Paul Cannell, an English forward now with the Memphis Rogues, was sitting in the bar of the Bay Harbor Inn in Tampa one recent evening. The Rogues were in spring training, and Cannell, who is famed for dropping his shorts when referees make calls against him, as well as for his amazing ability to head the ball, was pondering the future of the league.
"I give the NASL two years," he said. "You can't say that soccer's arrived anymore. It's here. But you can't claim that it's a major sport either. It's on some sort of plateau, and if it doesn't get up and dance this time I don't think the public will stay interested. It needs something new and fresh."
He drank deeply, sighed and reordered, wondering just what that something could be. Finally his eyes lit up. "Elephants!" he exclaimed. "Pageants! The Village People!" Overcome with his vision and grinning maniacally, Cannell lunged across an empty stool and bit a Yugoslavian teammate on the ear. The Yugoslav said "ouch" and other things in Croatian.
"Ah, you don't play soccer with your ear," Cannell told him.
Across town Tony Field, a gracefully aging English forward who also plays for Memphis, sat quietly watching a midget fiddler in a country and western band. "This whole thing reminds me of the NASL," he said. "Somebody too small trying to play too fast."
Ready to launch its 14th season next Saturday, the NASL again seems poised for moderate success. Its 24 franchises are relatively stable, and attendance increased by 8% in 1979. There are no expansion, relocated or failed teams to cloud the prospects for this season. ABC this year will televise six games (this is a pro-rata decline as the league will play 32 games this year vs. 30 last season), plus one playoff game and the Soccer Bowl, the NASL championship game. "Stability and steady growth will characterize the league this year," says NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam.
Fine. But where are the elephants? Some of the glitter, some of the madness that made the league colorful as it battled for a toehold on the pro sports scene seems gone. It's almost as if NASL players are getting ready to imitate their betters in the NFL by arriving in locker rooms wearing three-piece suits and carrying attach� cases. But hold on, chaps. Your league still must face—and overcome—a number of tough challenges before it can declare itself to be a gilt-edged success.
Foremost, says Johan Cruyff, is the question of Americanization. Cruyff is a Dutchman, the world's No. 1 soccer player, who came to the Los Angeles Aztecs at midseason last year, doubled the gate there and won the league's MVP award. "It angered the owners and the general managers when I told them at the MVP ceremony that the NASL is failing to Americanize the game," he says. "They won't have farm clubs or reserve-team schedules. As a cost-cutting move, some colleges are reducing their schedules. Pretty soon no one will be able to afford foreigners. If you bring up your own talent, you don't pay transfer fees. And, besides, in a few years who's going to come and see old stars like me play?"
The 32-year-old Cruyff found himself on the block last month when the new Mexican owners of the Aztecs refused to honor the second season of his high-priced two-year contract. Cruyff was unloaded to Washington, the Gulf + Western-backed Diplomats reportedly having paid almost one million to the Aztecs and having given Cruyff a three-year, $1.5 million contract. Hailed a year ago as the savior of Los Angeles and the six other West Coast franchises, Cruyff's job now is to save soccer in the nation's capital.
The Americanization issue centers on the league's new rule requiring that three North Americans—either Canadian or U.S. citizens—be on the field at all times. Last year the number was two. In 1979, four North Americans had to be dressed for each game; this year the number will be six—or an increase of 48 league-wide. If nothing else, a lot more U.S. or Canadian players will be collecting salaries and splinters while they sit on the bench.