The Detroit Tigers were lounging around the pool at the Holiday Inn in Lakeland, Fla. one recent sun-washed afternoon, playing backgammon and otherwise soaking up the gentle essence of spring training, when one of the players looked up from his board and said, "What's that?"
Across a dusty field came a group of perspiring young men in the blue and orange Tiger colors—but wearing soccer shirts and shorts, not baseball uniforms.
"Oh, that's the Express," said another of the Tigers.
"The Detroit Express. New soccer team in town. They're training here and staying at the motel."
"They get spring training, too?" said the first player. "I'll be damned."
Precisely. Spring training is one measure of how far the North American Soccer League has come—and how far it is reaching—as it prepares to open its 12th season next week. Not only does the league now have its own Grapefruit Circuit, with teams from Toronto, Detroit and Minnesota headquartered in Florida, but it also has teams training abroad. The NASL champion Cosmos spent a few weeks in the Caribbean. So did Chicago. Philadelphia was off in Ireland.
Under indefatigable Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the NASL has also added franchises in Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, Colorado, Houston and New England, which brings the league to the bursting point with 24 teams. Put that together with the relocation of four misfires from last year—Connecticut to Oakland, Hawaii to Tulsa, St. Louis to Anaheim, and Las Vegas to San Diego—plus a thorough realignment of the teams into two conferences of three divisions each and you have an NASL (pronounced "nasal" by league types) with a distinctly new look. And the look, as everybody gets down to business, is, by and large, glowing. But that could fade as fast as a quickie Florida tan.
This will be a watershed year for pro soccer in the U.S. Last season, the sport got heavy attention from newspapers and television as a number of huge crowds filled stadiums from one coast to the other. At the forefront of all this was Pel�. Some soccer people will argue that the effect of Pel�-the-player on the league's growth has been exaggerated, that the game's time had simply come. That may be. But Pel� is retired now, gone to the heaven of Warner Communications as an "ambassador" after turning down $10 million to play two more seasons for the Cosmos. The question is: Will the ball keep rolling without him?
In 1977 the NASL broke all its attendance records, drawing 70,000-plus crowds to the New Jersey Meadowlands to see Pel� and the Cosmos, and filling stadia in Seattle, Minnesota, San Jose and Dallas. For 1978, season-ticket sales are up almost everywhere. At this time last year, the Cosmos had sold barely 3,000 season tickets; this year they have sold 18,000. San Jose has already sold 12,000, and Minnesota 11,000.