Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.



U.S. THE EARLY WINNER AT 2016 COPA AMERICA

The long-rumored centennial Copa America in America became a reality when CONMEBOL announced in Miami that it would play its 2016 championship in the United States.

The tournament, to be held outside South America for the first time, is scheduled for June 3 through 26.  In addition to CONMEBOL’s 10 members, the host U.S., Mexico and four other CONCACAF nations will round out a field of 16 teams.

Many questions remain, among them the cities that will host matches.

“One benefit we have in a country like the U.S. is that we have many, many venues that can host this,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  “A number of venues have been in contact with us in the last 48 hours that want to host it.  Some [candidates] in person here in Miami have talked to us, and a number by e-mail.”

Also at issue is the timing of the tournament, which would be a special edition wedged between the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa America in Chile and 2019 Copa in Brazil.  It would overlap with the 2016 European Championship, which kicks off June 10, and conflict with the same season as the 2016 Summer Olympics soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro.  It would mean the cancellation of that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, and CONCACAF clubs are not obligated to release players to play in an event that is a South American tournament.  For the U.S., that issue becomes problematic because Major League Soccer will be in mid-season.

The Copa America is the world’s oldest continental soccer competition, first held in Argentina in 1916 to commemorate that nation’s founding as an independent nation; midway through the tournament, the four participants announced the formation of the first-ever continental soccer confederation, the Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol.  It’s 14 years older than the World Cup and 44 years older than the European Championship.  [May 1]

Comment:  For those who see this as a way for South American soccer to milk the U.S. of many millions of dollars, keep in mind that clubs and national teams from South America, CONCACAF and, especially, Mexico, have been coming here to feed at the trough not for years but for decades.

Of course, there are always the dollars.  But when it comes to sense, the big winner here is the U.S. National Team.

The U.S., like Mexico, cannot progress living on a steady diet of regional competition–regardless of how hard it is to win a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica or Honduras.  Playing competitive, non-World Cup games against European opposition is an impossibility, which is unfortunate considering that U.S. internationals play for European, not South American, clubs.  South America and its Copa America, then, makes perfect sense.

Unlike Mexico, a regular guest over the past 20 years at the Copa America and twice a finalist, the USA’s participation has been spotty.  It crashed in the group stage in 1993, surprised all by reaching the semifinals against Brazil in 1995 and predictably crashed again in the first round after sending an experimental team to the 2007 Copa in Venezuela.

It is hoped that the Centennial Copa America is a rousing success and a good U.S. performance inspires–compels–the U.S. Soccer Federation to find a way to make its national team a regular guest participant in future South American championships.  Otherwise, it’s a continuation of a dull treadmill involving the Gold Cup and friendlies against international opponents who, depending on the circumstances, may be under strength and/or under inspired.

 

 



ADIOS, CHIVAS USA

Major League Soccer has purchased the troubled Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes and will operate the team until an owner is found who will build a new stadium for it in the Los Angeles area.

Sale price was a reported $70 million.  The original bill Vergara, wife Fuentes, and Antonio and Lorenzo Cue paid MLS to create Chivas USA 10 years ago was $10 million; Vergara and Fuentes bought out the Cues 15 months ago for $40 million.

New owners figure to re-brand the team with a new name and logo.

“Certainly, it hasn’t worked out as well as anybody expected,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber.  “I don’t think this is the fault of ownership, per se.  There’s a lot of issues that we, the league, take responsibility for.  Now we are just very focused on a new beginning.”

Chivas USA will begin its 2014 season next month under new coach Wilmer Cabrera, the club’s 11th field boss, a list that includes Thomas Rongen, Preki, future U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley and current national team assistant Martin Vasquez.  Chivas’ best season was its third, when it topped the Western Conference with a 15-7-8 record but fell in the conference semifinals.

In 2013, the Goats finished last in the West at 6-20-8, the second-worst mark in the 19-team league.  Its attendance for 17 regular-season games at the Stub Hub Center was an abysmal 8,366, a nearly 36 percent drop in the gate from 2012.  That was the worst in MLS, which averaged 18,608, the second best in league history.  No other MLS club was below five figures in average attendance.  Chivas’ co-tenant at Stub Hub, the Los Angeles Galaxy, averaged 22,152, a drop of 4.25 percent in its first David Beckham-less campaign in seven years.  The Seattle Sounders led all at 44,038 a match.  [February 20]

Comment:  About time, and farewell to a failed experiment and a drag on Major League Soccer.

Despite its good intentions to lure Southern California’s thousands and thousands of transplants from Jalisco state, Chivas USA was neither Chivas nor USA.  Or maybe it was too USA to be a second Chivas–the 2014 roster shows 18 Americans and just two Mexicans, one fewer than the number of Argentines on the list.

It all looked good on paper, but league rules prevented Chivas USA from fielding the predominantly Mexican side ownership sought, and it was all downhill from there.  This secondary version of Chivas Guadalajara quickly became an afterthought and a team damned to stand in the shadow of the older and much more successful Galaxy.

Although the league’s efforts to get to this point were months in the making, it was long overdue nonetheless.  Garber adds expansion teams to MLS like a desperately spawning salmon, while he should have been devoting his attention to this weak sister.  The concept of a two-team rivalry in a major market remains an enticing concept.  MLS will add New York City FC and Orlando SC in 2015, swelling its ranks to an unwieldy 21 teams.  It will be interesting to see if New York Red Bulls versus the new NYCFC ignites local passion.  In the meantime, MLS is left with the lesson out of Los Angeles that it takes two to make a rivalry.



ARGENTINA IN 2014

The 2014 World Cup draw, as expected, produced multiple “Groups of Death” as the 32 finalists were sorted into eight groups of four nations each for the 64-match tournament, which will begin June 12 scattered over a dozen Brazilian cities.

The United States got the worst of it, being drawn into Group “G” with three-time champion Germany, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and Ghana, the nation that knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups.   Not far behind in terms of difficulty were Group “B” (defending champion Spain, 2010 runner-up Holland, Chile, plus Australia) and Group “D” (2010 third-place finisher Uruguay, four-time champ Italy, England and Costa Rica).

Conducted at the beachfront resort of Costa do Sauipe before an international television audience, the draw also produced a first-round cakewalk for Argentina, which was joined in Group “F” by the tournament’s only World Cup newcomer, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Iran and Nigeria.  [December 6]

Comment I:  In a repeat of the Brazilian nightmare of 1950, Brazil will tumble in its own World Cup.  Argentina will defeat host Brazil on Sunday, July 13, before a stunned, heartbroken crowd of 73,531 at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, and lift the World Cup trophy for the third time.

Argentina, unlike host Brazil, has been steeled by 16 World Cup qualifiers in the ultra-tough South American region–and finished first.  It went into the draw at 6-1 odds, just behind Brazil and Germany.  It will be playing virtually at home, without all the pressure that comes with hosting a World Cup.  It will have the motivation of the opportunity to humiliate its neighbor and historic arch-rival.  Its only question mark is its defense, while its absolute certainty is up front, four-time FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who will turn 27 the day before his team meets its final group-stage opponent, Nigeria.  And the draw produced brackets that make a Brazil-Argentina final possible.

Comment II:  To distraught fans of the U.S. National Team:  Enough with the hand-wringing.

Setting the tone immediately after the draw, U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, the man hired two years ago to take this team to the next level, was frank in his initial comments after the last ball was drawn in Bahia:  “Well, I think we hit one of those real killer groups.  It is what it is.”
But what the draw yielded was a glass–er bowl, er pot–half filled.  To wit:
          o  This Group of Death merits its unwelcomed name based on numbers, if not history.  With three-time world champion Germany at No. 2 in the November FIFA world rankings, Portugal at No. 5, the U.S. at No. 14 and Ghana at No. 24, its average ranking–11.2–is the highest among the eight groups (Group “H”, at 28, is worst).  For those who take the monthly FIFA rankings at least somewhat seriously, and with the October rankings determining the eight seeded teams, it’s no longer merely a list of nations designed to produce chatter among press and public.  But on a practical level, this would not be a Group of Death if the U.S. was the international laughingstock it was before the first rankings were issued back in December 1993.  The Americans came to the draw as the first-place team out of the CONCACAF qualifiers and the top team out of Pot 3, which included its three other regional rivals (Mexico, No. 20; runner-up Costa Rica, No. 31; and Honduras, No. 41) and Asia’s qualifiers (Iran, No. 45; Japan, No. 48; South Korea, No. 54; and Australia, No. 59).  The U.S., with its fitness, physicality, growing depth, ability on set pieces and fight-to-the-finish mentality, is a team that no one wants to play.
          o  Ghana:  This U.S. team is better than the ones that were knocked out by the Ghanans in the first round of the 2006 World Cup and the second round in 2010–and obviously driven by revenge.  Ask Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who were there on both occasions, plus the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Eddie Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and DeMarcus Beasley.
 
          o  Portugal:  There’s the USA’s shock 3-2 victory over Luis Figo and Portugal’s “Golden Generation” in the 2002 World Cup opener–a match the Americans led, 3-0, after 36 minutes–to motivate both sides.  This current Portuguese generation was rated No. 14–one spot below the U.S.–in the October rankings, then jumped a whopping nine places on the strength of must-win games over minnow Luxembourg and, in a playoff, Sweden, a home-and-home set in which Cristiano Ronaldo carried the team on his back, scoring all four goals in a 4-2 aggregate decision.  The U.S., meanwhile, was playing friendlies at Scotland (0-0) and Austria (0-1).
 
          o  Germany:  The U.S. will be lucky to steal a point against Germany in its Group “G” finale … unless the Germans have already locked up first place and might possibly ease their foot off the gas pedal.  Much attention has been directed to the Americans’ wild 4-3 win over Germany on June 2 in Washington, DC, that improved their all-time record against Germany to 3-6-0.  It also was dismissed as a friendly in which Germany was without eight starters.  However, in competitive matches, there’s the shock 2-0 victory in Guadalajara in the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 1-0 loss in Ulsan, South Korea, in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals that will be remembered in this country for the Torsten Frings goalmouth handball that was never whistled. Of course, there’s also the 2-0 first-round loss in Paris in the 1998 World Cup as a veteran striker named Klinsmann scored the clinching goal.  Now, Klinsmann is on the other side, and, as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati observed,  “I guarantee you Juergen knows more about Germany than Jogi Loew knows about the U.S.”  What Klinsmann wouldn’t give to beat his former understudy.
 
          o  Much has been made of the USA’s first-round travel itinerary, the worst of any of the 32 finalists.  In 2010, the Americans covered the fewest miles in the opening round; all of them involved bus rides of no more than 75 miles.  In 2014, they’ll trek more than 9,100 miles; though based down in Sao Paulo, all three of their matches will be in the tropics.  They open June 16 against Ghana up in Natal on the Atlantic coast, then face Portugal on June 22 in Manaus and Germany on June 26 back on the Atlantic in Recife, just south of Natal.  The killer figures to be off in the far northwest in Manaus, a city in the Amazon where the heat and humidity, on the second day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, is expected to be in the high 80s.  However, part of the U.S. squad should be prepared for the travel, the other for the heat.  The players who play for European clubs, like their South American counterparts, are quite used to frequent flights over the Atlantic.  And Klinsmann’s choices from Major League Soccer teams know all about slogging through matches in the high temps and humidity of mid-summer.  The German and Portuguese players won’t have the same advantage. 
 
          o  Finally, since every World Cup involves a smile from Lady Luck, it should be noted that the U.S. does not have to play on Friday, June 13.  That’s reserved for Group “B”‘s Spain-Holland matchup in Salvador and Chile-Australia in Cuiaba, plus our friends south of the border.  Mexico will play Cameroon that day in Natal in its Group “A” opener … followed four days later by a date with host Brazil in Fortaleza.


DON GARBER AS SOCCER’S ICARUS

Major League Soccer will expand to 24 teams by 2020.

League Commissioner Don Garber made that announcement during a TV interview at halftime of his league’s all-star game in Kansas City.  It comes on the heels of the addition of New York City FC for the 2015 season, which was believed to cap the number of MLS teams at 20.  The goal of two dozen teams opens the door for hopefuls such as Orlando, Detroit, Atlanta, Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis, whose representatives have been trying to woo MLS in recent months.

“As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth, the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022,” said Garber.  [July 31]

Comment:  Sheer folly.

Without promotion/relegation–and there will never be promotion/relegation involving MLS–even the idea of 20 teams, let alone 24, is ridiculous.

Twenty-four teams would make MLS the world’s biggest top-flight soccer circuit.  Impressive distinction.  But there are reasons why leagues with pro/rel in soccer-mad countries–the Italian Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga 1, the Brasileiro Serie A, etc.–limit membership to 18 or 20 clubs.

Never mind the questionable potential or track records of the possible MLS markets being discussed.  Just go with the numbers.  Twenty-four teams? That means that if each team magically takes turns winning an MLS Cup, the fans in an exemplary market like Portland, where the Timbers are on a 45-game home sellout streak, will have to wait more than a generation between league championships.  Throw in a mini-dynasty by a team from a glamorous market like (gulp)  Oklahoma City or Sacramento and the wait is even longer.  Meanwhile, without promotion/relegation, troubled teams like Chivas USA and Toronto FC, with 10 or more opponents ahead of them in the conference standings, can continue to stink up the bottom of the league into perpetuity while their dwindling, hopeless fan bases look on.

So how does Garber adequately cover two enormous countries while keeping fans of losing teams engaged?  He can’t continue to expand the playoffs–he already throws around playoff berths like penny candy.  He should leave things, then, at an already bloated 20.  And if he must restore MLS’s presence in the Deep South, he should convince the league’s biggest problem child, Chivas USA, to arrange a move to Atlanta or even Orlando (even though Florida has proven to be the black hole of pro soccer over the past three decades).  Moving a team may be seen as a sign of weakness, but it’s the magic formula used for ages by Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL whenever there’s a need to leverage a new stadium or favorable ownership change–or simply scare former fans into showing up again.

It is hoped that Garber and the MLS Board of Governors come to the realization that their league doesn’t have to be anywhere close to the NFL (32 teams), Major League Baseball (30), the NBA (30) or the NHL (30) in membership to be considered major league.  Heck, the NHL was considered major league back in the mid-1960s when it had six teams; it earned that distinction by presenting a major league product.  But if Garber is hell-bent on expanding to two dozen teams, he should have one last look at the U.S. soccer history books.  The last soccer league here to grow to 24 was another without promotion/relegation, the North American Soccer League, in 1978.  Within two years, three weak sisters went belly up, and the panic was on.  Within six years, there were seven left.



PHIL WOOSNAM’S NASL LIVES ON … ON DVD

Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League during most of its 18-year run, died at age 80 in Dunwoody, Ga., of complications related to prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, on July 19.  The death was made public two days later.

Woosnam represented Wales on the schoolboy, youth and amateur levels before making 17 appearances for the full Welsh National Team from 1958 to 1963.  A forward, he began his professional career with Leyton Orient–while doubling as a physics and mathematics teacher in London–and later played in the English First Division with West Ham United and Aston Villa.

Woosnam moved to America in 1966 and played in the pirate National Professional Soccer League before becoming player/coach/general manager of the Atlanta Chiefs of the new 17-team NASL in 1968.  The league withered to five clubs in ’69, but under Woosnam, who was appointed commissioner two years later, the NASL mushroomed to 24 clubs in the U.S. and Canada, thanks in part to the acquisition of such international stars as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best.  The hard-charging Woosnam, perhaps best known here for his proclamation, “Soccer is the sport of the ’80s,” was dismissed as league boss in 1983, a year before the NASL’s final season.  [July 21]

Comment:  There can be no doubt that without Phil Woosnam, the evolution of soccer in this country would have been stalled for years.  At one point, the NASL’s very survival came down to Woosnam and the man who later signed Pele, Clive Toye, hunkered down in the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, trying to figure out their next move.  Without the crowds of 60,000 and 70,000 the league occasionally drew, without the generation of promising young American players the league inspired, WorldCupUSA 94 might have become WorldCupUSA 06 and Major League Soccer’s debut might have been delayed  to, well, a handful of years ago.

Mistakes were made, of course–mistakes MLS, to its credit, certainly learned from.  But what raised the hackles of Woosnam and continues to get a rise out of the NASL’s former players and coaches is the suggestion that the league’s level of play was poor, that the NASL was a comfortable landing spot for aging superstars, a second chance for anonymous English Third Division players, a version of the sport degraded by transcontinental travel, summertime heat and humidity and artificial turf unfamiliar to its many imported players.

Though the NASL is long gone, you can judge for yourself.  Go to http://www.DaveBrett.com Historic Soccer Videos and DVDs, which offers a treasure trove of soccer telecasts, including more than 300 NASL matches dating back to 1969.  The recordings are for sale or trade, and trades are preferred.  Contact Dave at DaveBrett@austin.rr.com

The long list of offerings includes the marathon 1974 championship game between the Los Angeles Aztecs and Miami Toros, the Minnesota Kicks’ crowd of 50,000 to see Pele and the Cosmos in 1976, the classic 1979 playoff semifinal between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Cosmos, the grand experiment that was Team America, and a game between the Chicago Sting and the team with the most wonderfully awful uniforms in the history of sports, the Caribous of Colorado.   Of course, there’s plenty of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, Teofilo Cubillas, Giorgio Chinaglia, Trevor Francis, and even a young  Julio Cesar Romero and Peter Beardsley.  There’s also Soccer Bowls, Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup games and various friendlies against other clubs from abroad, and NASL highlight shows, plus matches with Spanish and French commentary.  (For those so inclined, there are indoor, college and MLS games as well.)

The sport, as presented by Phil Woosnam, was indeed a different game, one that was adjusting to the advent of  Total Soccer and other changes.  But have a look.  Those who experienced the NASL in person will get a pleasant reminder of how good and entertaining the league could be.  And as for the MLS generation, it should be an eye opener.

Comment 2:  Phil Woosnam was a cousin of golfer Ian Woosnam.  Phil Woosnam was 4-4-1 as U.S. National Team coach in 1968.  And in Phil Woosnam, has any other U.S. sports league had a commissioner who had more first-hand knowledge of his sport?



ROGERS FORCES THE MEDIA’S HAND … A BIT

Former U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who in February revealed that he is gay, made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, coming on as a substitute in the 77th minute of  L.A.’s 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.

The crowd of 24,811 greeted Rogers, who grew up in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, with polite applause, and he had five touches in an uneventful cameo.

The 26-year-old outside midfielder earlier played in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew and made 18 appearances for the national team.  Two years ago he headed to England, where he played in the second tier for Leeds United and eventually, on loan, in the third tier for Stevenage.  Injuries and the emotional strain of hiding his sexual orientation took their toll, and Rogers parted ways with Leeds last winter.  Although in announcing his homosexuality Rogers said he would take a break from soccer, he was training with the Galaxy two months later.  Two days before the appearance against Seattle, L.A. midfielder-forward Mike Magee was traded to the Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights, for Rogers.  [May 26]

Comment:  Rogers’ return to soccer was truly an historic occasion–an important step in America’s evolution in its view of gays and lesbians.  But that’s for the social scientists.  From a soccer standpoint, it was very revealing.  And no, not because diehard Galaxy fans seemed oblivious of their new midfielder’s sexual orientation.  (Their concern lay with the loss of the popular Magee, the team’s leading scorer.  For the record, Magee wanted a move to his hometown of Chicago for personal reasons.)

The Rogers story revealed a U.S. news media that still has trouble admitting that MLS, the league whose teams average more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, is major league in more than name alone.  Weeks ago, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines with the revelation that he is gay.  However, at age 34, with his season over and his contract with the Golden State Warriors expiring, it is uncertain whether Collins will ever step onto an NBA court again.  Now, along comes Rogers, who has bravely come out of the closet knowing full well that he will spend the next five months in the glare of a spotlight of his own making, thus forcing the media to write, as the cliche goes, the first draft of history.

On one end, there was the Los Angeles Times, whose headline the next day read, “Rogers’ small step onto field is huge.  In Galaxy debut, he is first openly gay male team player in U.S. major pro sports.”

On the other end, there was the New York Times.  Sportswriter John Branch, noting that “you can’t choose your heroes,” followed that with, “Such is the case for the movement of gays in sports–more specifically openly gay men in major North American team sports.”  Four paragraphs later:  “On Sunday night, the soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play a major (sort of) North American team sport.”  Not long after, Branch’s New York Times colleague, Billy Witz, gave MLS a promotion of sorts, calling Rogers the “first … gay man to participate in a prominent North American professional league.”

So is Major League Soccer major league?  “Sort of” major?  Merely “prominent”?  In terms of TV ratings and average player salaries, it’s major league soccer because it is, by far, bigger than the country’s minor soccer leagues.  In terms of gleaming new stadiums, growing ranks of imported stars, plus growth potential based on grassroots participation numbers that make ice hockey’s look laughable, MLS is not only the country’s fifth major sport but its fourth, one rung on the ladder above the NHL.

For now, MLS is what the media tells the public it is.  If it is to gain recognition as a bona fide, honest-to-god major league, it will continue to come grudgingly.  As  the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a preview of the Galaxy’s next game, at New England,  “The Galaxy now play in a ‘major U.S. professional sport,’ according to the latest stories about the addition of Robbie Rogers.  So be it.”



MLS: OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE–AND GLOAT (BUT WON’T)

Major League Soccer will kick off its 18th season Saturday, March 2, with 12 of its 19 clubs in action.  Another six will play the following day.

Aside from the usual player moves and coaching changes, the league remains relatively unchanged from 2012, although the start date marks the earliest kickoff in MLS history.  A record 87 matches will be televised nationally on seven different channels, and the league will be out to top last season’s attendance figures as it drew 6,074,729 fans and averaged a record-18,807–ahead of the NBA and NHL and behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball at the turnstiles.  [February 28]

Comment:  MLS, wisely, has never been a league to look back; given the alphabet soup of leagues that have crashed and burned over the past century, there never was a reason to remind anyone that it has been trying to be the very first one to fly.

But if it did publicly point to the past, it might … discreetly … modestly … pop a very quiet champagne cork and take a quick sip.

Season 18 makes MLS the oldest professional soccer league in American history.  Eighteen is one year older than the North American Soccer League (1968-84), the league formed by the merger of a pair of one-year-old circuits, the long-forgotten United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League.  The NASL was down to five clubs in 1969, then rode the Pele-led New York Cosmos gravy train to 24 teams and a national TV contract in the late ’70s, only to over-spend itself into oblivion a handful of years later.   The only other notable pro league in the U.S. was the original American Soccer League, which was founded in 1921 and was out-drawing the NFL until battles with the USFA (forerunner to U.S. Soccer) and FIFA and the Great Depression killed it off in 1933, although it reorganized and limped along on a minor-league basis until 1983.

MLS, now just three years away from full adulthood, still faces many challenges, not the least of which are poor TV ratings in a sports landscape ruled by the tube, plus too many clubs operating in the red.  And there would not have been an 18th birthday were it not for the likes of Phil Anschutz, who at one point propped up half the clubs in the league. But while the NASL in its 17th season was in its death throes, hemorrhaging money as its number of franchises had dropped to nine and average attendance to a tepid 10,759, MLS is not far from adding its 20th club (a reconstituted New York Cosmos?  Orlando?), and the fan base in many of its cities is made up of young adults who are loyal, knowledgeable and loud.  While NASL clubs shoehorned themselves into all manner of baseball stadiums and pro, college and even high school football stadiums, 14 MLS clubs play in new or relatively new soccer-specific stadiums.  MLS has proven to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world–nine different clubs have lifted the MLS Cup and eight have claimed the Supporters Shield–and the quality on the field continues to improve (though some critics would ask, how could it not?).   And while the NASL tried to build itself on the backs of big-name, high-priced foreigners, the MLS this season loses the world’s most recognizable star in David Beckham but has attracted enough stars from abroad to make itself interesting.

With the MLS  now old enough to vote, should it gloat?  Nope.  Would Major League Soccer’s cautious, spendthrift approach, without a legion of Internet-driven 20-something hipsters in the stands, without its soccer-specific stadiums, without the explosion of television-exposure options, have survived back in 1968-84?  Of course not.  In short, after ASL I, ASL II, the International League, USA, NPSL, NASL, MISL, AISL, USL, WSA/WSL, ASL III, APSL and A-League, Major League Soccer can thank the soccer gods that it has proven itself to be the right league at the right time.



BRAIN TRAUMA DRAMA

President Obama jumped into the growing debate over concussions in gridiron football, saying in an interview with the New Republic that if he had a son he would think twice before allowing him to play the sport.  The remarks were released days after his second inauguration and days before the Super Bowl.

Thousands of former National Football League players have sued the league, alleging it took steps to conceal links between contact and brain trauma.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” the President said.  He added that gridiron football fans “have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.  In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Obama expressed greater concern for college players than those in the NFL.

“NFL players have a union; they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,” he said.  “You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on.  That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”  [January 27]

Comment:  Perhaps the President would have encouraged his fictional son to play soccer.  (Real-life daughters Malia and Sasha do.)  It wouldn’t mark the first time that soccer has been presented in America as the reasonable alternative to gridiron football.

The first proved to be soccer’s near-undoing.

It was late in the turn of the century–the 19th century–and the gridiron game, the sport of the Muscular Christian, was in the ascendant on the college campuses of America.  The new football, however, had a problem with its image:  by 1905, another 18 young men were killed playing this sport.  According to “Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats”:   … An appalled President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the gridiron game, thus prompting its backers to scramble and create what would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  In this atmosphere soccer was being viewed in a better light, and it began to be promoted in some quarters as the safer alternative for America’s young men.  But that campaign only helped paint the kicking game as a benign exercise for physical education  classes rather than a sport to be taken seriously.  Already damned as an ethnic pastime, soccer became regarded in the United States as a game for those not tough enough for the manful, masculine, and manly game of gridiron football.

The second time,  in the 1970s, with football eclipsing baseball as America’s national pastime, the American youth soccer boom was well underway–and confounding soccer’s critics across the country, including Sports Illustrated senior editor John Underwood.  Here, in his 1979 book, “The Death of An American Game,” Underwood ponders the future of sports in the U.S. with a friend identified only as “B”.  To B., gridiron football’s violence will prove to be its undoing, and soccer is poised to take full advantage:

“Don’t be gulled by those of us who believe football will survive no matter what.  Football people have a colossal mental block on that point.  Some of us don’t even understand soccer, and what we see of it we can’t imagine anybody preferring it to American football.  But … there’s a whole generation of kids out there who see things we don’t see.  Eight-, ten-, and 12-year-olds, flocking to the soccer fields.  Kids who found organized football at that level a drag, and soccer fast and fun and skillful–and physical, too, without being brutal.

          “I’ve got one myself who’s into it now, and I go and watch and I’m bewildered.  But he’s not.  He’s having fun.  He loves it.  And he can play it without having to listen to some knee-jerk facsimile of a Lombardi tell him to bury his tiny little helmeted head in somebody’s groin so we can all get a trophy and be number one.

          “Suburban kids are fleeing organized football.  Check it out, you’ll see.  If we don’t curb the injuries, do something about the trend, it may be irreversible.  Football may well become a game for the lower classes.  A ghetto game for young gladiators desperate to get a leg up and willing to sacrifice their bodies to do it.  It would be a terrible tragedy, but it would be our own doing.  Our legacy.

          B. paused.  In the diffused shore light, I could see only his outline.  I imagined that his face was a somber as his voice, which was grim as mourning weeds.

          “The injuries, the brutality, the dubious pro influence, the swarming lawyers–and soccer, too.  Do you know the statistics on the growth of soccer in this country?” he said with sudden intensity.  “Ten years ago, this guy, the founder of the American Youth Soccer [Organization], walks into a sporting goods store in Inglewood, California, to buy a soccer ball  The owner tries to sell him a volleyball.  He didn’t know the difference.  Do you know that last year that same store sold a million dollars’ worth of soccer equipment?  It’s time we got to know our enemies.”

          “You forgot one,” I said.

          “Who’s that?”

          “The toughest one of them all.  Your most implacable foe.”

          “Who?”

          “Mom.  Every kid football player’s mother.  She has always fought the game, always distrusted it.  She never understood football in the first place.  She doesn’t know a first down from a first inning.  But it always scared hell out of her, the prospect of baby boy getting his head cracked.  Now when she reads the casualty lists, and remembers the sad examples on television and at the little-league park, she is liable to become relentless.  Soccer gave her an alternative, clean and practically injury free.  It’s her kind of alternative.”

          “The hand that rocks the cradle,” B. said.

          “Something like that.  Don’t underestimate the power of maternal enmity.”

          B. promised he wouldn’t.

Will soccer now take further advantage of the violence of football, on the backs of players who have, at worst, been driven in retirement to suicide because of repeated blows to the head on the gridiron?

Public perception of soccer in this country places it among basketball and volleyball on the team-sport danger scale.  Among its detractors, soccer–to its everlasting shame, they claim–takes about as much guts to play as golf or tennis.  To the contrary, of course, with its torn knees, head injuries and broken bones, it probably ranks behind only gridiron football and ice hockey as a contact sport.

Soccer has its own head injury issues to deal with.  Before Underwood’s book, there was English international striker Jeff Astle.  A playing career spent heading heavy, water-logged leather balls in the 1960s led to his death in 2002 at age 59.  The West Bromwich Albion striker scored 137 goals in 292 games–many of them with his head.  The coroner determined the cause of Astle’s death as a buildup of protein in blood vessels in the brain, a condition exacerbated in his younger days by heading.  The damage was at the front of the brain, similar to that of a boxer.  With the ruling, the death was officially attributed to “industrial disease.”

While Underwood was completing his book, there was Alan Mayer, a U.S. international goalkeeper who sustained seven concussions while playing for the NASL’s Baltimore Comets, San Diego Jaws, Las Vegas Quicksilver, San Diego Sockers and California Surf.  He ended his career wearing a hockey-style helmet rarely seen in soccer.

Now there’s Taylor Twellman, another U.S. international who’s probably as well known presently as a commentator for ESPN as for winning two Major League Soccer scoring titles while with the New England Revolution.  Twellman, whose father Tim played against Mayer in the NASL, scored 101 goals in 174 matches, but his career was cut short at age 30 in 2010 because of a series of concussions, and he has now made the study and prevention of brain injuries in sports his personal cause.

It’s hard to imagine soccer outlawing headers.  It’s hard to imagine all 22 players wearing a version of Alan Mayer’s crash helmet.  But soccer–especially here in America–needs to get ahead of this issue.  Globally, there are thousands and thousands of future head injuries to be prevented.  If that can be done, here and abroad, soccer in this country will continue to be seen, to an even greater degree, as the safe and sane version of this contact sport known as football.