Edson Arantes do Nascimento—Pel�—leaped for joy in the rain that pelted the New Jersey Meadowlands. It was a mere exhibition game, but Pel� has never taken a goal he scored casually, and this was the 1,259th of his career. With some luck, he will score perhaps another 15 for the New York Cosmos in the season ahead, and that will be the end. At 36, the best-known soccer player in the world will retire, having almost single-handedly conferred credibility on the professional game in this country since he arrived here two years ago.
Pel�'s last season begins with the NASL down from 20 teams to 18, financially wasted Philadelphia and Boston having been dropped and no fewer than four other franchises transferred to presumably greener pastures. Phil Woosnam, the league's eternally optimistic commissioner, claims he is buoyed by such activity. "Soccer is the only pro sport that's growing," he says. "All the big ones are leveling out, and the smart new money is going into soccer. We'll add four more teams for 78." Already signed up are the Colorado Caribous, owned by smart money men Booth Gardner of Seattle and James Guercio of Boulder. Cost of the franchise was $1 million.
Attendance, that pulse by which bankers, commissioners and team owners gauge fiscal health, was up last year to an average of 11,000 a game from less than 8,000 in 1975. The schedule has been increased from 24 games to 26. A new television contract with TVS will bring seven regular-season games, sponsored by such as Coke and Toyota, to some 140 subscriber stations across the country. Whatever local stations do is extra. The Cosmos, for instance, will televise their entire away-game schedule back to New York.
On the field, a new tie-breaking rule will probably offend soccer purists, but will provide pyrotechnics. A 15-minute sudden-death overtime period will follow a regulation tie; after that, a "shootout" will determine the winner—individual members of a side taking turns going one-on-one against the opposing goalkeeper from 35 yards out.
The rule underlines the league's determination to put an American imprint on the international sport. It also reflects a growing confidence that U.S. soccer has come of age, or near to it. "Foreign players no longer laugh at the idea of NASL soccer," says Woosnam. "Now they'll talk a deal."
One thing the NASL has not been able to laugh off is the fact that possibly its two best teams—the Cosmos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies—are again not only in the same conference (the Atlantic), but also in the same division, and thus one of them will be eliminated after the first round of the playoffs. Until then, the two clubs will likely fight to the wire for first place in the East. The Cosmos, who will perform this year at the multimillion-dollar Meadowlands sports complex, play perhaps the most sophisticated game in the league. With the savvy of Pel� and the strong shot of Giorgio Chinaglia, who led the league with 19 goals and 11 assists after he was imported last year from Italy, the Cosmos will be extraordinarily tough, even more so than before with the off-season addition of Yugoslavian Midfielder Vitomir Dimitrijevic.
In sharp contrast is Coach Eddie Firmani's galloping, rough-and-tumble, long-passing English-style Tampa club, led by Rodney Marsh, heir-apparent to Pel� as the best player in the league. Englishman Derek Smethurst, who topped the league with 20 goals last year, is again on hand, as is the burly veteran Haitian National, Arsene Auguste. The Rowdies have added Goalie Paul Hammond from England. All told, Tampa Bay may hold a delicate edge over New York in the East.
Behind these two are the Washington Diplomats, who move into 55,000-seat RFK Stadium, reflecting high hopes at the gate if not on the field. The Dips will not have the services of Forward Paul Cannell, the goalie-crunching anchor of last year's side, who chose to remain with his English first division team. Coach Dennis Viollet must mold six new English players—all signed within the last three weeks—into a team. He still should be able to overcome the Fort Lauderdale Strikers—last year's Miami Toros—who will occupy the divisional basement. Coach Ron Newman, formerly of Dallas, has his strikers taking ballet lessons for grace, but it will be a long waltz over the 26-game season.
The Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference again will be led by the uninspiring but highly competent Chicago Sting, 15-9 last season. The attack will center around Miro Rys, 19, a gifted young playmaking forward from Cicero, Ill., and veteran Polish International star John Kowolik, 33, a lightning-quick ball handler.
After their 12-12 season last year, the Connecticut Bicentennials moved south from Hartford into New Haven's Yale Bowl, with a new and strong Portuguese contingent headed by Vitor Moia, a striker from first division Estoril. The Bi's, as they like to be known, could finish second in the North.