Life without Pele begins for the North American Soccer League on April 1 with realigned divisions, six expansion teams, four franchise shifts, new coaches all over the league, an expanded schedule, a new playoff format and one big question.
Can the league maintain the momentum it built during the final days of Pele's career in 1977?
Apparently those who run the league, from Commissioner Phil Woosnam on down, think they can. That is why they have taken on so many expansion teams and expanded the number of playoff teams to 16. Only eight of the league's 24 clubs will go to the sidelines after the regular season.
The Washington Diplomats, one of the teams that exited quickly at the end of the '77 season, have made a number of moves to prevent that from happening again, the most important being the hiring of Gordon Bradley as coach.
It was Bradley, along with Clive Toye, who built the Cosmos into the world's most popular team and the 1977 NASL champions.
Bradley took the job under the condition that he would have complete authority over the soccer end of the organization, a luxury 1977 coaches Dennis Viollet and Alan Spavin never had. To ensure this, the Dips have been broken into two divisions. The promotion side is headed by General Manager John Carbray, the soccer side by Bradley.
Bradley already signed six new players, including the club's 1976 leading scorer Paul Cannell, who did not return in 1977. He has also discarded a number of last year's players and more will go before the April 1 season opener in Philadelphia.
Bradley is not the only man shaking things up in the league. His old club, the Cosmos, continue to be the league's most dynamic - and richest - franchise.
They discarded the goalkeeper who led them to their championship a year ago - Shep Messing who later signed with Oakland - and have signed a number of new players.
Bradley's old boss Toye has set up shop in Chicago where he is expected to make a contender of the dormant Sting. The fact that the club is in a division with three expansion teams won't hurt, either.
Expansion will be watched as closely as anything in the opening days of the season. Boston and Philadelphia, which had franchises and failed, will try again. Memphis, Houston, Detroit and Colorado will try for a first time.
In the meantime, four teams have moved since the Cosmos walked away with a 2-1 win over Seattle in Soccer Bowl '77.
The St. Louis Stars, one of the league's original clubs in 1967, finally abandoned ship and have set up in Anaheim under the name California Surf. Team Hawaii has landed in Tulsa; the Las Vegas Quicksilvers, who abandoned San Diego in 1976 will try that city again. And the Connecticut Bicentennials, the league's weakest franchise a year ago, will try and follow up San Jose's success in the Bay area as the Oakland Stompers.
With 10 new franchise locations, the league had to throw away its alignment and start from scratch. Always thinking, Woosnam came up with a not-too-original idea: He decided to break down the league into six four-team divisions. Three of the divisions would be in the American Conference and three would be in the National Conference. The Dips will be in the National East.
Sounds familiar football fans?
"Don't think they weren't thinking about the NFL when they decided to do it this way," one league official said. "These guys really believe that in a few years there will be enough demand for soccer that they can sell the TV rights to two networks like the NFL did."
Right now the league would settle for selling its TV rights to one major network. TVS eagerly picked up the second-year option on its contract after doing relatively well in the ratings a year ago. If the 8-10 telecasts are successful, there is a chance that one of the major networks will sign some sort of contract for 1979.
In Washington, the Dips expect to televise at least 10 of their games WTTG-TV-5 and hope, if the reaction is positive, to do more.
The most important thing, however, is stadium attendance. Last year, helped by the presence of Pele, the league drew over three million fans. The question now becomes: what will happen without the biggest drawing card in the history of the sport?
"I think we've established ourselves as being much more than Pele," Woosnam said during the league meetings. "You can never play down the impact he had on us, he gave us credibility. But I think we are now at the point where we can walk without him."
The Cosmos averaged over 34,000 fans a game last season. More significant is the fact that the Minnesota Kicks with no Peles, no Franz Beckenbauers and no Giorgio Chinaglias, averaged over 31,000 fans a game.
The Dips finished eighth in attendance, drawing a lttile more than 13,000 fans a game although the club has refused to release it paid-attendance figures.
Certain cities are now established soccer cities: New York, Minnesota, Seattle, Portland, Tampa Bay, Dallas.Whether or not cities like Washington, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Vancouver can build on improvement made last year and how the 10 new clubs do is what the league will be keeping an eye on.
How the longer, more hectic season goes over is also a key point. The teams will play 30 regular-season games in 1978 as opposed to 26 in 1977. This rise is significant since last year's NASL schedule was already considered the most grueling in the world.
When that schedule is complete the team that wins the championship will have to defeat four other clubs to win the title. That is a lot of games.
More may be the buzz word for the NASL this season. More games, more teams - and also, more Americans.Under rules passed at the winter meetings, a team must now have two Americans on the field at all times. Next year the minimum will be three and the number will increase yearly until it reaches six.
"This is a good rule because it's going to force a lot of the teams to change the way they recruit," Bradley said. "They're going to have players instead of just doing out and recruiting foreign players.
"If they don't put the rule in some teams would just never make an effort to recruit Americans. Someday the league will consist of almost all Americans with just a few foreign stars."
That day is a long way off. But 11 years ago when the league opened for business, few would have envisioned a thriving 24-team league at any time.
The man who turned it all around was Pele. When he signed with the Cosmos in 1975 few had heard of the NASL. When he retired on Oct. 1, 80,000 people showed up at the Meadow-lands and the game was on national television.
Buoyed by its 1977 successes the league is going all out in 1978. It will either walk very firmly into the limelight without Pele or take a hard fall.
To the NASL, more means better. Only time will tell if it is correct.