By J Hutcherson - Howard Samuels was a remarkable man. As a lieutenant colonel in Patton's seventh army he helped liberate Buchenwald, he was an aide to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter, he marched in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King, had two unsuccessful runs for governor of New York, turned a plastic bag business into a billion dollar corporation, and earned the nickname "Harry the Horse" for his work in establishing the offtrack betting industry.
When, on June 25, 1982, Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern introduced the media to the new President and CEO of the North American Soccer League, he was confident. "Our new man is the man who's going to lead soccer to the pinnacle." Instead Howard Samuels would ultimately lead the NASL to the brink of nonexistence.
When Howard Samuels took over the leadership of the NASL in the summer of 1982, the league was facing yet another crisis. Teams were folding and the players were threatening work stoppages. There was no national television contract and the owners refused to put money into a national marketing promotion.
The long serving NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam had retained his title, yet now answered to the office of the President and CEO, an office Samuels was expected to fill.
By the next summer, Woosnam would be gone - the victim of downsizing with Samuels becoming CEO, President, and Commissioner of an ailing league.
Samuels first full year in charge was the 1983 season. Believing that the key to a successful NASL was domestic talent, Samuels worked to form Team America, a renamed U.S. National side that would play in Washington D.C. under the ownership of Robert Lifton. The concept was simple, the league would reassign all U.S. players to one squad. That squad would play in the NASL and then attempt to qualify for the 1986 World Cup. Unfortunately the plan failed to an unimaginable extreme.
North of the border the Canadian Soccer Federation decided it would be left behind if the Team America plan worked. At the time, Canada was a rival to the U.S. in world soccer. Both countries submitted bids for the 1986 World Cup and both had sides in the NASL.
To combat the new Team America, Canada turned the highly successful Montreal Manic into a de facto Team Canada. Unfortunately, the Manic were one of the NASL's recent successes, drawing in excess of 20,000 per game to see an exciting attacking brand of soccer - a style that Canadian internationals were wholly incapable of providing. By the end of the season, attendance had dropped by 10,000 and the Manic were bankrupt.
Back in the States, Team America wasn't faring any better. Though attendance was stable at a round 12,000, the team was not a popular draw. To make maters worse, Robert Lifton held Samuels responsible for the failings of Team America, an NASL side with no star players. Of course it's hard to have a marquee draw when the U.S. had no star player. To make matters worse, the United States Soccer Federation also had a stake in Team America and were not sure that they wanted a successful national club side playing in the NASL.
By the end of the 1983 season, Team America withdrew from the league. Lifton blamed Samuels, and Samuels blamed the U.S. Soccer Federation. "The major problem is to finalize the marketing deal.... The USSF had two good contract offers..., but, because of infighting amongst themselves, they didn't sign with either company. Lifton could have made money this year if they'd ever gotten the marketing deal signed."
Of course had Lifton turned a profit with Team America, he would have been the first owner to show a profit since the mid 1970's. In fact, the league lost between $20 and $25 million dollars in 1983, down from the $40 million it lost in 1980, but still way too much to consider the league stable. And then there was the added disaster of the Tulsa Roughnecks.
In 1983 the Tulsa Roughnecks had the lowest payroll in the NASL. Financed by four oil tycoons, the club drew a surprisingly large following and made a run towards the 1983 Soccer Bowl. Due to penalty points accumulation, they lost their star player, Ron Flutcher, for the final.
In a move made "in the best interest of the game" Samuels allowed Flutcher to play, with the Roughnecks defeating Toronto 2-0. Unfortunately for a side with the league's lowest payroll, the club had lost over $8 million dollars over the course of the last few years. Deciding an NASL championship was not worth such a huge amount of money, Tulsa's owners backed out, with the players not even receiving their championship bonuses.
Once again Samuels faced a crisis. As he put it: "We don't want to lose our league champions... it would be a kick in the teeth if that happened."
Samuels tried and failed to raise the necessary capital and ownership to save Tulsa. Fortunately a Tulsa disc jockey came through where Samuels couldn't, raising $65,000 dollars after asking his listeners to literally go door-to-door to save the ailing franchise.
That same season Samuels attempted to end the war with the Major Indoor Soccer League by merging the two leagues into an indoor and outdoor circuit. Unfortunately MISL Commissioner Earl Folman would not agree to shorten their season and the plans fell though. As Samuels said: "I did everything in my power to achieve that merger, but it takes two to tango." By the beginning of the 1984 season, Samuels was short a few dance partners.
By the start of the 1984 regular season, Samuels had convinced himself things were turning towards the better. After all, the league had entered in to a new three year collective bargaining agreement with the players that would see a gradual reduction in salaries and the institution of a salary cap.
The league had made some cut backs as well, saving itself over $2 million in unnecessary payroll. As Samuels said, "This has been a major league operating with a minor league income, but all that is changing."
In fact, the league had no outstanding debts and was actually owed money. Samuels pointed towards the recent decision for the NASL in their antitrust case against the National Football League, a decision conservatively worth millions.
Of course when things go bad, they have a tendency to go from bad to worse. By the end of the summer of 1984 the expected NFL windfall had turned into one dollar in punitive damages and the NASL was on the brink of disaster. Samuels was hopeful, pointing towards yet another possible expansion and stability. He would get neither. Instead the once mighty Cosmos began their descent. When Warner Brothers sold controlling interest in the team to star player Giorgio Chaniglia, Samuels was optimistic, but his optimism was unfounded. Chinaglia had little money, as he had invested heavily in Italian side Lazio.
Soon Warner Brothers realized they had sold the marquee side in North American soccer for nothing and wanted it back. The resulting struggle would see the Cosmos apply for membership in a Northeastern amateur league in order to receive official sanction by U.S. Soccer, but Howard Samuels would not live to see his league's premier side reduced to amateur status or his league defunct.
On the October 26, 1984, Howard Samuels died of a heat attack in his New York apartment. He was 64 years old. The league he poured the last years of his life into would outlive him in name only.
In a letter to the New York Times, the NASL's general counsel, Mark Bienstock remembered Samuels as a man with "an extraordinary array of traits... His forthrightness with the media, his perseverance in addressing problems of individual clubs and his devotion to the sport were indisputable."
Unfortunately, even a man with the unquestioned abilities of Howard Samuels could not right the sinking ship that was the North American Soccer League.