May 8, 2008 - Alan Willey, inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003 during the commemoration of the National American Soccer League (NASL), is originally from England. He came to the U.S. on loan in 1976 from Middlesbrough (English Football League) and ended up staying in the U.S. for nine seasons. He played primarily for the Minnesota Kicks from 1976 until 1981. While with the Kicks, he played in the 1976 NASL Championship game against Toronto Metros-Croatia and in 1978, Willey scored five goals in a playoff game against New York Cosmos, leading the Kicks to victory by a 9-2 score. After his stint with the Kicks, Willey spent two seasons with Montreal. He then returned to Minnesota and played for the Strikers. He finished his career as the second leading goal scorer in NASL history with 129 goals in 234 games.
Where are you living now? Are you still involved in the game of soccer in any way?
We live in Bloomington, Minnesota. I’m not involved in soccer anymore, although I did coach my younger daughters when they were younger. But they’ve grown now and they’ve grown out of soccer as well.
What made you decide to stay in the States and continue playing in the NASL rather than return to England?
For the first two years, I did return. Basically, I went back and forth. Starting in 1976, I played in the States in the summer, and played in England in the winter. For the first two years, I played both here and there, in England, for Middlesbrough. Then, in 1978, which was my third year of playing for the Kicks, we changed managers in Middlesbrough, and he brought his own people in. I kind of fell down the pecking order because of that and I asked to be traded. That’s when the coach of the Kicks told me to sit tight, and he arranged the trade for me. Since 1978, I’ve stayed over here, to play and then work and live.
What impact do you think the NASL had on the development of professional soccer in the States?
The league had been going for a little while before I got here. In 1976, there were a lot of farm players, and a lot of foreign-born players coming over to play at the time. I think we had to have at least two U.S.-born players on the field at all times. From that time until now, it’s grown to be almost the opposite. I believe they’re only allowed two foreign-born players on the field at a time, something like that. This is how much the leagues have grown. Plus, you hear the younger players, Eric Wynalda, and Mia Hamm, talking about watching the NASL when they were growing up. It had to have had an impact on those players.
How do you think professional soccer in the States compares to the game in Europe nowadays?
It’s getting there. It’s still a different pace. If you wanted to compare the NASL, you’d have to compare it to a South American type of soccer style, a game that’s not as fast. The Premier League in England is the fastest game in the world. The foreign players are always surprised when they get there at how fast it is. That’s the difference today between Premier League and MLS, in the increased pace of the game. The skill levels are really not that far apart. The play of the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup proved that. Luckily, the skill level is there. This comes from most of the U.S. guys playing in Europe now anyways.
How do the youth soccer programs in Europe and the States compare?
For the youth over here, soccer is everywhere you look nowadays. Our house in Bloomington backs up to three soccer fields. From spring to summer, there’s always a game going on, with players of all ages and skill levels. It’s a matter of taking it to the next step, giving them opportunities to play when they’re older. When I was growing up, we had organized school teams. We played against other schools, starting at seven or eight years old all the way to 15 and 16 years old. This is also starting now, in the States, but I don’t know if the school programs will compare to what they’ve set up with the youth soccer leagues.