Stories of NASL

Four-Four Two Magazine
(Originator of the Story)



4pm: A phone rings in a Washington DC hotel room. Gordon Banks, goalkeeper for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, leaps to his feet.

"Come on, Pipey!" he yells at his room-mate. Get up! It's time for our pre-match snack!"

Norman Piper, formerly of Plymouth and Portsmouth and newly arrived in America, opens his bleary eyes.

"Why are you so excited over a cuppa tea and a piece of toast?" he moans. "Oh no!" laughs Banks, "Over here you get steak! And mashed potatoes!"

"Steak!" yells Piper

"And," says Banks, licking his lips, "strawberries!"

"Strawberries!?" gasps Piper.

"Welcome to America!" laughs Gordon Banks. 

Imagine a league so star-studded that it makes today's La Liga look like a convention of no-mark park footballers. Once upon a time, it existed, and they called it the NASL - the North American Soccer League. Bursting with new ideas, fizzing with talent, riven by bitter rivalries, blighted by cock ups, burning money like a pyromaniac lottery winner on crack - and possessed of the greatest collection of international footballing talent ever gathered in one country (and this at a time when the English First Division looked about as excitingly cosmopolitan as a National Front Morris dancing convention). America's 1970's love affair with soccer was truly one of the game's great golden ages.

You don't believe it? How's this for fantasy football? Pele, Johan Cryuff, Johan Neeskens, Alan Ball, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Bobby Moore, Eusebio, Carlos Alberto, Gordon Banks, Geoff Hurst, Brian Kidd, Mike England, Steve Heighway, Vladislav Bogicevic, Trevor Francis, Rodney Marsh, Gerd Muller, George Best, Roy Evans, Sam Allardyce? they all played in the NASL.

Are you convinced yet? 

1976-77: Britain suffers rising fascism, mass unemployment and the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Meanwhile Sheffield United captain Keith Eddy faces an incredibly difficult choice.

He can (a) continue his playing career at Crewe or (b) move to New York, hang out with movie stars and play alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer (in Hawaii, Florida and LA).

Can you guess what he decided?

That same season, soccer superfan Dave Wasser, aged 10, first went to see the New York Cosmos. Like thousands of his fellow Americans he was hooked for life "1977 was the year Elvis died and the year punk broke in England" says Wasser, "and it was the year America fell in love with soccer."

We're in a hotel in Frisco, a soulless suburb of Dallas, where Wasser has invited 50 veterans of the North American Soccer League to a reunion, When they meet - many of them stooped, some of them greying - there's much backslapping over acquaintances renewed and headshaking over divorces and bereavements.

But when they play at the Dallas Burn's stadium a few days later- USA vs the Rest of the World - all that is forgotten. This is soccer red in tooth and claw. Middle-aged men bellow with rage and frustration as, baking in the 100-degree heat, they try to make aching muscles do the stuff that came so easily half a lifetime ago.

Watching from the sidelines and grinning like a wanking chimp is Grant Beran. He flew from New Zealand for this game. Why? Because, as an already soccer mad kid in the 1970s, he discovered the sheer joyfulness of the jet-set, space-age American game - and became obsessed. "It was like soccer in colour! In the sunshine! It looked so upbeat and optimistic. It sounds daft but it really was like watching football from the future."

In 1966, several US professional soccer leagues were hastily created to cash in on the startling fact that over eight million Americans watched England win the World Cup. One of these - the United Soccer Association - simply transferred European and South American teams wholesale. Thus Wolverhampton Wanderers become Los Angeles Wolves, Stoke the Cleveland Stokers and Aberdeen the Washington Whips.

The games were predictably chaotic. The referee in one televised match later admitted that 11 of the 21 free-kicks he awarded were for ad breaks. And when, in 1968, the USA merged with a rival to become the NASL, the change did nothing to lessen the anarchy.

The Rochester Lancers and Dallas Tornado ended up involved in the longest game in football history when, 1-1 at full-time, they played instant death extra-time for further 86 minutes. In another match - this time between the Los Angles Aztecs and the Seattle Sounders - the soccer ignorant timekeeper stopped the clock every time the ball went out of play - with the result that the game lasted over two hours.

Dave 'Chaddy' Chadwick (of Southampton, Middlesbrough, Dallas and Fort Lauderdale) recalls a Spinal Tap moment in a game between the Baltimore Bays and the Washington Darts. In this story, the groundsman, using a faxed diagram, marks out a soccer pitch with the corners right up against the stadium wall. An enterprising corner-taker opens a door in the wall to take a run-up. And, with anecdotal inevitability, the door slams, locking him out of the pitch.

These were mad days. Dallas Tornado hired a squad of young British, Dutch and Scandinavian amateurs, and sent them on a now legendary 45-game, 19-country Asian and Australian pre-season tour which was, according to one veteran, "beer and non-stop sex all the way".

With their long hair and cocky insouciance, the young European players were treated like Martian rock stars by a curious American public who, for the most part, didn't know soccer from Shinola. "What's saucer?" asked one confused punter.

Their ignorance was forgivable. By the 1960s, soccer in the USA had all but died. Many NASL veterans remember crowds gasping in amazement at headers. When Peter Withe, Liverpool-born striker with the Portland Timbers, headed the ball during training, watching journalists were stunned - and promptly dubbed him 'The Wizard of Nod'.

Like many NASL teams, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers went to local schools to hand out balls and shirts (only one sports shop west of the Mississippi sold soccer gear) and to build up a young fan base. After one such visit to a Catholic school, a nun approached striker David Irving and asked: "One question - how do you stand on those skates and kick a ball?"

English-born Dallas Tornado manager Ron Newman painted a soccer pitch on a field at his son's school. Vandals smashed the hand-made goalposts - and the school caretaker promptly painted a baseball diamond in the middle of the pitch. Dallas keeper Ken Cooper remembers going door-to-door in a bright orange blazer, handing out free match tickets - only to be told by one sneering householder that "soccer is another word for shit".

But the game slowly took root - and some Englishmen who came to mock went home with their tails between their legs. On a 1968 trip Manchester City manager Malcolm Alison arrogantly dismissed the local talent as "Fourth Division". The indignant Atlanta Chiefs responded by spanking City - twice.

The fact that the NASL survived its first few years was largely thanks to the balls, brains and ability to bullshit of Welsh-born league commissioner Phil Woosnam. It was Woosnam who persuaded record company Warner Communications to take up the New York franchise. And it was Warner's seemingly bottomless pockets that brought Pele to the New York Cosmos. The arrival of the world's greatest player turned America's quiet soccer revolution into a rock'n'roll riot.

"It really was ludicrous to think that Pele, the greatest player of all, was going to end up playing for this ridiculous little team in New York drawing 1,500 people," said Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, "But I told him don't go to Italy, don't go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the US and you can win a country."

Which he promptly did. Pele's first game was played on a pitch that the New York Times described as "a bunch of dirt and rocks left over from the Palaeolithic era". Minutes before kick-off, the groundsman spray-painted the balding grass. At half-time, seeing the green on his leg, an alarmed Pele thought he'd contracted a fungal infection. There were 300 journalists at that game, and 22,500 paying customers. Another 50,000 were turned away.

After that things went seriously rock'n'roll soccer mental. Pele-mania swept New York. Hollywood superstar Robert Redford was shocked to find himself totally ignored as a crowd of autograph hunters swept past to mob the modest Brazilian. Before Pele, says keeper Shep Messing (no relation to the infamously incontinent Blue Peter collie dog of the same name), the Cosmos were "drawing less than the skin flicks on Eighth Avenue". After Pele they drew capacity crowds, home and away.

New York in the mid-'70 s was the cradle of punk and the birthplace of cocaine-crazed disco. Serial killer Son of Sam stalked the streets and the bankrupt city was awash with heroin. No city had ever been sleazier, dirtier, more dangerous or more exciting. New York was where shit happened first. It was Babylon on speed - the cultural capital of the world. And the Cosmos were kings of the Big Apple.

Pele's arrival meant that there was now no way the big names of world football could turn their noses up at the NASL. Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Neeskens joined the Cosmos to create the world's first soccer supergroup - decades before the Galacticos and Chelski.

"We transcended everything, every culture, every socio-economic boundary," says Shep Messing. "We were international, we were European, we were cool, we were Americans from the Bronx. We were everything to everybody."

The Cosmos outdrew the New York Yankees and hogged the sports pages. Andy Warhol painted Beckenbauer and Pele. Being on the road with the Cosmos was "like travelling with the Rolling Stones". At home the players were semi-permanent fixtures at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub and at Giants Stadium they played in front of Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger - and 77,000 other enraptured fans.

The Cosmos were the soccer soap opera par excellence. There was clumsy interference from the club's owners. There were hissy fits, in-team feuds, and nationality cliques. The South Americans thought Brits couldn't dribble, the Brits thought the Latins couldn't tackle and the Yanks muttered bitterly about "the English mafia".

There were fistfights at training and at nightclubs - usually involving the hair-trigger tempered Giorgio Chinaglia (who once hospitalised three stadium workers he thought were taking the piss). The Cosmos were without a doubt the most heavy-metal team ever - if no one at the time actually wrote that "soccer was the new rock'n'roll", it was only because the cliché had yet to be invented.

The rest of the NASL had meantime been enriched by a 1970s Who's Who of 30-something soccer superstardom. Eusebio signed for the Boston Minutemen, Jimmy Johnstone for the San Jose Earthquakes. Bobby Moore joined the San Antonio Thunder and Geoff Hurst the Seattle Sounders. George Graham joined the California Surf and Charlie George arrived on loan for the Minnesota Kicks.

Meanwhile Rodney Marsh signed for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, seduced by the smooth talk of Rowdies manager Theodore Beauclerc the Fourth, and the cheering mob who greeted him at the airport.

Marsh was ready for Florida. Soccer in England he informed anyone who'd listen, "is a grey game played on grey days by grey people". Introduced as "the white Pele" on a radio show, Marsh corrected his host by stating that Pele was in fact the black Rodney Marsh. America gasped at this "un-British" arrogance.

Marsh - in fact recovering from a full-blown bottle-of-vodka-a-day nervous breakdown - soon established himself as "the Clown Prince of Soccer". He'd sit on the ball to taunt less talented opponents. And in a game where the Rowdies slaughtered the Cosmos 5-1, Marsh elbowed an opponent in the face and then knelt over his victim with his arms outstretched like a matador - a stunt that earned him a clip round the ear from Pele.

"After years of playing on wet pitches on freezing cold winter afternoons, America was paradise," sighs Fort Lauderdale's Norman Piper. Norman spent his mornings training and his afternoons on the beach, occasionally pining for wine gums. "And in the evening we might go to a club and have to judge a wet T-shirt competition."

But it wasn't all hard work. The British players who played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies are today credited with saving several local bars from bankruptcy. And then came George Best.

In 1977 the "fifth Beatle" joined the LA Aztecs (who were part-owned by Elton John). And the stories about booze, betting and birds crossed the Atlantic with him. He was promptly traded to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers - where he became embroiled in a huffing, puffing, shirt-flinging feud with manager Ron Newman, who called Best "a selfish son of a bitch".

Peter Osgood joined Johnny Giles and Alan Ball at the Philadelphia Furies (part-owned by rock stars Rick Wakeman, Peter Frampton and Paul Simon). His arrival was heralded by a TV ad showing Osgood as a soccer Pied Piper, followed by an adoring mob of soccer urchins as he juggled a ball across the rusting Walt Whitman bridge (with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells banging away in the background).

Alex Stepney went to Dallas; Johann Cruyff joined the Los Angeles Aztecs. A young Bruce Grobbelaar played for Vancouver - turning up to his first press conference wearing an "old man" horror mask. And in 1981 Frank Worthington joined the Rowdies. Looking every inch the rock star with his long hair and super-tight leather trousers, he was asked by a local journalist if he was in Florida for a summer holiday. Before Worthington could answer, bottles of duty-free whisky and vodka toppled out his bag and smashed on the floor.

Ade Coker, formerly of West Ham, found himself walking down a Boston street to a banquet with Pele and Eusebio. Like you do. Pele stopped to watch some kids playing soccer. One lad was amazing; he dribbled around all the others and smacked home a spectacular goal. Pele called him over - and gave him the bollocking of his young life.

"This ball connects you and the other players like a thread" he said. "You've got to share it."

As he walked off, Ade could hear the kids whispering - "That was Pele!" "No way!"

"And when we came back out, they were still playing. Only this time they were passing. That's what it's about! "

Even Roy of the Rovers cashed in on the crazy US soccer action. Playing for the Pine City Pirates (in an excruciatingly patronising story) Roy has a hard time adjusting to the "amazing ballyhoo" of the American game. The opposition keeper taunts him with slogans from the 1812 war - and Roy is appalled by the big-screen live-action replay.

He wasn't alone. Many British imports were startled by the razzmatazz, utterly unused to the idea that football could be seen as entertainment. Gordon Banks was quoted as saying he felt like a circus act. "Roll up, roll up, to see the greatest one-eyed goalkeeper in the world."

And in David Tossell's book, Playing for Uncle Sam, Cosmos captain Keith Eddy recalls running out onto the pitch, getting psyched up before a game "and a guy comes out dressed in a gorilla costume. I'm thinking - Jesus Christ, get me back to England!"

Fort Lauderdale's Norman Piper remembers being petrified as he was led out onto the pitch atop an enormous horse. Every home game the Strikers took the field in a new, bizarre way - on the running boards of "gangster" cars, on Harley Davidsons, a fire truck or a London bus.

But the stunt that entered football folklore followed a local headline that asked "ARE THE STRIKERS DEAD?" and saw the team enter in a fleet of hearses. Players who were actually there will tell you that manager Ron Newman emerged from a coffin dressed as Dracula - which is possible, seeing as he'd previously appeared as George Washington, complete with wooden teeth.

But others remember only an ambulance gurney and a shroud - which Newman tossed off before leaping to his feet and melodramatically screaming, "We are not dead yet!" Unfortunately the microphone wasn't switched on. The crowd went mental anyway.

Bobby Moffat of the Dallas Tornado (formerly of Portsmouth and Gillingham) recalls a friendly against Manchester United where the skydivers - scheduled to drop in at half-time - arrived early, forcing the players to scatter. "Tommy Docherty said he thought he was back at Arnhem!"

The Tulsa Roughnecks had a mascot called Captain Dynamite - a sort of proto-suicide bomber who blew himself up at half-time. San Diego's chicken mascot, meantime, tried to distract opposition players by flashing centrefolds at them when they took corners.

Horst Bertl of the Houston Hurricanes still chuckles about a tumbling cheerleader pitch invasion in the middle of a game. "I was like, 'Get out of here! What are you doing?' And then I said to myself - welcome to America!"

It's a phrase that echoes through the anecdotes of players recalling their first doses of transatlantic culture shock - the colourful uniforms, the artificial pitches (some laid on knee-knacking concrete), the intense summer heat and the seemingly bizarre rule changes. Of these, the 35-yard line - in front of which a player couldn't be offside - is still fondly remembered by many imported attackers, who revelled in the extra space it afforded them.

There was hype - but there was also real passion. Alan Merrick, skipper of the Minnesota Kicks remembers the 1976 semi-final against San Jose: "We had 48,000 fans and they flooded the field, I had my shirt torn from my back as fans tried to get a badge or number or logo as a souvenir. The stadium security turned on the sprinkler system to keep things in check, I have a picture of me in the locker room post game with the shirt hanging in shreds." (Kinda puts the Highbury Library in context, doesn't it?)

The NASL went tits-up in 1985. Why? Conspiracy theories abound. The NFL - the greatest benefactor of the NASL's clog poppage - is named as a villain by some ex-players while others point to the alleged connivance of professional baseball and the TV companies.

The truth is probably more mundane. The NASL simply imploded. Nobody could compete with the Cosmos, payrolls always exceeded gate receipts, and some clubs, after years of patiently building up a strong local fan base, made disastrous relocations.

Today the memory of the NASL is kept alive by the rose-tinted babbling of enthusiasts on the internet. There's a documentary about the Cosmos. There's even a campaign to persuade the New York/New Jersey MetroStars to pick up the Cosmos name. But despite the lingering glamour, Major League Soccer - the pro-soccer league that owes most to the NASL - is understandably reluctant to acknowledge its debt.

That's partly because the new league needs to establish its own identity. And partly because the MLS has deliberately sought to avoid the rampaging hype (and spiralling wage bills) that sunk its predecessor.

But NASL historian, archivist and superfan Dave Wasser has no time for the notion that the NASL was a flop. "It wasn't a failure," he insists. "I see it more as a marriage between soccer and America that, sure it ended in divorce, but it left about five kids..."

Wouldn't it be better to say that it left 22 kids - 11 girls who grew up to win the Women's World Cup and 11 boys who reached the number eight spot in the FIFA world rankings?

"Er, that might be stretching it a bit" laughs Dave. "But, essentially, yeah. That's what happened."

America didn't return to its previously soccer-ignorant state after the NASL. All those free soccer balls and kits, given away by the likes of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Dallas Tornado, seeded America.

Back at the beginning of the NASL, when Fort Lauderdale Strikers manager Ron Newman confronted the caretaker who painted a baseball diamond over his son's school soccer pitch, he furiously yelled that in a few years baseball would be obsolete. And when he met the bloke again three years later (Newman told David Tossell in Playing for Uncle Sam) the caretaker said: "You were right. I can't get enough soccer fields. I thought you were from outer space for saying that!"

"We had 60,000 kids playing within five years," remembers Newman.

Many of the foreign players who came to the USA - who visited the schools, handed out the balls and gritted their teeth through some of the dafter publicity stunts - stayed and coached the kids they helped enthuse. And many of them are still there - coaching the children of those children.

In 1967 many Americans had difficulty even pronouncing the word "soccer". In 2005 an estimated 20 million play it. That's some failure.