By Michael Lewis
A professional football that was unable to host a playoff game at Yankee Stadium due to circumstances beyond its control will end up playing at the Mets’ home ground.
No, we’re not talking about New York City FC hosting the MLS Eastern Conference semi-finals at Citi Field on Wednesday.
City was forced to play in Queens, NY because of the Yankees’ postseason schedule.
In 1976, the Cosmos could not play in the stadium due to the Yankees’ regular season schedule.
Let’s set the scene and add a little bit of background.
After Pele joined the Cosmos in 1975, the North American Soccer League club realized they needed to leave Downing Stadium on Randalls Island as soon as possible. This stadium was not suitable for the king of football. So the Cosmos looked at their options and decided to take the chance to play at Ruth Built’s house when a converted Yankee Stadium was unveiled for the 1976 season.
The Cosmos had played in their inaugural 1971 season at the stadium before moving to Hofstra University for two years and then another two years at Downing. That was a year before Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ opened, so the Cosmos options were limited to the two ball parks.
There were few problems during the regular season as the Cosmos like NYCFC scheduled their games when the Yankees were out of town. In 1976, each team played a regular season schedule of 24 games, so the Yankees only had to make room for the team a dozen times during street games during the regular season, which ran from April 18 to August 10 (yes, that season was then much more compressed).
The wildcard? Well, the postseason.
After failing to make the playoffs in 1975, the Cosmos posted a 16-8 mark the next season in the Eastern Division of the Atlantic Conference, good enough to play for at least one more day.
Somewhere in mid-August, the first round of the NASL playoffs should be played.
With the Yankees scheduled to host nine games at home against Texas, California and Minnesota from August 16-25, the Cosmos were forced to look over the Triborough Bridge for their only other option. Back when the Yankees were at home, the Mets were out and about, as opposed to both clubs occasionally performing simultaneously in their respective stadiums in the 21st century.
So on August 5th, Cosmos made an agreement with the City of New York to host playoff games on August 17th, 20th and 24th and three dates when it rains.
In the days before the internet, the cosmos spread in a traditional way. They advertised in the local newspapers. An August 13 advertisement in the New York Daily News had the simple headline with a picture of Pele:
NASL PLAYOFFS IN SHEA STADIUM
The rest of the ad was more informative than anything, as the Cosmos offered several options to New York sports fans. If they finished first in their division, the home game would be on August 20th and 24th. If they finished second, the game at Shea would be August 17th and 24th.
And there was the catch: the ad said fans should listen to the Tampa-Portland results on Sunday morning, which would determine where the Cosmos ends, which came out second.
As for the playoff game, the Cosmos prevailed 2-0 against the Washington Diplomats on August 17, in front of 22,698 spectators at the Shea. Pele scored one goal and assisted another from Terry Garbett.
Pele helped the Cosmos draw its first blood at 37:06 when it split two defenders before taking goalkeeper Eric Martin to the 14th of the season (regular and post-post) and 1,255. defeated in his career. Tony Field, after giving and going with Pele, fits in with Garbett, who scored at 44:48 from 19 yards. Yes, that was only 12 seconds before half-time, because back then there was no stoppage time in American professional football.
The cosmos archenemy in this match was Paul Cannell. He already had a target on his back after breaking the collarbone of Cosmos goalkeeper Bob Rigby after two collisions in Fairfax, Virginia on June 27th.
Before New York scored their goals, Cannell was already having an argument with goalkeeper Shep Messing as the players had a push and push game after diplomat Pele stumbled, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times. Cannell, who was slapped with a yellow card by referee Jim Highet, ended up with nine fouls, six in the first half and three more in the second, the Daily News reported.
Cannell pulled Pele down with both hands in the 42nd minute after the Black Pearl scored his goal while the Cosmos striker was near the Cosmos penalty area. “He had just scored a brilliant goal and ran away from us again and I thought I’d rather stop him in midfield than in the box,” said Cannell.
It wasn’t the last time Shea hosted professional football games.
1980 New York United (formerly New York Apollo) played the old American Soccer League their entire season on the old ballpark.
But that’s a different story for a different time.