There seems to be little disagreement (famous last words) among fans of the NASL that the greatest game in that league's 17 seasons was the second leg of the 1979 semifinal between the New York Cosmos and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
That this bitter rivalry produced a heated battle was no surprise. There had been bad blood between the Cosmos and Whitecaps throughout the 1970 season, including a fight that had seen four players sent off, and it continued into the first game of their semifinal series, a 2-0 victory for Vancouver at Empire Stadium in Vancouver.
The spark that set off the trouble in that game was the second Vancouver goal, on a breakaway by Trevor Whymark. The Cosmos felt that the goal should have been disallowed for offside. Carlos Alberto led the Cosmos' futile protest against the goal, and the atmosphere wasn't helped any when Andranik Eskandarian was red carded after taking a run at a Vancouver player. Then, in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms after the game, Carlos Alberto got into an altercation with an official that, according to the league reports, included spitting on him.
The second leg was three days later at Giants Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 1979. In between, the Cosmos learned that they would have to play it without Eskandarian, suspended for a game because of his red card, or Carlos Alberto, suspended for the rest of the playoffs because of the tunnel incident. Ironically, the absence of Carlos Alberto forced the Cosmos to move Franz Beckenbauer from midfield to sweeper. Beckenbauer was the most famous sweeper in the history of soccer, but ever since the arrival of Carlos Alberto in July 1977, Beckenbauer had been playing in midfield for the Cosmos, somewhat unhappily.
Most of the 44,109 fans at Giants Stadium for the second leg were livid about the league rulings, and so were the Cosmos. Team president Rafael de la Sierra remarked caustically the day before the game: "So we'll lose. Isn't that what the commissioner wants?"
The Cosmos took a 2-1 lead into the locker room at halftime of the second leg, with Giorgio Chinaglia having scored both of their goals, after passes from Vladislav Bogicevic and Seninho. The Whitecaps had tied the game after Chinaglia's first goal, and they tied it again in the second half, with Whymark scoring on a sharp header.
NASL rules dictated that because Vancouver had won the first leg, if the Whitecaps won this second leg, the series would be over, and if the Cosmos won it, then a 30-minute "mini-game" would be played to decide the series. After Whymark's goal, the game ended in a 2-2 tie. There were no further goals during 15 minutes of sudden-death overtime, although Kevin Hector of the Whitecaps did force Giants Stadium to hold its breath by hitting the far post with a long-range shot. A shootout broke the tie, however, giving the victory to the Cosmos and forcing the mini-game.
The second-leg game had been 105 minutes of end-to-end action, and the mini-game was more of the same, but with no scoring. Carl Valentine came very close for Vancouver with a shot that ricocheted down after hitting the crossbar but was ruled not to have crossed the goal line. Mark Liveric thought he had won the game for the Cosmos with a goal in the final minute, but it was disallowed for a foul, so a second shootout was needed to decide which of the two exhausted teams would advance.
Vancouver won the shootout, and the Cosmos' season was ended. A week later, on the same Giants Stadium field, the Whitecaps won the NASL title by beating the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 2-1. Many fans could be forgiven for considering the struggle between the Whitecaps and the Cosmos the week before to have been the more memorable occasion.