WASHINGTON, DC (June 19, 2007) USSoccerPlayers — Of all the usual suspects listed in the demise of the NASL, one normally left out is Canada. Yes, the entire country. Two concepts were clear for North American soccer in the early 1980’s. One was the increasing realization that the NASL’s days were numbered unless something dramatic happened. The other was the belief that this was directly tied to winning the rights to hosting the 1986 World Cup.
With Colombia bowing out with domestic issues, the United States, Canada, and Mexico entered into a bidding war for hosting rights. At the same time, all three teams were preparing to qualify directly for the very tournament they were pushing to host.
Looking for any advantage, the United States decided to enter the US National Team as an NASL franchise. That team would be known as Team America, playing at RFK Stadium in Washington. From the beginning there were problems — namely, the major US National Team players of that era refused to leave their NASL clubs for Team America.
The other problem was north of the border. Canada considered itself as major as the US when it came to international soccer, with neither team enjoying that much success. Mexico dominated CONCACAF, and the other teams in the region were fighting for second place. If Mexico hosted the 1986 World Cup, it opened up an opportunity for another CONCACAF team. Canada and the United States would be the likely beneficiaries.
At the time, the US Soccer Federation was a borderline amateur organization lacking the kind of front office support one associates with its modern version. There wasn’t even a full-time National Team coach, a slot that was filled on an as needed basis. The idea behind Team America was to create a National Team program with a full-time coach, and players capable of qualifying for the 86 World Cup.
Not wanting to be left behind, Canada responded with its own team. The Montréal Manic became Team Canada. Well, almost.
Team America didn’t exactly work out. In fairness, the 1983 season was close to being a disaster. Lack of interest, lack of support from available players, and a general mishandling of the concept resulted in a team that few cared about, and almost no one associated with the real US National Team. Compounding problems, FIFA announced Mexico as hosts of the 86 World Cup midway through the 1983 season.
In a 2006 interview with the New York Times’ Jack Bell, Team America coach Alkis Panagoulias summarized the state of US National Team soccer at the time: “I was almost crying when I talked about the National Team. They looked at me like I was crazy. They didn’t know from the National Team.”
With Team Canada scheduled to come on board for the 1984 season, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Manic ownership had the luxury of watching the Team America experiment unravel. Team Canada never took the field. By the end of the 1983 season, neither Team America nor the Montréal Manic existed. The Canadian National Team, however, was closing in on a qualifying slot for the 1986 World Cup.
Second Round CONCACAF qualifying for the 86 World Cup was divided into three groups, scheduled for home-and-home series in April and May, 2005, oddly enough coinciding with the suspension of the NASL for the 1985 season.
Only the group winners advanced to the third round, with the United States needing to win the group against Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica. Canada drew Guatemala and Haiti, and advanced without a loss.
With Groups 1 and 2 finishing almost a month earlier, the United States and Costa Rica were left to determine who would join Canada and Honduras in the final round.
The United States drew with Costa Rica in Alajuela, and with Costa Rica drawing with Trinidad & Tobago earlier in the stage, but also beating them by three goals, the US couldn’t rely on goal differential to advance. On May 31 in Los Angeles, Costa Rica beat the United States 1-0 and took the group.
Canada remained undefeated in final round qualifying, advancing to the 1986 World Cup with a 2-1 win over Honduras on Sept. 14, 1985, in St. John’s.
Good for Canada, but how does this suggest any culpability in the demise of the North American Soccer League? Simple. The Canadian and US World Cup bids undermined each other, and both latched onto a league with its own obvious troubles. Simply put, the weight of those decisions didn’t help.
The US entered World Cup qualifying with a squad that hadn’t recovered from the embarrassment of Team America. The Canadian version cost the NASL its Montreal franchise, the only one exhibiting growth as the NASL realized over-expansion and quality of play threatened the product as a whole. Long-term, Canada might have won a World Cup slot, but the professional game would suffer for years.
There’s a strong case to be made that Canada is only now recovering, with Major League Soccer expanding to Toronto, and the Canadian Soccer Association seeing through a revitalization effort that includes FIFA tournaments and a soccer-specific stadium.