By J Hutcherson - In the wake of the 1966 World Cup and the success of its broadcast on the National Broadcasting Company, two soccer leagues began play in the United States in 1967.
The United Soccer Association was formed with the backing of the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA, now known as the United States Soccer Federation or USSF) and the Federation International Football Association (FIFA), but it wasn’t an American league in the traditional sense.
In fact, it was a league made up of European and British teams on their summer break. The likes of Stoke City, Wolverhampton, Hibernian, and Sunderland transformed themselves into the Cleveland Stokers, Los Angeles Wolves, Toronto City, and the Vancouver Royal Canadians for a couple of months.
Importing entire foreign teams had a seven-year history in America, dating back to the International Soccer League in 1960. The brainchild of entrepreneur Bill Cox, the ISL also imported foreign teams on their summer breaks playing under their own names in a nationwide tournament format. The tournament format was a success, but continuing animosity between Cox and the United States Soccer Federation led to the International Soccer League suspending operations after the 1965 tournament.
With Cox and his league out of the picture, the powers that be at US Soccer decided to back a new imported league, though this time the tournament format would be replaced with a short league schedule and the imported teams would represent North American cities. But Cox wasn’t finished, and he worked on gaining support from existing American sports owners to finance and become owners in a true American first division. Two of these potential owners, Richard Millen and Jack Kent Cooke, then attempted to form their own groups to start a U.S. first division.
The relatively unknown USSFA found itself in a position that would become a theme in later years, backing a specific league proposal while being the only organization capable of granting official first division status. If any player wanted to compete in international competition, they had no choice but to play for the officially recognized first division.
USSFA president Frank Woods formed a committee to review and decide which bid would receive sanction, but Cox had already acted, forming his league and setting a schedule to begin play the next year. US Soccer responded by demanding 14 percent of all television and ticket revenue, as well as charging each club a $25,000 dollar franchise fee. Cox refused to pay, and the USSFA responded by backing Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke’s United Soccer Association and granting them official division one status.
The plan was for the USA to play with foreign clubs while building their own teams to eventually take over. In fact, the plan was to re-create the European club structure in North America, with the “real” USA clubs taking over the league schedule within two years.
Duly rebuffed, Cox regrouped and merged his proposed league with the other losing bid, Richard Millen’s National Soccer League to form the National Professional Soccer League. They filed suit against FIFA, the USSFA, and the Canadian authorities for declaring them an outlaw league, and began plans to field teams. They realized that a true North American league would not consist of foreign teams playing in different shirts, and they decided to launch their league with ten new teams in 1967.
The NPSL also had something that even the official USA hadn’t managed, a national television contract. Signed with CBS and renewable on a yearly basis, the NPSL TV deal called for a game of the week with minimal advertising monies returning to the league. By any estimation, it wasn’t a good deal, but it was a deal with a national broadcaster and that was enough to get the outlawed NPSL off the ground.
Two professional soccer leagues kicked off the 1967 season in the U.S. and Canada. Both leagues posted high attendance for a handful of games, drawing as much as 30,000, but the league averages were less than 10,000.
By the end of the first year, it was obvious that the North American soccer audience was not interested in supporting two professional leagues. In December of 1967, the United States Soccer League with their official first division status and the National Professional Soccer League with their television contract merged to form the 17-team North American Soccer League.
The early NASL was more successful on the field than in the front office, with sides playing a decent level of soccer while drawing scant attendance. The league averaged less than 4,000 over the course of the season while posting impressive wins over international competition from Pele’s Santos to England champions Manchester City.
The latter team suffered heavily at the hands of the Atlanta Chiefs and Oakland Clippers, actually losing twice to Atlanta, the eventual league champions.
Needing well more than 4,000 a game to break even, much less to turn a profit, the fledgling NASL was in trouble. The excitement generated by the 1966 World Cup had run its course, the league had lost millions of dollars, and the owners were demanding some guarantee of an eventual return on their investments. By early 1969, 12 of the 17 NASL teams were gone, as well as the league’s television contract with CBS.
Atlanta Chiefs manager Phil Woosnam was handed the unenviable task of league commissioner of a league with a nonexistent future, and set about trying to field teams for the 1969 season. Woosnam, a former English league player named English soccer writer Clive Toye as his second in command. Both Toye and Woosnam would remain with the NASL in some capacity for the rest of the league’s existence.
For the 1969 NASL season, Woosnam returned to the United Soccer Association’s idea of using foreign teams while building domestic teams to eventually take over, and the 1969 NASL season resembled both the USA and the IFA. English and Scottish league clubs were brought in to represent the five NASL teams, with Aston Villa representing Atlanta, Kilmarnock became the St. Louis Stars, West Ham the Baltimore Bays, Dundee United the Dallas Tornado, and Wolverhampton as the Kansas City Spurs.
Midway through the season, the real American clubs reclaimed their identities and played their international doppelgangers in a short tournament. Finally, the five domestic teams played a 16-game schedule, with Kansas City winning the league.
After the 1969 season, Baltimore went under leaving a four team league. Keeping the Baltimore situation to himself, Woosnam convinced two second division teams playing in the American Soccer League to become members of the NASL. The Rochester Lancers and the Washington Whips brought the league to six teams, enough to play a 1970 season.
Once again Woosnam turned to foreign clubs, although this time the foreign clubs kept their identities, playing the NASL clubs with the results counting in the standings. The expansion Rochester Lancers were the eventual league champions with Kansas City folding at the end of the season.
During the off-season, Phil Woosnam convinced Warner Brothers Communications to invest in the NASL, and the Cosmos were born. Two Canadian teams were also added, the Toronto Metros and Montreal Olympic. All three teams paid $25,000 for the privilege, and for the first time the North American Soccer League enjoyed some level of stability.
It was this eight team incarnation of the NASL that would form the basis for a league that would reset attendance figures and draw some of the world’s greatest stars to teams in cities across North America.