Former USSoccerPlayers.com editor Ian Plenderleith's book Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League is out now in the United States. We talked to Ian about the NASL, its misconceptions, and what MLS should've really learned from the 1970s.
Let's start with a big picture question. The last time the NASL played a game was in 1984. A lot of time to turn a dead league into whatever anybody wants. What was the appeal for you to take it on?
I came to live in the US in 1999 and started to cover MLS soon afterwards. I found it odd that very few people talked about the NASL, except to denigrate it or chuckle about it knowingly. The league was like Great Uncle Hank who was a bit of a rogue – the maverick alcoholic no-good sonovabitch who died young. Slowly I realized how many great stories about the NASL had been lost, or had never really been covered. It was either the Cosmos or nothing. I bought Colin Jose's NASL stats book and it was like a Beatles fan discovering a lost Lennon-McCartney album from 1966. All those forgotten teams and games! It was full of players from my youth in the UK that I'd known well, but never realized they'd turned out for the San Diego Jaws or the Oakland Stompers.
A lot of the focus on the NASL is that it's a cautionary story for North American soccer. Over-expansion, players not committed to the league, and decisions that seem short sighted. What does that miss about the league?
It misses the sheer glory of the NASL's brave failure. That it was prepared to try almost anything to make soccer work in the US. I loved its fearlessness, and its two fingers up to FIFA and the rest of the soccer world and its superior attitude to the 'dumb Yanks'. The NASL knew that soccer as played and presented in Europe was never going to work in the US at that time, and so it messed with the points system, the field, the substitutions, the clock, and the whole spectacle surrounding the game, while never losing sight of soccer’s fundamental appeal. It was shameless about wanting to get fans into stadiums, and about wanting to entertain them once they were in there.
Did it seem obvious from your research that there was a tipping point for the NASL, where there was no salvaging the league?
Clive Toye cited the rapid expansion from 18 to 24 teams in 1978, which was against the advice of the league's own internal report that had been signed off on just a few months earlier. I think he's right. It must have seemed exciting to be spreading to so many new markets and making it look like this was really going to be, in Woosnam's words, "the sport of the 80s". It took two or three years for the new owners to realize they'd been sold a cash-sucking black hole, and that things weren't going to get profitable for a long time, if ever. Most of the established owners probably knew much sooner that Woosnam had over-reached, and eventually they started throwing in the towel too.
Had the NASL survived, do you think it was possible to build it back up to where it was?
Even in 1984 and early 1985, Toye - who had taken over as commissioner after the death of Howard Samuels - had a very sane recovery plan with just a handful of remaining teams. The blueprint he drew up at that point was more or less repeated by MLS a decade later - tight budgets and smaller rosters eventually playing in purpose-built soccer stadiums. But Toye had been bequeathed such an administrative and financial mess that most of the remaining teams dropped out and he was left with only two teams - Minnesota and Toronto. I think if just four more teams had stayed the course, it could have pulled through. Cable TV boomed just a couple of years later, and that would have been ideal for soccer coverage in local markets.
Was there one game that you think was the high point for the league?
The Cosmos beating Fort Lauderdale 8-3 in front of 77,000+ fans in a sold-out Meadowlands in August 1977 is generally seen as the league's zenith. But the Cosmos' Soccer Bowl win over Seattle later that month is my favorite NASL game. Even though there were only three goals, it was a wonderful, open exhibition of attacking soccer, as well as being Pelé's last ever competitive game.
Did you come into the book with any notions about the NASL that changed?
I was expecting it to be a lot more sex, drugs and tales of the high life. I'm very glad that it wasn't - those tales end up quickly becoming repetitive and, in all likelihood, they're exaggerated anyway. What struck me was how much the ex-players and ex-coaches cared about the NASL, and how many of them gave so much of their careers to it. Ron Newman was in that league for the whole 17 years as player and coach, and he got quite emotional talking about it. Especially in the early years, there were so many professional players who came from Europe because they were curious about the US, and enthusiastic about making soccer work here, and they put in a lot of effort to make it happen. Soccer is huge today in areas like Dallas, Atlanta, the Pacific North-West, NJ , DC and southern California because of the NASL and its network of pioneers who grew the game there decades before Beckham was flown in.
Other than not expanding too quickly into untested markets, what should MLS learn from the NASL?
Don't sign too many overpaid Englishmen in their mid-30s. Oops, too late. Actually, MLS may be beyond the stage when it needs to learn lessons from that far back - when it started out in 1996, it was already using the NASL as the bad example to learn from, but it maybe leaned too far in the opposite direction by rejecting some of the good things about the NASL. And as implied by some players interviewed in the book, they ended up having to turn to the old NASL hotbed of the Pacific Northwest to boost, or maybe even save, their league. You can add Canada to that equation too. I think MLS turned its back on some markets simply because they were ex-NASL. If anything, now the lesson might be to embrace and celebrate your history, which began long before 1996. And, it’s definitely better for North American soccer to work with rival leagues than to pick fights with them.
Sebastian Giovinco is an MVP candidate in MLS and a player that chose Toronto FC over staying with Juventus. It seems like an NASL type of move, one that happened from the very beginning of the league given the option to play pro soccer in North America. Do you think that appeal helps or hurts North American soccer?
A player of Giovinco’s age and talent playing in MLS can only be a plus for both the league and the profile of the sport. I’m more skeptical about the Lampards and the Gerrards. I think the money being used to pay their salaries could be much better used elsewhere. Players like that were in many respects a good fit for the 70s. Now, I don’t see anything beyond questionable short term gain to their employment in MLS.
If you were going to make a playlist to go along with the book, what would be on it?
How much space do you have? I’ll try and keep it short.
The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice (1966). Released on Pet Sounds just in time for the league’s birth, with an especially apposite lyric for US soccer: “Wouldn't it be nice if we were older/Then we wouldn't have to wait so long.” The Beach Boys played several double-headers with NASL games in the late 70s and early 80s, providing a welcome if somewhat mendacious boost to the league’s attendance averages.
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1972). From the album of the same name because it was, like the NASL, a one-off, revolutionary fusion of styles that drew from the past and the present, and pointed to the future.
Electric Light Orchestra – Livin’ Thing (1976). The peak years of the NASL coincided with the peak years of stadium rock, and the fan cultures of both shared a lot of features – the game/concert as a big event, the spectacle of mass entertainment, the easy availability of recreational drugs. I’m no fan of stadium rock, but ELO was an exception, and this fine, typically upbeat track from the wonderful and aptly titled A New World Record is a good example of Jeff Lynne’s ease at being cheerfully influenced by US AOR. He’s a Birmingham City fan too.
Lou Rawls – You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine (1976). A song for those soccer fans still somewhat besotted with the old NASL. Not just one of the greatest tracks ever recorded, but I chose Rawls because he often turned out to sing The Star-Spangled Banner before games and at Soccer Bowl.
The Ramones – Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue (1976). The NASL era was short, but embraced the heydays of stadium rock, disco and punk in its lifetime. Here’s down and dirty New York in the 70s – think Randall’s Island, a knackered field, empty stands, and pre-Pelé despair.
Blondie – Pretty Baby (1978). From one of the greatest pop collections ever recorded, Parallel Lines, this is a sweet and dreamy song that carries you away into the realm of the unreal, much as the Cosmos were doing to the league at this time.
Lipps Inc. – Funkytown (1979). This disco classic is kind of a novelty hit, a dreaded earworm that somehow still irks and jerks me nearly four decades later. Exemplifies the fun and funk of the NASL.
Defunkt – Illusion (1982). Joe Bowie’s frenetic NY jazz-funk outfit mirror the desperation of the league’s final years - still energetic, defiant, and gloriously all over the place, and maybe still living under the illusion of dreams and happiness.