The most popular sport in the world has confirmed yet again that it is not the most popular sport in the United States. Over three matches, one played in the slightly rustic atmosphere of a high school field in Texas and the others in the shadow of embarrassingly empty stands at a Georgia football stadium, the Dallas Tornado beat the Atlanta Chiefs in the playoffs for the championship of the North American Soccer League. They fought out their unheralded contests before a total of 15,000 spectators, and the organizers, optimists though they are, were forced to admit that while isolationism may be a discredited creed in the politics of the U.S., it survives robustly enough in the nation's sporting traditions.
The American attitude to team games seems to embrace and extend the philosophy of combat preached by Charlie Goldman, the old boxing trainer. "Never play a guy at his own game," Charlie constantly advised such prot�g�s as Rocky Marciano. "Nobody makes up a game to get beat at it." By making up their own team games, Americans have neatly avoided the kind of worldwide competition they have coped with so successfully in track and field, swimming, tennis and golf. They obviously relish the joke, otherwise they would not have the nerve to apply the term World Series to the seasonal culmination of a pastime they share with a few offshore islands, some Asians and a band of furtive quislings who can be seen swinging apprehensively and lurching between makeshift bases in the brittle sunlight of English Sunday mornings.
But at least baseball is vaguely comprehensible to anyone who has played rounders and, to be honest, some of us outsiders have come to be enthralled by its mythology as conveyed by such as Ring Lardner and Bernard Malamud. A knowledge of rugby, on the other hand, is of no help whatever in the understanding of American football, which looks to the untutored eye less like a game than an exercise in violence therapy for patients whose excessive physical growth has diminished their emotional control. Of course, the rest of the world is obliged to admit that the great American public can't be entirely wrong: this kind of football must have something.
And yet the rest of the world is entitled to harbor doubts, for the American public has been persistently wrong about soccer, so wrong that the most imaginative, fluent and graceful ball game ever devised is still laboring for a foothold in a country where sport is almost a surrogate religion.
There have been several times when soccer has seemed close to a breakthrough in America. A spectacular example occurred as far back as 1950 when a motley group of players for the U.S. straggled off a plane in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, flicking ash from their cigars and asking for directions to the liveliest party in town, and then proceeded to dismiss from the World Cup an England team that included two players who would eventually be knighted for their extraordinary soccer careers.
But it was a quite different World Cup experience that finally generated sufficient optimism to launch professional soccer in the U.S. Television coverage of the event in England in 1966 created so much interest that within a year two separate leagues were formed simultaneously, the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association.
Both groups of organizers descended on the American sports fan with the evangelical presumptuousness of conquistadors, but their brashness soon gave way—with good reason—to financial panic. Since then, pulses have steadied sufficiently to merge the originals into one eight-club league, with franchises in Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington (now possibly transferring to Miami), New York, Rochester, Toronto and Montreal. And, significantly, the game has gained a new leading figure, Commissioner Phil Woosnam.
Woosnam is a slight, intense Welshman of 38 with a crew cut that emphasizes the functional spareness of his features. He has a BSc in physics, and his presentation of the case for soccer is accompanied by much linear reasoning and, on occasion, by colored diagrams. He played 17 times for Wales in a period when the Welsh were well off for footballers, and came to the Atlanta Chiefs as coach and general manager in 1966. He switched readily to the commissioner's job in 1969 and led a swing to more modest budgets. Players' earnings from the game were reduced from as high as $25,000 to $8,000 or less and individual club losses, which had reached half a million a year, were brought within the tolerable range of $50,000 to $100,000.
But the mere survival of U.S. soccer was never Woosnam's ambition. As he talks, compulsively scribbling headings to remind himself of the priorities, skeptical interjections tend to dry in the listener's throat. "For financial and other obvious reasons we don't want to be limited by the ethnic, Ivy League and other traditional associations," he says. "There are signs that soccer can be a real, broadly based national game. In U.S. colleges it is growing faster than any sport except cross-country running.
"Next year we will introduce a pro draft system and have a senior bowl for the 40 best college players. At the same time we are going to demand that pro clubs play at least two American or Canadian citizens, and the required number will increase by one each season so that we build up to strong national teams."