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The NASL: It's Alive But On Death Row
Clive Gammon
May 07, 1984
A salary cap has saved the soccer league from complete collapse, but its future looks forbidding indeed
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May 07, 1984

The Nasl: It's Alive But On Death Row

A salary cap has saved the soccer league from complete collapse, but its future looks forbidding indeed

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Behold thy gods, O NASL...! Best of Northern Ireland: overage, overweight, taking the cure. The Dutchmen Neeskens and Cruyff: the former, signed by the Cosmos in 1979, notable for his mysterious lost weeks away from the Meadowlands; the latter patently uninterested in what he was doing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. The poor Englishman Gordon Banks: once the world's greatest goalie, then with an eye lost in a car crash, selling all he had left—his name—to the Fort Lauderdale (now Minnesota) Strikers. The Elephants' Graveyard, unkind Europeans called the NASL, but a parallel closer to home might be those stud farms in Kentucky where the great horses of the past, the Secretariats and Spectacular Bids, the Alydars and Affirmeds, can be seen by the curious, peacefully grazing. But nobody asks them to race.

There were exceptions. Franz Beckenbauer had some prime years left when he came to the Cosmos from West Germany in 1977, and England's Trevor Francis had a dazzling season or two in Detroit in 1978-79. (Sampdoria of Italy paid $1.1 million for him in 1982.)

In the short term, the Pelé concept was fine and there were spectacular crowds at Giants Stadium, but there had been no sowing of a seed. By the time even an unsophisticated clientele could see that these just couldn't be the great players of the past, there was nothing with which to follow the act, except for further imports—many of whom treated their American season as a summer vacation, and, like almost every soccer player in the world, loathed the artificial surfaces covering 13 of the 24 present and former NASL playing fields, which took the life out of the game.

Too far, too fast.... "Everyone thought soccer had arrived," says Lemon. "People were talking about the Cosmos and Pelé. Even Howard Cosell was talking about soccer. Everyone had stars in their eyes because ABC planned to televise some games, but they were deluding themselves.

"ABC showed the games on Sunday afternoons in the middle of the summer. I never stayed in to watch. I doubt if I'd have stayed in if the Roughnecks were playing. Then Madison Avenue started screaming that the NASL had bad ratings. The NASL got a black eye again. We should've stayed off network TV until we could command prime time. Then we could've thoroughly examined the ratings and seen where we stood."

Lemon also has strong opinions, probably justifiably, about the quality of ownership the NASL attracted. He says it was the wrong kind. "We allowed Nelson Skalbania to move a club from Memphis to Calgary and fold it in a year," he says. "We allowed an Englishman, Ralph Sweet, to take over Minnesota, one of our best franchises, and destroy it in 18 months. He closed it down on the transatlantic phone. A man called Bruce Anderson took one of our flagship franchises, Seattle, and ran it into the ground in a year. We lost a great owner in Lamar Hunt, one of the fathers of the NASL. All over the country there are scattered carcasses of NASL franchises."

One of the NASL's newer owners is Carl Berg, who in 1982, with five other men, purchased the Golden Bay franchise in San Jose. His money is out of Silicon Valley, and before he bought into the Earthquakes he had never seen, or cared to see, a soccer game. However, he's anxious to reform the game's basic rules. "No offside penalty!" he demands. "We want more scoring!" Who doesn't? But to eliminate the offside rule (its infringement is a free-kick offense, by the way, not a penalty) would be to make patent nonsense of the game. "We want breakaways!" he declares—which of course would be unnecessary without the offside rule—and, "Make the goalie release the ball within five seconds!" This last wrinkle, which the NASL has indeed adopted for the new season, evokes the image of a goalkeeper splayed in the mud, trying to hold on to the ball, the shoe studs of two attackers six inches from his head, as one of them says politely, "Your five seconds are up, sir." Meanwhile, Berg, the instant expert, speaks again. "I saw Liverpool in an [unspecified] important game, and only two times in the whole game were there totally exciting plays." Liverpool, winner of the English championship three times in the last five years, champion of Europe in 1976-77, 1977-78, 1980-81 and currently leading the English First Division, has nevertheless scored 65 goals in 37 games this season.

In a science-fiction short story of the 1950s, The Marching Morons by Cyril M. Kornbluth, a benevolent government, aware that its citizens are devoted to excitement, arranges for their cars (automatically piloted, of course, for this is sci-fi, and their speed restricted to a decorous 40 mph) to evoke the sensation of Formula One speedsters. Colored lights explode on the dash, sirens wail and images projected on windows and windshield reel past at a crazy speed. Similarly, if you're willing to regard your fans as morons, why not get them going with giant goals, and goalies who by regulation are no more than 5 feet tall. Abolish the rule against handling, if you like, or do away with the goalie altogether. But then, you shouldn't be allowed to call the result soccer. In fact, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the worldwide ruling body of the sport, would be very concerned if you did.

To hear some NASL owners speak of FIFA—of which few of them had heard until recently—you would believe that it's a malevolent entity, which, from its mountain fastness in Switzerland, is gleefully devoted to keeping honest American entrepreneurs from making a few dollars on their soccer investment. FIFA has never looked kindly on any of the NASL's rule changes, such as the overtime "shootout," and has brought the league into line sharply, when the need arose, over its 35-yard offside rule. In 1973 FIFA had allowed the NASL to experiment with "blue lines" similar to those in ice hockey, 35 yards from either goal, to mark off zones in which the offside rule would take effect. The rest of the world has always lived with the mid-field stripe separating the two attacking zones, and in 1982 FIFA called a halt to the NASL's experiment. In 1983 FIFA refused to bestow upon the U.S. its ultimate gift, the hosting of the 1986 World Cup finals, choosing Mexico instead.

It isn't difficult to understand why FIFA should raise the hackles of red-blooded Americans. No other major team sport in this nation is governed entirely by foreigners, and FIFA itself is not only cosmopolitan but also conservative. Even the English, who invented the game, have recently tried and failed to amend certain rules—i.e., the so-called "professional foul" (similar to the intentional foul in basketball) and the manner in which a defender is allowed to pass back to his own goalie.

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