The failure of the USL and NASL to receive sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) as Division II leagues for the 2010 season, with both leagues given days to reach an interim compromise, is a reminder of the days in American soccer when the country had competing leagues fighting for FIFA and USSF approval.
One such year was 1966, as the success of European soccer saw numerous rich promoters spring up to try and cash-in and establish a top-tier professional league in the United States. That year, no fewer than three well-heeled group applied to form new FIFA-sanctioned leagues. The USSFA’s staff of two men formed a committee to study the proposals, announcing they would only approve one league.
The success of the 1966 World Cup, televised on NBC, and the apparent riches around the corner seen by the promoters of each group made a merger to form one league impossible to pull-off. And meanwhile, also seeing the gravy train, the USSFA suddenly upped their affiliation fee substantially: from $25 for a league to $25,000 per club.
Eventually, two of the groups merged to form the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), though they had baulked at paying the USSFA’s fees (instead attempting to negotiate directly with FIFA). Meanwhile, the North American Soccer League renamed itself the United Soccer Association (USA) and agreed to pay the USSFA’s substantial fees and so became, in late 1966, the only FIFA-sanctioned league in the United States.
But the NPSL decided to play anyway as an outlaw league, announcing it would begin play as early as spring 1967 and that it had a substantial national network television contract with CBS, a purported $1m annual deal.
Neither league was short of money. Steve Holroyd describes what happened next, as the two leagues rushed to beat each other to the punch.
The USA believed that it could not construct its own teams from scratch in nine months, yet it did not want to let the NPSL have the public’s attention to itself in 1967. As a result, it decided to import foreign teams (a la the ISL) to represent its franchises, with its own teams being constructed for the following year. Twelve cities were organized for the beginning of June 1967. Meanwhile, the NPSL announced it would start two months earlier, with 10 clubs all pieceworked together in a few months by signing itinerant players from virtually every country around the globe.
Desperately pursuing a market neither league could be sure existed, the opening season became a wild spending spree, with a few annual budgets approaching $1 million. When the dust settled, two leagues would be playing professional soccer in 1967, dividing a market that heretofore had showed only limited evidence of being able to support one. Alas, yet another American soccer precedent had been set: common sense would play a small role in the governing of the sport.
Neither league was a success in 1967, with overpaid administrators and chaotic organization. The USA league’s commissioner, a former Major League Baseball executive called Dick Walsh, even admitted “I don’t know the difference between a soccer ball and a billiard ball.”
The NPSL, meanwhile, had little hope of attracting any of the world’s leading players as they faced FIFA sanction for playing in an outlaw league. A bizarre collection of international players were recruited, most understandably at the end of the careers and coming for one last pay day — Chicago signed former West German international Horst Syzmaniak, for example, long past his best. The Los Angeles Toros featured players speaking twelve different languages, coached by Max Wozniak from Poland, and held English classes for the squad.
In particularly short supply were American players, though Willy Roy — who had moved to the States from Germany as a small boy — would win Rookie of the Year after scoring 17 goals in 27 games for the Chicago Spurs.
The USA league, however, had no Americans at all, as in order to field any kind of a league to compete with the NASL, they simply imported foreign teams wholesale for a summer season: Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers became the Boston Rovers, Italy’s Cagliari suited up as the Chicago Mustangs, and so on. Wolverhampton Wanderers were at least recognisable as the Los Angeles Wolves, given “film star treatment”, as Wolves player Derek Dougan later put it.
Teams in the NPSL and the USA league rented out huge venues, with the New York teams in both leagues playing at Yankee Stadium. The Wolves played the Houston Stars in the space-age Houston Astrodome in their season opener, reportedly the world’s first ever soccer game on articifial turf, in front of an impressive crowd of 34,965.
CBS’ broadcasts of the NPSL faced that age-old problem for American television: the need to fit in commercial breaks. Embarrassingly for all involved, injuries and fouls were concocted and lengthened to fill the need for breaks in play.
The debut of the NPSL on CBS received a mixed reaction. 8,434 watched the hometown Baltimore Bays beat the Atlanta Chiefs, with Danny Blanchflower providing the color commentary. Sports Illustrated reported that the game was a qualified success:
Overall, judging by the Baltimore- Atlanta TV presentation, soccer has much to offer and, potentially, a large audience. It has the advantage, even with this not quite top-grade class of performance, of continuous motion, exciting and sometimes violent action and obvious rules easy to understand. It is rather like hockey on a grand scale, but with a ball easy enough to see that the goal-scoring is never lost to view.
The class of play in the nontelevised league is likely to be better than that in the National Professional Soccer League, since the United Soccer Association, with the blessing of the FIFA, imports entire teams to represent its cities, rather than a melange of over-or under-age players. Not too long from now the two leagues are expected to merge. When they do, and when the brand of soccer offered the American public on the field and on television begins to approach the caliber of the soccer played in Europe and South America, then the game in the U.S. may become a real threat to baseball, with which it presently competes. Opening day in Philadelphia saw 14,163 people on hand (admittedly many of them American hyphenates) as the Spartans beat Toronto 2-0. The same day the baseball Phillies drew only 9,213 and the 76ers 9,426.
Of course, the sport must develop local players, too. An encouraging note in a bleak opening day at Chicago’s Soldier Field was the fact that the hero of Chicago’s 2-1 victory over St. Louis was a player who came up from the Hansa team in Chicago. He was Willie Roy, an immigrant to the U.S. from Germany when he was 6. Roy scored both Chicago goals, and the meager crowd of 4,725 roared its approval.
The advent of soccer in the U.S. was a bit shaky. But with a Danny Blanchflower to lend spice to the TV broadcasts, a bit more intelligent presentation of the stars on the teams and a leavening of local talent, the game may yet develop into an attraction.
Crowds quickly collapsed in both leagues, though, reaching as low as 870 for a Chicago Spurs game against the Los Angeles Toros in June at Soldier Field. The USA league fared little better, with few more attending the Chicago Mustangs games at Comiskey Park.
This did not mean there was no passionate play, especially given the abysmal standard of refereeing and fierce competition. A Detroit Cougars match against the Houston Stars became a free-for-all: fans invaded the pitch, the players fought using corner flags as weapons and the match was abandoned. Cougars player-coach John Colrain was later suspended for punching a linesman. Similarly, a match in New York saw fans chasing the referee around the field: as the Times put it, “Fleeing for his life, like some rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, the referee stumbled and fell at first base on the baseball diamond.” Another pitch invasion in Toronto just days later saw the game abandoned.
The USA league ended the season with a 7,890 average attendance, with Wolves crowned as champions in July, after a classic final in which they beat the Washington Whips 6-5 in overtime in front of 17,824. The NPSL finished in October, average crowds having dwindled to under 5,000, with the Oakland Clippers beating the Baltimore Bays 4-2 in a two-legged final.
It was obvious to all that the two leagues would not survive on their own; many clubs had lost over half a million dollars in one summer. A further incentive for the USA league to bring the NPSL into its FIFA-sanctioned fold was surely the $18 million antitrust suit the NPSL had filed against the USA league, the USSFA and FIFA. The official parties agreed to an amnesty for the players who had taken part in the outlaw NPSL, the lawsuit was dropped, and the two leagues decided to merge in December 1967. And so the first North American Soccer League was born.
For more on this period of American soccer, read the indispensable Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin.