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Original Issue

The NASL: It's Alive But On Death Row

A salary cap has saved the soccer league from complete collapse, but its future looks forbidding indeed

At 3:10 a.m. on Friday, April 20, only two weeks before the North American Soccer League's season opener, Howard Samuels, the president of the league, cradled the telephone in his Manhattan office for the last time in a long night. The switch should have been thrown at midnight, and by now the corpus of the NASL should have twitched its last. Instead, on this very good Good Friday, Samuels was getting word of a stay of execution. The news was that a collective bargaining agreement with the NASL Players Association had been reached; so what had once been labeled America's Sport of the '80s could be unstrapped from the chair and led—where? Back to Death Row for a few more torturous months? Or out into the sunlight of a miraculously granted reprieve and a new chance for the world's most popular sport to conquer its last, least hospitable frontier?

"Everybody thinks we're dead," says the urbane, silver-haired Samuels, who, less than two years ago, left the world of business and politics to try to set the NASL's woebegone finances to rights. "And let me tell you, we're sick. I cannot promise success. But we've changed direction onto a course that may eventually affect all professional sports in America." By that he meant a total cap on player salaries, which is a main element of the new agreement—an $825,000 per annum maximum payroll for each club, to be achieved by mandatory annual 10% reductions. "The National Basketball Association has a salary cap system based on a percentage of team revenues, but, for the first time in America, this is a total cap," Samuels says, "and one day, even though this was forced on us, all of American pro sport will thank us."

In the NASL, though, the wonderful concentration of mind promised by Dr. Johnson to those who are to be hanged in a fortnight is plain enough in the new deal. Each team's player roster will be reduced from a maximum of 28 players to 19. Furthermore, the practice of granting players an automatic 10% raise in the first option year of their contracts is discontinued. Players whose contract options are exercised by their clubs must play their first year with a zero raise; the 10% raise comes in the second option year. Altogether, by the end of the three-year life of the agreement, the nine NASL clubs expect they'll have saved in the neighborhood of $750,000 apiece each season. And, meanwhile, Samuels himself has cut his salary 50%, "to barely six figures."

Most of the owners of the NASL's surviving franchises (there were 24 in 1980) dream of similar cuts in their losses. In San Diego, Socker president Jack Daley says his club has lost $10 million since 1978. In 1983 the Chicago Sting was more than $1 million in the red, while Golden Bay lost more than $3 million. And the four Tulsa oilmen who sold the Roughnecks last January—three months after they'd won the 1983 Soccer Bowl—said they had dropped $8 million over four years. Only the Cosmos, desperately trying to cling to the glamorous image the team enjoyed just a few years ago, speak of insignificant, unspecified losses.

Others who care for the sport feel threatened in less tangible ways. San Diego coach Ron Newman, who has been in the NASL since 1968, its first season, said after the settlement, "If the NASL had gone, it would have been like losing a leg. I've put 17 years of my life into this league." He had no doubts of whom to blame for the near catastrophe. "Management," he said. "We changed directions so many times, you didn't know what would happen next. Days after the biggest crowd ever in Washington, D.C., the franchise folded. We'd shift from foreign superstars to grass roots and back again." Says Noel Lemon, the irascible Ulsterman who's general manager of the Roughnecks, "The NASL is at an alltime low."

If the breast-beating has a single theme, it can be summed up in a well-worn phrase: Too far, too fast. "Our hype tried to present the NASL as a new NFL when we weren't ready," says the Sockers' Daley. Sting owner Lee Stern declares, "We spent too much money trying to market teams as if they were instant big league franchises before the attendance and money justified it." And (Daley again), "It became fashionable to chase the Cosmos. Everyone had to have a Pelé. Coaches went around the world on talent searches, forcing the prices up."

However, sackcloth and ashes on this scale invite yet more criticism. In the marketplace of pro sport, hype is no crime so long as the product has quality. But what the NASL is still unwilling to admit is that what it gave the American public wasn't the game that Brazilians shoot themselves and each other over, that divides the city of Glasgow into two permanently warring factions. It isn't the game whose showpiece, the World Cup championship game, outdraws the Olympics on global TV. Instead, the NASL's product was a slowed-down, predigested, bland, dull copy of the real thing. When a cab-driver in Tulsa said recently that soccer to him is "a bunch of queers in short pants, a Communist game, too slow and boring," he may have been wrong on the first two counts but surely not on the third, at least not in North America.

"Behold thy gods, O Israel!" thundered Rehoboam, King of Judah, and in NASL terms, the false gods in question were Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, George Best, Johan Neeskens, Johan Cruyff and Gordon Banks, to name the chief members of the pantheon.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Pelé gave the game here something called "credibility." That's a matter for argument. What is inarguable is that when he came to the Cosmos in 1975 at the age of 34, he was already three years into retirement from the national side of Brazil—in the World Cup finals of 1974 in Munich, his role was chiefly to add class to the Pepsi-Cola marketing unit there. In New York he still displayed touches of ball-playing genius, just as Muhammad Ali, if dragged into the ring right now, might be able to show occasional bursts of life. But that was all, and the NASL seemed to take its pace from Pelé.

Even Chinaglia, whom the Cosmos next added to their international cast in 1976, sometimes couldn't keep himself from yelling at Pelé on the field, treatment that Giorgio himself had suffered in full measure from many thousands of Italian fans when he was replaced during the second half of what would be his last game for his national side during the 1974 World Cup in Stuttgart. Chinaglia had played 14 games for Italy as striker and scored just four goals. For most of his career there he had played in third-and second-division soccer.

Behold thy gods, O NASL...! Best of Northern Ireland: overage, overweight, taking the cure. The Dutchmen Neeskens and Cruyff: the former, signed by the Cosmos in 1979, notable for his mysterious lost weeks away from the Meadowlands; the latter patently uninterested in what he was doing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. The poor Englishman Gordon Banks: once the world's greatest goalie, then with an eye lost in a car crash, selling all he had left—his name—to the Fort Lauderdale (now Minnesota) Strikers. The Elephants' Graveyard, unkind Europeans called the NASL, but a parallel closer to home might be those stud farms in Kentucky where the great horses of the past, the Secretariats and Spectacular Bids, the Alydars and Affirmeds, can be seen by the curious, peacefully grazing. But nobody asks them to race.

There were exceptions. Franz Beckenbauer had some prime years left when he came to the Cosmos from West Germany in 1977, and England's Trevor Francis had a dazzling season or two in Detroit in 1978-79. (Sampdoria of Italy paid $1.1 million for him in 1982.)

In the short term, the Pelé concept was fine and there were spectacular crowds at Giants Stadium, but there had been no sowing of a seed. By the time even an unsophisticated clientele could see that these just couldn't be the great players of the past, there was nothing with which to follow the act, except for further imports—many of whom treated their American season as a summer vacation, and, like almost every soccer player in the world, loathed the artificial surfaces covering 13 of the 24 present and former NASL playing fields, which took the life out of the game.

Too far, too fast.... "Everyone thought soccer had arrived," says Lemon. "People were talking about the Cosmos and Pelé. Even Howard Cosell was talking about soccer. Everyone had stars in their eyes because ABC planned to televise some games, but they were deluding themselves.

"ABC showed the games on Sunday afternoons in the middle of the summer. I never stayed in to watch. I doubt if I'd have stayed in if the Roughnecks were playing. Then Madison Avenue started screaming that the NASL had bad ratings. The NASL got a black eye again. We should've stayed off network TV until we could command prime time. Then we could've thoroughly examined the ratings and seen where we stood."

Lemon also has strong opinions, probably justifiably, about the quality of ownership the NASL attracted. He says it was the wrong kind. "We allowed Nelson Skalbania to move a club from Memphis to Calgary and fold it in a year," he says. "We allowed an Englishman, Ralph Sweet, to take over Minnesota, one of our best franchises, and destroy it in 18 months. He closed it down on the transatlantic phone. A man called Bruce Anderson took one of our flagship franchises, Seattle, and ran it into the ground in a year. We lost a great owner in Lamar Hunt, one of the fathers of the NASL. All over the country there are scattered carcasses of NASL franchises."

One of the NASL's newer owners is Carl Berg, who in 1982, with five other men, purchased the Golden Bay franchise in San Jose. His money is out of Silicon Valley, and before he bought into the Earthquakes he had never seen, or cared to see, a soccer game. However, he's anxious to reform the game's basic rules. "No offside penalty!" he demands. "We want more scoring!" Who doesn't? But to eliminate the offside rule (its infringement is a free-kick offense, by the way, not a penalty) would be to make patent nonsense of the game. "We want breakaways!" he declares—which of course would be unnecessary without the offside rule—and, "Make the goalie release the ball within five seconds!" This last wrinkle, which the NASL has indeed adopted for the new season, evokes the image of a goalkeeper splayed in the mud, trying to hold on to the ball, the shoe studs of two attackers six inches from his head, as one of them says politely, "Your five seconds are up, sir." Meanwhile, Berg, the instant expert, speaks again. "I saw Liverpool in an [unspecified] important game, and only two times in the whole game were there totally exciting plays." Liverpool, winner of the English championship three times in the last five years, champion of Europe in 1976-77, 1977-78, 1980-81 and currently leading the English First Division, has nevertheless scored 65 goals in 37 games this season.

In a science-fiction short story of the 1950s, The Marching Morons by Cyril M. Kornbluth, a benevolent government, aware that its citizens are devoted to excitement, arranges for their cars (automatically piloted, of course, for this is sci-fi, and their speed restricted to a decorous 40 mph) to evoke the sensation of Formula One speedsters. Colored lights explode on the dash, sirens wail and images projected on windows and windshield reel past at a crazy speed. Similarly, if you're willing to regard your fans as morons, why not get them going with giant goals, and goalies who by regulation are no more than 5 feet tall. Abolish the rule against handling, if you like, or do away with the goalie altogether. But then, you shouldn't be allowed to call the result soccer. In fact, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the worldwide ruling body of the sport, would be very concerned if you did.

To hear some NASL owners speak of FIFA—of which few of them had heard until recently—you would believe that it's a malevolent entity, which, from its mountain fastness in Switzerland, is gleefully devoted to keeping honest American entrepreneurs from making a few dollars on their soccer investment. FIFA has never looked kindly on any of the NASL's rule changes, such as the overtime "shootout," and has brought the league into line sharply, when the need arose, over its 35-yard offside rule. In 1973 FIFA had allowed the NASL to experiment with "blue lines" similar to those in ice hockey, 35 yards from either goal, to mark off zones in which the offside rule would take effect. The rest of the world has always lived with the mid-field stripe separating the two attacking zones, and in 1982 FIFA called a halt to the NASL's experiment. In 1983 FIFA refused to bestow upon the U.S. its ultimate gift, the hosting of the 1986 World Cup finals, choosing Mexico instead.

It isn't difficult to understand why FIFA should raise the hackles of red-blooded Americans. No other major team sport in this nation is governed entirely by foreigners, and FIFA itself is not only cosmopolitan but also conservative. Even the English, who invented the game, have recently tried and failed to amend certain rules—i.e., the so-called "professional foul" (similar to the intentional foul in basketball) and the manner in which a defender is allowed to pass back to his own goalie.

But the English haven't yet started drumming their heels on the ground and screeching "Foul!" at FIFA, nor is FIFA in the business of persuading that Tulsa cabdriver to buy a season ticket for Roughneck games. The laws of soccer have evolved slowly and naturally since the mid-19th century, and 150 nations follow them. Therefore, when, like a petulant teenager, an official of the NASL says that the league is going to walk right out the door and never come back, FIFA, like an unyielding parent, remains understandably calm.

In fairness to the NASL, much of its trouble with FIFA should never have occurred, because in the world structure of soccer there is a body that should be a link between the NASL—which is merely an organization that arranges games among clubs—and FIFA itself. This is the United States Soccer Federation, which is, strictly speaking, senior to the NASL, has prime responsibility for the game in our country and reports directly to Switzerland. It's responsible also, in the opinion of many, for the disarray in which the NASL now finds itself.

"We had to operate with no really effective support from the USSF, which was jealous and disorganized," Chicago's Stern said last week. Indeed, until recently the USSF has been a relic of the early, ethnic days of U.S. soccer—a small committee of little international prestige that was overtaken by the rise of the NASL and the boom in youth soccer. USSF members enjoyed their junkets to World Cups, voting in committees, mixing with the great ones of the sport. And then they found themselves riding a tiger.

This happened very suddenly, after the World Cup of 1982 in Spain, when it became apparent that Colombia, which was to have been the host in 1986, couldn't mount the finals after all. As the rotating system goes, '86 was to be the turn of the Western Hemisphere, so that the U.S. now found itself with a golden opportunity, enhanced when Brazil dropped out of the bidding, to stage the Cup and thus powerfully imprint the game on the consciousness of the nation.

What went wrong is still a matter of debate. There was an understandable naiveté in the way in which the U.S. went about presenting its strong case—strong because of the unmatched organizational and financial strength and media clout it could give the event, and also because it presented the prospect of converting a whole continent to soccer's cause. Meanwhile, inside FIFA there were forces at work to ensure that in July 1986 the final would be held in Aztec Stadium, Mexico City, not in Giants Stadium, New Jersey.

Very recently, though, there have been indications that the World Cup was lost largely because of a wound that, even as a powerful delegation headed by Henry Kissinger was pleading the American case, was inflicted by our own side. Sources close to Hermann Neuberger, the West German who's a member of FIFA's inner circle, say that at a critical stage in the negotiations Jo√¢o Havelange, the Brazilian who serves as FIFA's president, received a call from a prominent USSF member. The U.S., Havelange was informed by the caller, was "not ready" to stage the World Cup. It is understood that the caller was a USSF official who was jealous of the NASL.

Meanwhile, the USSF has proved to be not ready itself in other matters. The bold concept of Team America that Samuels and his predecessor, Phil Woosnam, visualized as a nucleus for both the U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams was effectively wrecked when the USSF failed to come up with the support that had been promised. Even now, the U.S. Olympic team still isn't set, nor is the U.S. team for the '86 World Cup, which will have to play its first-round games this September. Both teams are the USSF's, not the NASL's, responsibility.

In the meantime also, the sugar-candy diet of indoor soccer has further eroded the NASL. It's fine to say that the indoor and outdoor games are separate, but in truth they use many of the same players, and already there is evidence that they cannot go on playing for 12 solid months without a savage risk of injury. A majority of NASL teams would like to switch to the indoor game altogether, with the Cosmos one of the few exceptions. Many players would also like this. Julie Veee of the Sockers, for example, who would find it tough to hold a place on a European third-division side, recognizes that the simplistic indoor version suits his talents better than the grown-ups' game. "Tell the rest of the world to go on playing in the mud and rain," he says. "We'll get rich while staying clean. The future of American soccer is indoors."

If the NASL goes along with this sentiment and, as is possible, merges with the Major Indoor Soccer League, then that would seem to be the end of the song.

Or maybe just one chorus. Those with a deep love of a game that doesn't need gimmicks to prove itself, whose parish is the world, might almost welcome the demise of the NASL in return for a saner revival sometime in the future. "The game of soccer is stronger than the NASL," says former Roughneck Kevin Eagan. "Even if the people running the NASL ruin it, the game will stay."

If it does, it will be because of two quite different trends now discernible in the national picture. One is the recognition by two clubs in particular, the Cosmos and the Vancouver Whitecaps, of one of the great strengths of soccer—its international dimension.

It might be recalled that after the '82 World Cup, there was an exhibition game featuring a team of European All-Stars against the Rest of the World All-Stars that sold out 76,891-seat Giants Stadium—this at a time when NASL attendance was starting to verge on the comic. Said Cosmos president Rafael de la Sierra last week, "New Yorkers have proved they'll respond to the best. This year we'll give them Barcelona with Maradona; Juventus of Italy with Paolo Rossi. We'll give them Falcao, Kevin Keegan, Peter Shilton." The Cosmos' home schedule, in fact, will have as many international meetings on it as NASL league games, and the team hopes to compete in Copa de Libratores de América, the Western Hemisphere's Club Championship, in which it would face in earnest clubs like Argentina's Boca Juniors and Brazil's Fluminense.

The other trend? Out there in the wings still is the huge army of young soccer players, more than eight million strong, according to an A.C. Nielsen survey, that far outnumbers the participants in any other team sport in the U.S. You'll hear, of course, that these kids will grow up to be lawyers and then buy season tickets to baseball and football games. But it doesn't have to be that way.

On his desk, for the edification of his underlings, de la Sierra has a sign that reads: GOD'S DELAYS ARE NOT GOD'S DENIALS. Soccer, at least NASL soccer, has its back so hard against the wall at present that the bricks appear to be crumbling. But the NASL isn't the only game in town. Soccer is too great a sport to be lost because of the antics of sports-illiterate owners and fast-buck seekers. Even if the NASL goes gurgling down tubes of its own making, soccer will surely come back for another life.



After greed and mismanagement landed the NASL in the hot seat, Samuels, the owners and players agreed to get smart together.



When the NASL trumpeted Pelé's arrival, some derided the league as an elephants' graveyard.



Artificial turf sissifies the U.S. game.



Some NASL owners would shrink the goalies, but what would they call the game?