October 20, 2018


How the birth and death of the NASL changed soccer in America forever (Michael Lewis, 20 Oct 2018, The Guardian)

It seemed that every player worth his salt from Europe and South America wound up playing in the NASL. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, Gerd Müller, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Giorgio Chinaglia are just some of the names who played in the league. But in the early days, before the influx of those superstars, the league's heart was in the right place, even if the games weren't. Many teams called baseball stadiums home, making for some challenging situations for everyone, especially goalkeepers, who had to deal with a dirt infield in front of the net.

"It made it very challenging especially when you had the dirt surface and the grass next to it," said Dick Howard, a goalkeeper who emigrated from England to pursue a soccer career (he was there at the league's birth and death). "The quality of the playing surfaces pale in comparison to what they are today. It was great from my standpoint because I enjoy watching baseball games and to play at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park was great."

Howard was one of the many players who took on missionary roles, spreading the gospel of the sport. As Rochester's director of youth development, Howard assigned teammates to visit schools to hold clinics. That could be a challenge, when soccer was foreign to many American kids.

"I went with my bag of soccer balls on my own and they directed me to the gymnasium," he recalls. "I heard this rumble. The rumble was students hurtling down the corridor and into the gym for phys ed. They saw the soccer balls, started dribbling, shooting baskets and said, 'Is this a new game that you devised?' They eventually played some sort of soccer."

Eventually, the league stabilized and grew. A New York team - the Cosmos - was added in 1971. In 1975, the team added a certain three-time World Cup champion. Pele's signing with the Cosmos put the league into another orbit in terms of recognition. It also helped turn the Cosmos into a team of all-stars, setting attendance records at Giants Stadium.

In many ways, the NASL was the wild west of professional soccer. Each team had personality, character and characters. For example, the coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Ron Newman, was also a brilliant salesman. During a losing streak in 1978, he was brought onto the Lockhart Stadium field in a coffin, sprang out and ran to a microphone and shouted: "We're not dead yet!" The crowd went wild.

The games themselves could be odd. The Rochester Lancers took on the Dallas Tornado in the 1971 playoffs but the lack of a penalty shootout meant the game lasted 176 minutes. The contest finally ended with a 2-1 win for the Lancers just before midnight, with the players understandably exhausted.

And while stars such as Pele and Cruyff earned plenty, many players were in it for the love of the game, rather than money. Toronto Metros-Croatia, the 1976 NASL champions, had their fans pass the hat around in a church basement to pay for players' salaries. The team lasted just three years. The most Howard earned in a season was $3,000 with Detroit in 1968 (around $21,000 in today's terms).

"Money was immaterial," he said. "We just had the opportunity to play the game we loved sometimes in front of good crowds, sometimes in front of wives and girlfriends, family. We certainly didn't enrich our bank accounts so thankfully now players are getting paid what they deserve to get paid for. You had to have that love, that passion for the game."

After Pele's arrival, teams wanted their own superstars. Some were worth their weight in gold, others were such poor investments that teams may as well have thrown cash out the window. "Pele had come and now there was all of this excitement and people had to get players and they overpaid for them," says Ted Howard, who was the NASL executive director for 14 years.

Pele: When Soccer Ruled the USA (David Hirshey, ESPN.com)

To enter the high temple of disco, drag queens and drug-fueled sex known as Studio 54, you had to make your way past the club's bouncers, whose approving nod could not be bought. Of the hundreds who massed behind the fabled velvet ropes, perhaps a third were granted access, while the rest were left to choke on the exhaust fumes from the limousines that pulled up to deliver the next load of beautiful people. They were the anointed, the uber-celebrities who didn't need a last name.




And me.

Actually, I didn't even need a first name. All I had to say were four magic words: "I'm with the Cosmos."

The Cosmos. The name alone conjures up a galaxy of stars. Or, as some would have it, galacticos. Yet 30 years before Real Madrid and Chelsea bestrode the world with their collection of celestial talent, the Cosmos conquered the last outpost of soccer indifference, the United States, and changed the nature of sport forever. It was an extraordinary moment in time, when "I'm with the Cosmos" carried as much weight as "I'm with the Rolling Stones" -- perhaps more, since even Mick Jagger wanted to be sprinkled with the stardust of New York's soccer demigods and its one Supreme Being.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé is the most incandescent player in the history of the sport. He made his debut on the world stage at 17, leading Brazil to the first of its five World Cups in 1958. For the next 15 years, the best and most experienced defenders on earth could do nothing to stop him, short of homicide. He scored more than 1,000 goals, many of them masterpieces worthy of the Louvre. But Pelé's fame transcended soccer the way Muhammad Ali's fame transcended boxing, touching people in every corner of the globe -- when he visited war-torn Nigeria in 1967, the country agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire -- and causing Brazil to designate him a "non-exportable national treasure."

Yet here he was, the King in New York, along with his court of fellow legends. Beckenbauer. Chinaglia. Carlos Alberto. The Cosmos came from 14 different nations to play the beautiful game in front of beautiful people for even more beautiful dollars.

In the summer of 1977, New York was riven by bankruptcy, serial murderer Son of Sam and a debilitating power blackout that triggered mass looting, arson and rage among its 8 million residents. The rest of the city might have been in chaos, but apparently no one told the Cosmos. If the apocalypse was nigh, they were determined to party their way through it every Monday night at Studio 54. The famed disco became a second locker room for the team, and you were likely to run into the same crowd in both places -- Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Rod Stewart, and the ultimate soccer groupie, Henry Kissinger.

There were, of course, subtle differences: At Studio 54, the players sprawled on leather banquettes instead of stools; glassy-eyed supermodels, rather than sweaty, overweight sportswriters, vied for their attention; Dom Perignon flowed instead of Gatorade ... and Grace Jones often rode naked on a white horse.
But even that spectacle was nothing compared with seeing the Black Pearl himself, Pelé -- with whom I was collaborating on a memoir at the time -- indulging in this late-night bacchanalia. I can still picture him, a blonde Velcroed to each arm, looking like a Roman emperor reclining on a gilded divan with toga-clad damsels feeding him grapes. Our eyes met and he said, with a mischievous laugh, "Not for the book, my friend. Not for the book."

A joyride, that's what it was, and I was on it. All those years of being mocked by friends and colleagues for my unshakable belief that you could pledge allegiance to soccer in America without being considered a threat to the Republic had come to this: me, hanging out with the most famous human on the planet at the epicenter of cool. Just a couple of years earlier, fresh out of college, I showed up at the New York Daily News to kick-start my career as a journalist. "The world is your oyster, kid," barked Dick Young, the famously xenophobic columnist and sports editor, as he put his arm around me and looked me square in my guileless face.

"I notice that you have no one on staff covering soccer," I replied. "I played in college and would like to carve out a regular beat here."

He looked at me as if I had just written my own obituary. "Don't waste your time on soccer, kid. It's a game for Commie pansies."

Posted by at October 20, 2018 9:03 AM