With the popularity of MLS we take American soccer for granted these days; but 50 years ago the global game was just setting out on its brave bid to make it big in the States and with differing levels of success.
Football will always have its work cut out to capture the imagination of the American public due to the popularity of the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, though the fact that it’s now mentioned in the same company is thanks to the pioneering of those who strove to bring the game to the mainstream almost half a century ago with the introduction of the NASL.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) lasted from 1968 to 1984 and in that time soccer was introduced to North America by the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Gordon Banks, Eusiebo and Bobby Moore to name just a few.
In 1967 there were two professional soccer leagues in the United States: the FIFA-sanctioned United Soccer Association, which consisted of European and South American teams based in the U.S. and given local names, and the unsanctioned National Professional Soccer League.
But following the international interest generated by the 1966 World Cup in England and in an effort to tap into the huge global market the two leagues merged in December 1967 to form the North American Soccer League and immediately set about selling the game to the American public.
A number of initiatives were introduced to make the game more appealing to a largely uninterested audience including a game clock which counted down from 90 minutes as well as a 35 yard line which effectively created an offside zone, not to mention the use of penalty shootouts to decide games and 6 points for win, 3 for a draw, plus up to 3 bonus points for each goal scored.
Initially, the changes worked and the game’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s as the league averaged more than 13,000 fans per game in each season between 1977 and 1983 while games were broadcast on network television in direct competition with far more popular sports such as baseball and American football.
Without doubt much of the excitement which surrounded this “whole new ball game” was generated by the New York Cosmos, by far the most glamorous and exciting side in the league at the time who had been formed in 1971 when the NASL expanded from 17 teams to 21 along with Montreal Olympique and the Toronto Metros.
The Cosmos signed a number of the world’s best players, including Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto and, as a result, averaged over 28,000 fans for each season from 1977 to 1982 while having three seasons of 40,000 plus gates each week – far more than any other club at the time.
By far the biggest turning point came in 1975 when they acquired the services of Brazilian star Pelé, a move which created a media sensation and transformed the image of soccer in the United States almost overnight.
From the moment he signed on June 10, 1975 Pelé became the hottest property around, bringing the attention and credibility the game desperately needed to capture the attention of the US market. The Cosmos’ home attendance tripled in just half the season Pele was there while when they played away from home huge crowds turned-up just to watch him play.
When Pele made his debut against Dallas Tornado at Downing Stadium in New York Ten million people tuned in to watch the game live on CBS, a record for a soccer match on US television by a considerable margin.
And it wasn’t just on the field where the game was attracting big names, stars of the music world were often seen in the stands including Mick Jagger who was a huge fan while Elton John, Paul Simon and Peter Frampton all invested in various franchises.
In a sign that the sport had officially arrived stateside American sports magazine Sports Illustrated even featured a soccer player on its cover for the first time - Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Bob Rigby – with the headline proclaiming ‘Soccer Goes American’, as Philadelphia won the 1973 championship match with six Americans in their starting line-up.
The 1974 NASL Championship game between the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Miami Toros was beamed live across the nation on CBS, the first national broadcast of a pro soccer match in the United States since 1968 and the following season another three franchises - San Jose, Seattle and Vancouver – joined the NASL as part of its west coast expansion.
By 1978 the NASL had grown to 24 teams but was beginning to receive criticism at the amount of foreign stars being brought in at the expense of local talent and a rule change meant that each squad had to start two U.S. or Canadian players and that each 17-man roster carry six home-grown names.
This was the beginning of the end and following the success of the 1970s the NASL would be on its knees by the mid-1980s as over-expansion, disputes with the players union and a crippling financial recession hit the country and its new pastime hard.
With the league declining rapidly and a number of franchises falling by the wayside, the NASL made several changes in an attempt to keep going including a $825,000 salary cap and a reduction in roster sizes from 28 to 19 players.
In a desperate attempt to keep soccer relevant the NASL even tried to bring the 1986 World Cup to the United States after Colombia withdrew from its commitment to host the event following financial difficulties, but FIFA decided to award that honour to Mexico instead.
By the start of the 1984 NASL season only nine teams took to the field and on March 28, 1985, the NASL suspended operations for the following campaign, when only the Minnesota Strikers and Toronto Blizzard were interested in playing – the bubble had well and truly burst.
In terms of legacy the original NASL can be credited with introducing soccer to the North American market for the first time, as well as being a major factor in the sport becoming one of the most popular participant sports among boys and girls in the States.
To illustrate its rapid growth in July 1988, just three years after the NASL’s demise, FIFA awarded the hosting of the 1994 World Cup to the United States, a competition which is still remembered for its glitz and glamour as well as being the most attended World Cup in the history of the event.
The popularity of the MLS, which was formed in 1996 on the back of that World Cup, can also be attributed to the NASL and several team names – the Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps - are all successor teams today while the New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and Tulsa Roughnecks FC have resurfaced in the new NASL and USL.
The North American Soccer League may be remembered more for its cheerleaders, slightly ageing and highly paid stars, not to mention the garishly loud kits, but the impact it had on a nation and the foundations it laid for the game across the United States are there for all to see as it continues to go from strength-to-strength in one of the toughest sporting environments on the planet.