The pass was the kind soccer players dream about—40 yards cross-field, low and true from the foot of the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. The touring Cosmos, practicing on a patchy field in Argentina, were in a foul mood on a hot November day after a rough loss the night before. Beckenbauer's perfect pass came spiraling out of the sunlight into the deep shadows near the sideline. Even the Kaiser stopped to watch.
Waiting for the pass, with no one to harass him, was 19-year-old Rick Davis, a blond Californian who had quit the University of Santa Clara in his sophomore year to sign a contract with the Cosmos. Davis, who is probably the best U.S.-born player in the NASL, moved too quickly to trap the pass. His body turned awkwardly and when his foot came in contact with the ball, the angle was wrong. The perfect pass glanced out of bounds.
Beckenbauer exploded at Ray Klivecka, the Cosmos' assistant coach, who was running the practice. "So this is the future of America?" he shouted. "This is what you're waiting for? Forget it! Sell the team! It's a joke!"
Judgments like those have made American players like Davis increasingly bitter about their status in the NASL. On the one hand, Beckenbauer's complaint—that American players are not skilled enough to play the game on its highest professional levels—is accurate enough. That estimate is generally shared by foreign players and by foreign and most American coaches. On the other hand, the unhappy home-grown players argue that only game experience can accelerate their progress, and that playing time is precisely what they have not been getting.
While the NASL was not formed to showcase Americans, from the beginning the league has had rules providing that a number of Americans—actually, North Americans—must play. At present an NASL team must start two Americans—either native-born or naturalized Canadian or U.S. players—and six Americans must be carried on the 17-man roster. Next year the number of North American starters will rise to three, but the number on the squad will remain six.
"NASL doesn't mean North American Soccer League," says a disgruntled Nick Owcharuk, 25, a native Chicagoan who is the Tulsa Roughnecks' third-string goalkeeper, "It means Non-American Soccer League."
On a recent weekend Owcharuk's complaint would have been seconded by the 144 North Americans in the league. With all 24 teams in action, only 55 of the 264 starters were North Americans. Although that was seven more than the rules require, 21 of the 55 were Canadians, and 10 were naturalized U.S. citizens, including Italy's "national treasure," Giorgio Chinaglia. There were only 24 homegrown U.S. players, an average of one per team.
"The Americanization of soccer is a joke," snarls Dan Counce, a St. Louis-born sixth-year forward with the Toronto Blizzard. "Instead of the two-man rule being a minimum, it's become the upper limit. The rest ride the bench and get more splinters than game minutes."
Dennis Tueart, a brilliant English winger now in his second season with the Cosmos, goes to the heart of the dilemma when he says, "I started playing soccer when I was three, and I never played anything else. Americans in the NASL began at 13 or so. You can't give me a decade of basic ball skills that have become muscle habits and then expect to beat me on the field. Americans need more early training, although the group in youth soccer today should eventually be very good indeed. For the current pros, it's a battle and there's bound to be casualties. But if you push Americanization too hard, the whole sport here could be finished. Who's going to go to games played on a lower level?"
Ironically, the problem was intensified by the arrival of Pel� in 1975. Pel�'s mission with the Cosmos was to evangelize the biggest sport in the world in this important sports country. When he succeeded—when pro soccer began to make money—other clubs' coffers opened to the stars of Europe and South-America and the level of the NASL game rose. Simultaneously, the stock of the American players fell.