Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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?



FAREWELL TO ANOTHER UN-FRIEND OF SOCCER IN THE U.S.

Dick Ebersol resigned as chairman of the NBC Sports Group, capping a 22-year reign in which he made the Peacock network synonymous with the Olympics.

Ebersol spent more than 40 years at NBC, overseeing every summer and winter Olympics since 1992.  According to the New York Times, “Over the past 22 years, Ebersol acquired, then dropped, NBA rights; retained, did not renew, then re-acquired NFL contracts (NBC carries Sunday night games); ventured into a partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment to create the XFL, a bizarre, money-losing football league; brought Major League Baseball back to NBC, then got out; and became a prominent member of the Olympic movement.”

He steps down after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract with Comcast, which merged with NBC in January. [May 19]

Comment:  So long, Dick.  Soccer in the U.S. won’t miss you.

Ebersol may go down in history as the man whose largess with NBC’s money put the bling in the Olympic rings, but his coverage of Olympic soccer came grudgingly.  And some soccer fans in the U.S. may remember him as the guy who tried to throw a wet blanket over the 1994 World Cup, the event that went on to put a burgeoning sport here into overdrive.

NBC, which covered a handful of games during the 1986 World Cup, secured the rights to the 1994 World Cup along with SportsChannel America for $11.5 million–a ridiculous sum for a host nation.  FIFA in 1990 nullified that contract as part of a coup in which overmatched U.S. Soccer Federation and WorldCupUSA94 supremo Werner Fricker was replaced by Alan I. Rothenberg.  The rights went back on the open market, and NBC’s new sports guy, Dick Ebersol, declared, “We’re not going to bid, and I don’t know why anyone else would be interested.” 

Taken at his word, it looked for a time as though the first World Cup hosted by the United States would be blacked out across the United States.  Or, once again, available only through Spanish-language Univision.   Fans here held their breath.   Fortunately, two years before kickoff, ABC/ESPN stepped forward with a more respectable bid of $23 million, and everyone exhaled. 

It may have been for the best.  Had NBC and SportsChannel remained the tournament broadcaster, they certainly were not about to televise all 52 matches, as ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 did–an American first.   And it can’t be assumed that NBC/SportsChannel would have come up with the continuous sponsor/score/time graphic in the corner of the screen, another American first that has since become a staple of televised team sports.  Without that, NBC/SportsChannel likely would have resorted to what other U.S. broadcasters had when faced with covering soccer:  the dreaded commercial break during the action.

In the end, Ebersol, the man who turned his back on soccer to champion the Olympics ended his NBC tenure with a 2010 in which the Vancouver Winter Olympics lost $223 million while that summer’s World Cup eclipsed the summer Olympics as the world’s most-watched sporting extravaganza.