Heaps knows Pelé's impact on U.S. soccer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- All you need to do is look right at the Revolution bench to see the influence that Pelé exerted here in the country nearly four decades ago.

As a kid, Jay Heaps popped in a VHS featuring the legendary playmaker and was instantly mesmerized. So he did what any soccer-loving kid would do, he set out to mimic one of the drills. To do so, he tethered a soccer ball to a piece of rope, tied it to a tree branch, and practiced his heading over and over until the branch snapped.

On Thursday, Heaps met the man who helped introduce him -- as a well as a whole generation of American children -- to the game of soccer. Not unexpectedly, he couldn’t help but smile as Pelé himself spoke beside him during Thursday’s press conference announcing a partnership between Sovereign | Santander and the Revolution.

“Pelé helped start soccer here (in the United States),” Heaps said. “(He promoted) it and opened up the eyes of young kids like myself and across the country.

The story of Pele’s arrival in the United States is well-known. And it involved classic American business savvy to get him here.

A year after the World Cup hero called it a career with his longtime club -- Santos of Brazil -- Warner Communications lured him back to playing in 1975.

But shortly after the ink dried on his multi-million dollar contracts with the Warner-owned New York Cosmos, it was clear that Pele would have to do a lot more than perform on the pitch.

He had to be an ambassador. In a country in which soccer was little more than a curiosity, Pelé was needed to help showcase soccer in a country that was, at the time, largely indifferent to it.

“I came to the United States to help the people (enjoy soccer),” Pele said during the press conference. “But we got so much support at that time … then the (sport) grew a lot and it was amazing.”

During his three seasons with the Cosmos, Pelé attracted the crowds wherever he went. And wherever he went -- including Boston University for a friendly in 1975 -- more and more kids learned and eventually fell in love with the game.

Although the sport may have fallen on hard times during the 1980s, USA ’94 invoked the same passions that Pelé initially helped spark nearly 20 years previous. Two years later, Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off its inaugural campaign, and set the standard for professional soccer in the U.S.

Today, the sport is growing. MLS is expected to welcome its 20th franchise in 2014, and the attendance numbers are projecting record highs before the season closes next month. Across the country, viewer ratings for international competitions are at an all-time high.

History will tell you that there were plenty of people playing soccer before Pele arrived. There were leagues, many of which came and went, and there were a number of local legends who all contributed to building the foundation prior to 1975.

But it was Pelé, with his charisma, skill and jaw-dropping goals, who sent the sport through the roof and helped sow the seeds for soccer’s continued success in the U.S.

“No doubt, it’s grown a lot,” Pele said. “I’m glad to have been a part of this. It’s an honor.”