David Wangerin, author of Soccer in a Football World, explains why his favorite sport has taken its time to catch on in America.
In 1981, the fourteenth year of its existence, the North American Soccer League started to crumble. Membership fell from 24 to 21 teams, crowds thinned and a prized network television contract with ABC had been cancelled. Three years later, the league died – and twelve years passed before another took its place.
Major League Soccer is showing rather more promise in its fourteenth year. It operates with more teams than it’s ever had; attendance is still tracing a (modestly) upward path; and though it still loses money, one or two teams are apparently starting to come out ahead.
A quarter-century may have passed since the NASL kicked its last ball, but its legacy has proved surprisingly enduring. This season marks the arrival of MLS’s newest team, the Seattle Sounders, a name that stretches back to the NASL’s heyday. MLS intends to add two more teams in 2011: one will be called the Portland Timbers, a name of similar vintage, and the other, probably, the Vancouver Whitecaps, who won the NASL in 1979. First, though, the league will also add a team from Philadelphia. A well-marshalled lobby is pressing for it to be named it the Atoms, NASL champions of 1973.
Have such looks over the shoulder been undertaken out of a respect for America’s soccer history – something MLS initially rejected in favour of naming teams Clash and Burn – or wistful nostalgia? For many, MLS continues to exist in the shadow of its predecessor. Many still regard the New York Cosmos as standard-bearers for American soccer and gaze longingly at the days when Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and company played to packed houses. In 1978 the Cosmos averaged nearly 49,000 fans a game; they won the league championship in front of 75,000. MLS, for better and for worse, has failed to produce anything quite as huge – and by comparison looks less of a major league.
But whether the Cosmos defined the NASL is moot. In 1978, ten of its clubs averaged fewer than 10,000 a game, including cities the size of Philadelphia (8,300), Toronto (6,200) and Chicago (4,200). League attendance peaked in 1980 with a regular-season average of 14,500. MLS has bettered this figure in each of its last eight seasons. The Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2008 average of 26,000 would have outdrawn every team in the 1978 NASL except two.
Studded as it was with international superstars (most of them winding down their careers), the NASL in its prime may have seemed a more glamorous entity. But the teams that toiled for a few seasons in near-empty stadiums before slipping into the ether – which is to say most of them – and the preponderance of mediocre players are all but forgotten. MLS may still be in the red, and it’s certainly as far away as its predecessor from being a televisual attraction. But it is the best soccer league North America has ever had – and it will get better.