream fixture. When the league faltered in the mid-80s, the grassroots game remained stronger than ever, with millions of kids playing soccer in every corner of the country.

On the professional side, while there were dark times post-NASL, the seeds planted in those rockstar days bore fruit down the line. Many clubs that Pelé played against, among them the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, and others would be reborn in later years and are still playing today. The foundations laid by Pelé and the rest of the late-70s NASL are the base upon which the soccer infrastructure and robust fandom we enjoy today in this country are built upon.

Pelé at the rebirth of NASL

The nostalgia factor of the old NASL inspired a reboot of both the league and the Cosmos in the 2010s. The legend himself was on hand in August 2013 when the Cosmos returned to the field after 30 years, taking on another NASL descendent, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, in Hempstead, NY. The Cosmos would go on to secure a dramatic late victory in that game. It was a match I happened to be at, supporting the Strikers on the road. Despite the result, seeing the atmosphere, two historic clubs, and such a massively important figure in person was surreal. It was like seeing a superhero in real life.

This author’s view for the Cosmos’ rebirth match vs the Strikers in 2013

This author’s view for the Cosmos’ rebirth match vs the Strikers in 2013

This author’s view for the Cosmos’ rebirth match vs the Strikers in 2013

Unfortunately it was just another fleeting moment of fanfare, as neither the modern NASL, Cosmos or Strikers still exist in any meaningful way just nine short years after that game.

But remaining hiccups in the domestic game aside, it cannot be stressed how much the arrival of Pelé forever changed the soccer landscape in America. David Beckham signing with the LA Galaxy in 2007 was a similar landmark event, creating a traveling hysteria wherever they went and packing stadiums across the nation. But it would not have been possible without Pelé first conquering these shores all those years ago.

While his accomplishments in Brazil with the national team and Santos are remarkable, if he had never existed, that nation and club both would surely still have won many titles, played remarkable football and produced brilliant players. But in America, Pelé’s arrival and legacy transformed the game forever, lighting the spark that has driven five decades of rapid advancement in the sport of soccer. Without Pelé, the sport in the United States could very well be far behind where we see it today. Without Pelé, MLS may have never happened.

The man may be gone, but his name and spirit will live on in the sport forever.

Photo credit: Imago