The first hint that Phil Woosnam must be a very stubborn man comes from the short, bristling crew cut he has worn for 15 years. The next is that he is commissioner of the North American Soccer League. The NASL is a unique miracle of survival that began as a great oak and grew to be an acorn. This week, fitfully reviving, it opens its sixth annual season.
Woosnam is an evangelical immigrant from the farm country of central Wales and his assignment as commissioner is to sell professional soccer to Americans, a challenge comparable to persuading the Red Chinese to start up a pro golf tour. Woosnam probably would tackle that, too, and convince Chairman Mao he could win the seniors.
"Woosnam will never be accused of thinking small," says Furman Bisher, columnist and sports editor of The Atlanta Journal. "He'd have kept the Titanic afloat with confidence alone. He could have turned the Johnstown Flood into a trickle."
"He's the only guy tenacious enough and positive enough to keep soccer going," says Dick Cecil, a vice-president with the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the man who in 1966 hired Woosnam to run the Braves-owned soccer team, the Chiefs.
Lavish endorsements, these, but indicative of the forces Woosnam has been battling uptide for the past six years, first as player-coach and general manager of the Chiefs, then as NASL commissioner. Woosnam and pro soccer have stayed afloat through the euphoric spending sprees of the early days and then the shattering fiscal morning after. Compared with their problems, player strikes, antitrust suits and congressional investigations are stuff for half a day at the office. So does Woosnam worry and retreat into dark Welsh melancholy? Not half of it.
"It's because we are about to turn the corner," Woosnam said recently, a broad smile on his lean, bony face as he greeted a visitor to the cramped league offices on the less glamorous end of New York's Park Avenue. "It is all just about to happen. In six or eight years our franchises will be worth more than those in the National Football League. Right now we offer the best investment in all of professional sport."
Woosnam really believes that a franchise picked up today for $25,000 will be worth over $20 million by 1980. After all, he is a devoted product of that nine-tenths of the world that remains baffled by America's mulish reluctance to accept what is clearly the best game. He was a slender 33-year-old inside right with Aston Villa in the English Football League's First Division when first lured across the Atlantic during what appeared to be the Great Breakthrough of 1966. Major league soccer had come at last and with not just one league, but two. One group, the 12-member United Soccer Association, obtained official recognition from the FIFA, world soccer's ruling body. The other, the 10-team National Professional Soccer League, settled for a generous television contract with CBS. The leagues' backers included Lamar Hunt, Jack Kent Cooke, Judge Roy Hofheinz and the managements of the Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, which added up to something of a financial deluge. On hindsight, a nice, steady soaking rain might have been healthier.
Readying for the inaugural 1967 season, scouts swarmed over the soccer world in search of players, coaches, general managers and entire squads. For $20,000 a year Woosnam agreed to be the Chiefs' general manager, coach and backup player. "He was an obvious choice," recalls Clive Toye, formerly chief soccer writer with The Daily Express of London and now general manager of the New York Cosmos in the NASL. "In addition to being a skillful player he was a leader, a quarterback with great ability to get the most out of himself and the other players."
Woosnam regarded the new assignment almost as a sacred mission, a logical application of the experience he had gained in close to a decade at the top in British soccer. Perhaps even his university degree in science would prove helpful. Alas, never has a missionary entertained so many misconceptions about the natives.
"I thought that competition between two rival leagues would be beneficial," says Woosnam. "It was a disaster. I thought the ethnic groups would welcome us. They practically ignored us because we weren't up to old country standards. I thought the kids would be playing the game in elementary school. They hardly got involved until high school. Finally, I thought the clubs would stay with soccer for five years, no matter what the losses, and give the game a real chance to catch on."