Before the US Men’s National Team became a regular at the FIFA World Cup, before Major League Soccer burst onto the scene, there was the North American Soccer League (NASL). Founded in December of 1967 as a fusion between the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, the NASL helped raise the profile of soccer in the United States during its 17 years in existence. The arrival of legendary players such as Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia drew huge crowds to NASL games, which were broadcast on network television from 1975 to 1980.
That level of exposure was a pipe dream for a tournament like the US Open Cup, which was still called the National Challenge Cup back in those days. Despite the Cup’s status as the oldest knockout tournament in the United States, NASL teams never participated in the storied competition.
The Challenge Cup lived a separate existence from the glitz and glamour of the country’s top domestic league, but the two did briefly cross paths on July 30, 1978. The old Giants Stadium hosted an unprecedented doubleheader on that scorching summer afternoon, with the National Challenge Cup Final taking place before an NASL regular season game between Pele’s New York Cosmos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a matchup between two teams that would meet again later in the season in the 1978 Soccer Bowl. The Cosmos would win the league title that day, 3-1.
Although it was the undercard for one of the most eagerly-anticipated contests in American soccer, the build-up to the Challenge Cup showpiece received little media attention. That lack of interest from the press was matched by the indifference of the general public, with a reported 1,000 supporters doing their best to create a raucous atmosphere in a cavernous NFL stadium capable of accommodating more than 80 times that number of people during New York Giants and New York Jets games.
It was the 66th edition of the National Challenge Cup that year and the competition had never had a game take place in a venue as large as Giants Stadium.
The majority of those in attendance were there to cheer on debutants Vasco da Gama, who were based just over an hour away in Bridgeport, Conn. Originally a cultural and civic center for the Portuguese population in the city, Vasco formed a soccer team in the 1940s. When the Portuguese expat community grew during the 1970s, Vasco capitalized on the influx of talent to become one of the most powerful outfits on the East Coast. They had won five of the last seven state amateur cup titles, and at the time of the Final, were on their way to winning their sixth Connecticut Soccer League championship in the last seven years.
The 1978 vintage under their head coach Manuel Gaspar, just wanted to “win, win, win”, according to starting left-back Alvaro Ribeiro, and a close-knit group did plenty of that on their way to the final. They defeated Cleveland-based Inter-Italia SC 1-0 in extra time in the Round of 16. In the Quarterfinals, they had to travel into the city to take on the New York Astros at the historic Metropolitan Oval in Queens. After another narrow 1-0 win, the Connecticut Soccer League leaders got to host the Semifinals match against Ross Chain Bike out of the Philadelphia area. After neither team could find a goal, the match had to be decided by a penalty kick shootout. Joe McGuigan converted the winning kick to make Vasco the first Connecticut team to ever reach the championship game.
However, Los Angeles-based Maccabee AC, who had won three championships (1973, 1975, 1977) in the previous five years, stood between them and a chance at making Nutmeg State history. The Maccabees won that third title last year in Los Angeles, just like the previous two. So this was their first championship game outside of Southern California.
Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles was the site of Maccabee AC’s Southern California semifinal against Croatian SC on Feb. 12, which they won 2-0. A month later, in the Round of 16, they toppled Homenetmen 3-2 in front of 1,900 fans at the same stadium. The Quarterfinals (Regional Semifinal), were almost always a Northern California vs. Southern California matchup, and the Maccabees faced the San Francisco Glens home-and-away over two legs. The Maccabees won 1-0 in San Francisco on May 14, followed by a 4-0 home win the following week. In the national semifinals, they hosted Chicago’s RWB Adria where they pulled off a narrow 1-0 win to punch their ticket to the Final.
Maccabee promised to provide a stern test, but Vasco had the advantage of deciding where the decisive showdown would take place. They regularly drew crowds of 2,000 or more at Bridgeport’s Kennedy Stadium and sometimes at Hedges Stadium, so either venue would suffice.
However, the opportunity to take the field before the world-famous Cosmos proved too good to pass up.
Ex-Vasco defender Joe Queiros describes the reaction within the squad when that possibility presented itself.
“Everybody said ‘listen: playing at Giants Stadium before the Cosmos game!’ Everybody got all excited and said ‘let’s go, let’s do it!’”.
Beloved club president Don Santos was also on board, and a trip to the Meadowlands was eventually rubber-stamped.
No one can begrudge Vasco’s decision to move the most important encounter in club history to Pelé’s home stadium, but the artificial surface worked against them under the intense July sun. And during the hottest part of the day with the match kicking off at 3:30 p.m.
The Bridgeport boys had never played on turf before, and that unfamiliarity contributed to an eventual 2-0 overtime loss. After a scoreless 90 minutes, Benny Beinstock and Meir Segal each scored in the final nine minutes of extra time to give the Maccabees their fourth title in six years. It was one of the best runs in tournament history, and they would continue to be title challengers for the next four years, winning their fifth title in 1981 and reaching their last Final in 1982.
As an illustration of just how bothersome the turf was, Ribeiro recounts how instead of collapsing on the field in anguish at full-time, everybody immediately “sat down and started taking their cleats off because their feet were burning.”
“We had some good chances to score in regulation time, but we just couldn’t do it,” said Vasco da Gama president Don Santos told Larry Cole of the New York Daily News after the game. “We’re not too disappointed. It was great to play at Giants Stadium, and we’re very proud that we got as far as we did. This was the best season we ever had.”
Those seared soles would have been quickly forgotten had the Vasco players met any of the Cosmos legends in the vast concrete underbelly of Giants Stadium, but a chance meeting with greatness was not in the cards for the team.
The Challenge Cup and the NASL ploughed separate furrows. The NASL would die a slow death, eventually folding in 1984. While the Challenge Cup, largely due to a lack of professional teams taking part in the tournament in the 1970s, the 1980s and into the middle part of the 1990s, would start its footing once professional soccer leagues re-joined en masse in 1995. That began what is known as the tournament’s “Modern Era” nd it has been a slow growth from there.
As for Vasco da Gama, they continued to take part in the tournament throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. They would reach the Round of 16 in 1981, 1983 and 1984, but would only make one more deep run in the competition.
In 1992, they reached Final again, and just like before, they would fall in a close game with a powerfull team from the West Coast, San Jose Oaks. They would make one more tournament appearance in 1993 and that would be the final time Vasco da Gama was seen in the US Open Cup.
Soccer in the United States has grown up, but the trailblazing work of institutions like Vasco da Gama and Maccabee AC deserve just as much praise for their role in promoting the sport on our shores as the international stars who strutted their stuff in the NASL.