USSoccerPlayers (May 1, 2007) — Clive Toye’s witty and anecdotal book A Kick in the Grass, published last year, illustrates how the North American Soccer League ultimately went down in self-inflicted flames, but not before it laid the foundation for the future success of youth soccer, the United States National Team, and Major League Soccer.
Toye is most famous for luring Pelé to the Cosmos, but he was also the president of several NASL clubs, the commissioner of the league, and the man who designed the public relations campaign that introduced the sport to the American public.
Given all these responsibilities, it will probably come as no surprise that he has a lot to say about the state of MLS, in particular, and American soccer in general.
USSoccerPlayers: Why do you think the NASL was able to generate much more of a buzz than MLS has so far managed? Is this entirely attributable to the fact that players like Pelé and Beckenbauer signed, or do you think there were other factors?
Toye: Many other factors. Collectively, we did almost anything to get media coverage and to make soccer grow. Often our players and staff spent more time out doing soccer clinics or personal appearances than they did preparing for a professional game.
Often, I did as many as three personal appearances a day myself. We set up clinics for parents, went out to do normal practice sessions on school fields, said nasty things about each other to get in the media, signed Harold the Chimp (great coverage when he urinated on the pile of press releases), had Crazy George roaming the stadia with his drum, and attitude.
There was a life and an humanity about it all — no corporate attitudes in sight. We used to say: ‘We don’t expect you to come to see us until we have been to see you,’ and it was difficult to avoid us.
USSoccerPlayers: This leads to the larger question? What do think MLS has done right, and what do you think they have done wrong? I am especially interested in your comments about the single-entity player acquisition and allocation structure, the salary cap, and the league’s reluctance to commit to superstar signings.
Toye: MLS has done a fine job in terms of TV, marketing, building soccer stadia. But so much of their success has been in the corporate, non-human areas. The quality on the field has not been uniformly good and although some clubs have done a good job — DC United for instance — being in New York has not been the best place in which to form a positive opinion about MLS soccer.
The MetroStars did a uniformly bad job throughout, maybe the Red Bulls are about to change the New York performances and perspective. I hope so.
But Don Garber invited a lot of local soccer people, including myself, to a meeting last year where the common complaint, boiled down, was: They sit there looking for us and our money and do nothing. The new rules on star players is a good one — some life and sizzle is needed and by limiting the number of over-the-pay-limit players, MLS prohibits the extravagance of later NASL years.
USSoccerPlayers: Do you think that MLS had adequately acknowledged the contribution that the NASL made to the growth of American soccer? Do you think that there are aspects of the NASL that MLS should have adopted?
Toye: MLS has signally and deliberately ignored the fact that the NASL ever existed. Without the NASL, soccer in the USA would have remained as we found it in 1967. The Federation had one part-time employee, American players of any ability were hard to find, and you could buy the US television rights of the World Cup for a few thousand dollars because no one was interested.
Who began the development of American youth? Who decided to build and bid for the hosting of the World Cup? Who did all the groundwork, created the foundation on which MLS now sits?
The answer is in four letters — NASL. Apart from the new star-player rule, I do not know what other changes MLS may insist upon. Again, I can only take a narrow New York view and there my only advice would be: Get off your backsides and out into the community.
USSoccerPlayers: What kind of impact do you expect David Beckham will have on MLS, and on North American soccer more generally? Would he have been the player you would have targeted?
Toye: Beckham will obviously have a great impact, mostly off the field. While Pelé was the best player in the world and the most publicized, Beckham is the most publicized. Beckham comes with a movie behind him, Bend It Like Beckham. If we had made one years ago, it would have been called Perfect It Like Pelé.
But Beckham will be on the shows and the air waves, he will mingle with the stars, and he will deliver some great crosses and make some wonderful free kicks. What with that and shirt sales and money for overseas exhibition games, he’ll probably earn his keep.
I think had I been in L.A., he is the player I would have chosen, though Cuauhtémoc Blanco, with his ability, fiery temperament and nationality would have come close.
In New York (and this was before the arrival of Bruce Arena), I told people I would take Roy Keane as player-coach for a period, then coach. You could not have kept the huge Irish population away, and look at the job he has done at Sunderland.
USSoccerPlayers: In your book, you pointed out that you had recommended Sven-Göran Eriksson, Arsène Wenger, and Gerard Houllier to coach the US National Team in the ‘94 World Cup? Do you have any opinion about whether Bob Bradley should be hired permanently, or about whom should be offered the job?
Toye: I do not know Bob Bradley and can only say he has done a good job everywhere except in New York where no one has done a good job in the past. He is definitely a better choice than Jürgen Klinsmann, who seemed to be the choice at one time. Unless you can get an acknowledged master of his trade — someone like Guus Hiddink — and even then I am not sure about it, then an American coach is best and I truly hope Bradley can do an outstanding job.
USSoccerPlayers: Why are you opposed to hiring Klinsmann?
Toye: Klinsmann was not so much the coach of Germany as the talisman, the hero returning to lift the spirits. What this country needs is a coach embedded in the game, spending every minute looking, experimenting and finally deciding — not someone commuting 6, 000 miles once a month as Klinsmann did from LA to his homeland.
USSoccerPlayers: Paul Gardner has often been very critical of the extent to which the English style of play has influenced American soccer, and he has often argued we need to move in a more Latin direction? Do you agree? And do you think the NASL did enough to reach out to Latinos?
Toye: I would hate to agree with anything Paul Gardner says, and I have told him so on every possible occasion in the last 30-plus years in which we have been friends. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think a lot of Latin-American soccer is rubbish just as much English soccer is rubbish – the ballet style versus the bayonet charge.
True, the Brazilians have a saying that the English invented football and then forgot how to play it, and there is little to compare with the best of Brazil or Argentina or the Spanish clubs infiltrated by players from those countries.
Back in the NASL days the Spanish-language population was a drop in the bucket compared with today, and the soccer-wise immigrant population was mostly from Europe, but even then look at the players we had from the South: Hugo Sanchez, Carlos Alberto, Nene Cubillas, Figueroa, Masnik, Cabanas, Romero, Cuellar, Mifflin and so on; all of a quality not present today in MLS.
With today’s emerging young Americans of Latino heritage, the US style of play is bound to change. Back when we started in 1967, it was, to put it kindly, of the kick-and-rush variety. Now there is skill and vision and hard work in the national team, for instance, and that is all going to improve as the days go by. We may end up with an amalgam of styles, mixing the extremes, which I think the Dutch of the Cruyff era came closest to achieving.
In the end, I would get bored with even the finest Brazil/Argentine games because I would not care who won, and that is what keeps us rooted to our TV sets or leaping from our seats.
So, for eternity, I would want to watch Exeter City, the team of my youth and to whose Supporters’ Trust (the people who keep it going) I have belonged since its inception. Only yesterday, City reached the giddy heights of the playoffs from the Conference and our loathed neighbors Torquay United have already been relegated to the Conference from League Two, so to pass them on the way up would be the highlight of the year. No matter what style we played, no matter how bad we looked, no matter anything.