Pele's time in America playing for the New York Cosmos is well-documented. It's bound to be when Henry Kissinger exerts all of his influence to convince Brazil to allow Pele to leave, and the members of Aerosmith start showing up at Cosmos games just to see him play.
With Pele's reputation as arguably the greatest player to ever set foot on the pitch, it's only natural that anybody else who decided to bring their talents to the NASL would be overshadowed. This was especially true after Pele left, because interest in the league began to wane seriously.
This article is meant to shed some light on the time that several other decorated international superstars spent in the NASL.
Der Kaiser was actually a teammate of Pele's in New York for a very brief period.
Beckenbauer won three NASL titles with New York, and made 132 appearances for the club, scoring 21 times as a defender. During his time with the Cosmos, he was the best defender in the league.
Even more notable than his goalscoring record and defending prowess was his popularity. He was the only Cosmos player who ever came close to getting the same respect and admiration from his peers and fans that Pele did. He was both a great player and a humble one in NASL, especially when compared to the infamous prima donna Giorgio Chinaglia.
*As a brief aside about Chinaglia, he was signed by the Cosmos to play alongside Pele. He showed up at the first practice boasting about being better than Pele. He would also later upset so many people with his antics on the pitch that Pele cried. Great scorer, not a great teammate.*
Best is known for his exploits at Manchester United, and deservedly so. He is a legend at Old Trafford.
But Best moved to the LA Aztecs in 1976 after his best years in England were behind him. He was excellent in his first season, scoring 15 goals in 24 appearances while remaining largely anonymous in public because Americans were generally unaware of his European exploits.
After a brief stint with Fulham, he returned to the NASL but was never the same. By the time his third season in Los Angeles rolled around, he managed only a single goal from 12 appearances.
A change of scenery in the form of a move to the San Jose Earthquakes seemed to rejuvenate him for a time. He managed 28 goals in 56 matches with San Jose. But eventually, the old demons of alcoholism caught up with him and he left the NASL after the 1981 season.
One of the most prolific goalscorers of all-time, Müller ended his professional career with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
While playing for the West Germany national side, Müller scored at a rate of better than one goal a game, scoring 68 times in 62 appearances. Officially Müller has the fourth-most goals of all time, with his 735 strikes behind only Pele, Romario and Josef Bican.
Fort Lauderdale was ecstatic to land a striker with Müller's talents. He rewarded their investment by scoring 40 times in 80 matches for the Strikers, but was not able to help them capture any silverware in his time in the US.
Still, numbers like that are impressive for any striker, much less one nearing the end of his career. Sadly, with Pele retired by the time Müller was signed, fewer fans saw him in the States than should have.
This list would not be complete without a mention of the three-time European Player of the Year.
Simply put, Johann Cruyff was one of the most talented and influential players to ever set foot on a football pitch.
Cruyff joined the LA Aztecs at age 32. He was rumoured to be moving to the New York Cosmos, even playing in a few exhibitions with the club, but the deal never went through. Instead, he ended up on the West Coast and was named the NASL Player of the Year for 1979.
After 16 goals in 27 appearances, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become a member of the Washington Diplomats. He scored 12 times in two seasons in Washington and then returned to Europe for one last stint at Ajax.
His numbers may not have been as great as those of Pele or Müller, but the simple fact that one of the first practitioners of "Total Football" played in America is impressive.
I only listed four of the very best to bring their game to America during the heyday of the NASL, but there are so many more. Eusebio, Carlos Alberto, Vladislav Bogicevic, Bruce Grobbelaar, Bobby Moore, and Gordon Banks all spent time on this side of the pond.
For a very brief time, the NASL managed to attract some of the best players in the history of the game. The US has a very rich footballing history thanks to that league, but it just seems to be very well hidden.
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