Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer has studiously tried to avoid the pitfalls of the top-flight domestic league that preceded it with several significant organizational differences:

  • A league-controlled (or “single entity”) business model with tight salary restrictions for most players;
  • “Soccer-specific” stadiums with smaller capacities than NFL venues to generate revenues and improve atmosphere;
  • Team nicknames and language about rules, etc., aligned with international sensibilities.

Rock 'N Roll SoccerBut in their understandably realistic and careful planing, those behind MLS may also be running away from the vibrant and refreshing energy of the North American Soccer League, which has nurtured the game in the U.S. and influenced the sport around the world.

That’s the conclusion British-born soccer journalist Ian Plenderleith reaches in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League.” It’s the first full-length narrative history of the league, and a vigorous attempt to revise what he says is an unfairly maligned legacy:

In an era of bleakness, austerity and violence in Europe, it found a way to make professional soccer fun.

A new landscape and attractive salaries brought many of the top players in the world to the NASL, which lasted from 1968 to 1984. Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia starred for the glittering New York Cosmos, but Plendlerleith argues that in other ways George Best and Rodney Marsh (who wrote the foreword to the book) were more influential.

Plenderleith, who lived in the United States for 16 years, asserts that although the league “lived fast and died young,” it was “way ahead of its time,” and that some of the “biggest soccer leagues on the planet became an extension of what the NASL had begun.”

Rules to open up attacking play have been denounced as “Americanized,” but many NASL players liked them, especially shootouts to settle ties.

Games included tailgaiting, cheerleaders, promotions and zany mascots, including the San Diego Chicken, whose on-the-field romps during Major League Baseball antics were common in the 1970s and 1980s. When he practiced the same gimmickry in the NASL, Plenderleith writes, an infuriated referee once screamed “Get that fucking chicken off the field!”

Once in a Lifetime (doc)The star-studded Cosmos took their global roster worldwide, going on exhibition tours decades before Manchester United, Real Madrid and other European elite clubs decided to cash in. (Plenderleith pans a 2006 documentary on the Cosmos, “Once in a Lifetime,” saying it exaggerates the team’s reputation as party animals.)

But overly optimistic projections of the NASL’s continued rise and rivalling baseball and the NFL never came close to being realized.

At the peak of the NASL’s success in 1977 (also Pelé’s last season with the Cosmos) the league unwisely expanded from 18 to 24 teams, as a strategic plan to foster gradual, steady growth was ignored.  Phil Woosnam, the longtime commissioner who dared to push the NASL to such heights, was eventually ousted, as it was becoming clear the league was in dire trouble.

Owners who plunked down millions were breathtaken by losing even more (including Ted Turner), and with no profitability in sight. Many tried to spend their way to glory to match the Cosmos, and the results were disastrous.

Franchises were created, moved and folded at alarming rates. A national television approach backfired badly. Players saw that good crowds showed up on occasion only because the games shared billing with rock ‘n’ roll concerts.

Twelve years after the NASL’s demise, MLS was born, a domestic league required for the United States being named World Cup host in 1994. Plenderleith writes of “MLS consciously cutting the NASL out of its history” in several respects.

Some teams were given European-style monikers: D.C. United, and later FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. (My city has been awarded an MLS expansion team, Atlanta United FC, a name rooted not at all in the area’s rich soccer traditions established by the NASL’s first champions, the now-politically incorrect Atlanta Chiefs.)

NASL EncyclopediaYet when MLS expanded to the Pacific Northwest—and where crowds have been phenomenal—the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps were brought back to life for a new generation of fans, their NASL nicknames intact.

Former NASL players interviewed have mixed impression of MLS. Plenderleith, who understands why the league must be more prudent, claims that had the NASL survived, “it might have been fifteen years ahead of where MLS currently stands.”

By 2017, the MLS will grow to 22 teams, as the league continues what Plenderleith calls a “sober and sensible” planning phase, again to avoid the excesses of the NASL.

(The NASL and the Cosmos have been reborn  in a second-division league, and relations with MLS are not exactly cordial.)

Although soccer as a spectator sport has grown dramatically in the U.S., MLS has a tiny national television footprint, with ratings similar to the WNBA. Franchises are successful in many markets with attendance and local media rights, an emphasis disregarded by the NASL.

However, what Plenderleith argues is truly missing from MLS is personality, both at the franchise level (Cosmos) as well as individually (in particular Best). David Beckham’s tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy was successful in many ways, but he and the league “were just too nice.”

Plenderleith writes that while the MLS “got it right” in not creating the possibility of another Cosmos, the league could “really, really use a team” like them now:

The Cosmos had the allure of the despicable, of the evil rich—they would bring in the crowds wherever they played, who all wanted to see the arrogant, demon-eyed Chinaglia and his colleagues fail. They were a spectacle, a traveling fairground of multifarious talents and attractions.

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