The 1960's: The Birth of the American Soccer Renaissance

The sport of soccer has always had a strong base among ethnic communities throughout the 20th century, but mainstream America largely ignored the sport. It continued to toil along through regional semi-pro leagues, and the low-key American Soccer League II. By 1960' drastic changes had taken place throughout American society with the expansion of travel and communications. Spectator sports were rising in popularity and the advent of television attracted people to the sports as never before, and with the rise of cities outside of the Northeast there were increasing clamors for major league sports throughout the country.

In 1960, Bill Cox, a major promoter saw the potential for Soccer to join the bandwagon, and envisioned a truly top-level professional soccer league, and set out to create one. His league, the second International Soccer League was unique in that it consisted of existing foreign clubs, who played during their offseason as members of the ISL. This approach had positive and negative aspects. Because the clubs were basically playing off-season exhibition tours, they tended not to take the league very seriously, and often sent mostly reserve players as a way of keeping them in shape. On the other hand, some fairly significant teams participated, including Red Star Belgrade, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, Dukla Prague, and Shamrock Rovers. This was also a unique opportunity to see a truly international collection of teams on a regular basis. One encouraging note was the surprisingly successful performance of the US club, which was basically a collection of ASL all-stars. The league played for six seasons, offering reasonably good soccer, although the league was largely ignored outside of the US. The league was able to avoid direct competition with the locally oriented American Soccer League, which continued its fairly low-key approach based on established franchises, with a new focus on developing quality American players. The ASL made its first move at the local level, reaching an agreement with the semi-pro German American Soccer League to play a combined season between the two leagues in 1964-65. When that failed, they expanded outward, increasing their presence outside of their Northeast Corridor footprint, to include teams in New England and later out to the Midwest.

The World Cup in England in 1966 attracted quite a bit of attention among sports promoters and soccer enthusiasts, due to surprisingly high television ratings in the US. This was enough to inspire several groups of businessmen to try and cash in on this interest through establishment of a major 1st division soccer league. As is typically for US ventures, there was a great lack of agreement, and infighting, which resulted in the creation of two rival leagues of which only one received FIFA sanction. These leagues were inspired partially by the great growth in popularity of pro spectator sports throughout the country which had come about partially as a result of increased ease of transportation, improvements in communication, growth of TV and satellite transmissions, and most importantly, the general trend of prosperity the US had enjoyed since the early 1950's. A real cultural change was taking place with people having more disposable income, leisure time, and the country was rapidly turning into a nation of sports addicts. Participation in youth sports was up as well.

NFL (and AFL) football was simply exploding in popularity, the Super Bowl had just been inaugurated and the AFL-NFL merger had just taken place. Basketball was on the edge of a great wave of expansion nationwide. Baseball was enjoying a rapid climb in attendance with new teams, the major leagues had spread across the country in the late 1950's, and the NHL had just doubled in size. So it was natural that people would see Soccer as a potential for further expansion. The ethnic soccer communities thrives, mainstream American youths were starting to take soccer as an alternative to other more expensive and violent participation sports, and the youth advertising market was just beginning to be recognized.

Into this picture came the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, the first modern attempts to create truly national, 1st division soccer in the US. Although the original American Soccer League of the 1920's was one of the stronger leagues in the world in its day, it was still a regional league, never extending out of the Northeastern US. The United Soccer Association was sanctioned by FIFA, and established themselves in 12 major US cities spanning the country. The NPSL, started by a rival group, was not sanctioned, and did not abide by FIFA player transfer rules. So the stage was set for a contentious and not very productive debut for the game. Both leagues almost went bankrupt. Fan interest, although initially high, quickly faded. TV ratings were terrible. Attendance was not bad for first-year leagues, but many owners were not prepared to keep the talent level up with their limited resources. In desperation, the leagues merged in 1968 becoming the North American Soccer League (but only retaining 17 of the original teams), but the second year was disastrous, with low attendance, no television contract, and massive financial losses by all teams. Only five teams survived to see a third season.

As a survival method they remained low-key and slowly built themselves up through the early 1970's. Although the league's intentions were noble, they were simply ahead of their times. They made too big a splash without the ability to promote the game to an audience that just wasn't quite there yet. But the low-key approach allowed them to slowly build the league towards viability which still maintaining a presence on the US sports scene. With the addition of the New York Cosmos, and a number of west coast teams Clive Toye felt the time was right to make a statement when he signed Pele in 1975. Although a few other major stars had already been signed, this truly was a shot heard around the world, despite Pele's recent retirement. This act finally got the media to take notice; the league attendance went up, media attention both at home and worldwide gave the league a new air of respectability. The attention snowballed in a positive way this time, through 1976 and 1977. As attendance climbed and more world stars were signed, vital media attention drew record numbers of fans, culminating with 77,691 for a 1977 playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Giants stadium. This was a truly golden era.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the National team was a minor effort, almost an afterthought. A few games were played here and there, usually centered around the quadrennial attempts to qualify for the World Cup finals. But national team squads were assembled at the last minute, with very little opportunity for training or practice. The lack of regular head coaches didn't help, and the team typically suffered quick elimination. A fair number of US national team players had playing spots with NASL teams, but with the NASL dominated by international players, the Americans mostly wermed the benches. In 1974, the United States soccer Football Association changed its name to become the United States Soccer Federation. A key development through the 1970's was the rapid growth of soccer as a youth participation sport. Soccer was relatively inexpensive as well as democratic -- it did not require specialists, tall players or behemoths as many of the other sorts did, and youth soccer did not have the overly competitive stigma and the political mudslinging that was plaguing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. The parallel growth of the NASL, and youth (as well as adult) soccer really portended a golden era for the sport in the US, which unfortunately was premature at least from the professional game's point of view.

Once again, the league was a little ahead of its time. Although large crowds were attracted to many games and several teams, the league was spending well beyond its means for international stars, who although skilled, and popular, and bringing much recognition, simply cost too much to be supported by the existing fan base (in 1977 averaging league-wide about 13,400 per game). But the league was doomed to fail because of its inability to control player costs, which simply bankrupted one team after another until the league's demise in 1984.

The reasons for the failure were many; going beyond the sheer tide of red ink with forced so many teams under. The NASL had no television contract (a few teams had local TV and radio), unlike the other major sports that could count on TV revenue to finance the salaries. The NASL also was a rogue league, not following FIFA standards, refusing to honor transfer agreements, play in continental tournaments, instead simply raiding players from other countries. Unlike other countries, also, the national team was almost nonexistent, and there was no national following for that team. Finally, the NASL had no viable minor league system or college developmental system to supply it with homegrown talent, and many fans could not have more than a superficial attachment to teams with mostly international stars who only stayed 1-2 years. The flood of international stars by some major teams forced the others to follow suit when they really couldn't afford to. This also had the effect of marginalizing the US players who were primarily bench warmers and substitutes, despite a quota system which required an increasing minimum number of US players on the field at all times, and a minimum number on the rosters.

On the other hand, the internationalizing effect of having all these stars was very positive, and exposed Americans to a very high level of play, showing them what a beautiful sport it is. This really planted a seed in many people, particularly the youngsters who saw games and finally had pro stars to root for, and were inspired to continue with soccer through their college and adult years. Many of the current US players were introduced to the game through the NASL, many others are now eager MLS fans, and actively coaching teams while their own children play in the youth leagues and high school.

This growth of youth, amateur and college soccer was not enough to save the NASL, which, lacking a major television contract after the ABC deal of 1979-1980, simply could not generate enough income, despite high attendance, to cover the cost of the imported players. From 1980-1984, teams folded each year due to financial losses, and the league finally expired in early 1985 after only two of the 9 remaining teams posted a bond for the new season. The long-running ASL II, which had expanded into the Midwest in the early 1970's, the west coast in the late 1970's and the south in the early 1980's had called it quits the previous year, although a few teams formed the nucleus of the short-lived United Soccer League which played in 1984 and 1985, shutting down abruptly due to foreclosure halfway through the 1985 season.

After the demise of the second American Soccer League in 1983, the USL, created from the ashes of the failed American Soccer League II, barely survived financial losses from their first season, as four teams bravely continued the fight in 1985. However, the league folded abruptly in bankruptcy just before the start of a planned second half of the season. Meanwhile the Western Alliance Challenge Series (Later the western Soccer League II) began with teams in San Jose, Victoria, Seattle and Portland, playing an abbreviated 7-game season. Victoria folded after the season. With three teams remaining in this single low-level outdoor league, US outdoor professional soccer reached its nadir. For the first time, the US was in danger of being without a fully professional outdoor league since 1905. With the indoor game flourishing and a healthy rivalry developing between the MISL and the upstart American Indoor Soccer Association, the general consensus was the future of Soccer in America lay with indoor soccer, rather than the outdoor game. The US National team reached a humiliating low as they were pounded out of contention for the 1986 world cup. The team went almost two years before playing their next game, and there was little enthusiasm for keeping the team going after this debacle. Many analysts saw outdoor soccer as being fundamentally an alien game to the psyches of American sports fans who wanted more action, and higher scoring. The outdoor game was seen as too strategy-driven, and not well suited to television broadcasts with the lack of natural breaks in the action for commercial breaks.