Last time around I posted my timeline of the bigger soccer leagues, so I wanted to follow up with some of the details about those leagues. One housekeeping points, though. I’ve been calling it “America” but that’s a bit misleading. Many of the leagues cross the US-Canada border (as does MLS and the current NASL). So they’re not “US” or “American” leagues. I’ll call them North American leagues, but that’s not quite accurate either as Mexico does their own thing.
Timeline again, first. For this post, I’m going to get us going up to the original NASL. We’ll cover its demise, the interregnum, and the rise of MLS in the next post.
American Soccer League (ASL I and ASL II)
The first incarnation of the ASL was founded in 1921. There were earlier soccer leagues in the US (the ASL was created by the merger of the earlier National Association Football League and the Southern New England Soccer League), but the ASL is a name that ultimately sticks around for 60+ years. So that’s where I’ll start.
In its time, the original ASL was a popular league. Baseball was still the national game, but soccer was arguably the #2 professional sport. (The hierarchy was pretty much baseball, college football, then maybe soccer.) Teams were able to draw tens of thousands of fans for games. ASL I represented the peak of American soccer popularity until at least the original NASL.
The Soccer Wars: Demise of the first ASL
The original ASL folded in 1933 due to a combination of internal and external pressures. European leagues were unhappy because the popularity and quality of play meant that the ASL could recruit players from Scotland and England. When fights with FIFA and the USFA (predecessor of the USSF) over participation in the National Challenge Cup (the old name for the US Open Cup) brewed up, both FIFA and USFA de-sanctioned the league. Eventually, breakaway teams formed a new league. Though the ASL was able to regain certification and continue play, the financial strain (and public backlash against soccer due to the bickering) led to the collapse of the first ASL in 1933.
American Soccer League II
“The ASL is dead, long live the ASL!” No sooner did the first league collapse than the second league with the same name formed. The league had many of the same teams, and started with a focus in the Northeast US, much as with the previous ASL. While not hugely popular, as football, basketball, and hockey grew past soccer, it had longevity — lasting for 50 years. The league even expanded west in 1976 in an attempt to compete with the NASL, but couldn’t match the newcomer’s popularity.
While the league had over 80 teams in its 50 years of operation, none are familiar names from current leagues. Some of the longest-running teams included Brooklyn Hispano, the Brooklyn Wanderers/Brooklyn Hakoah, Galicia-Honduras/Brookhatten, Kearney Scots, Philadelphia Nationals, and Uhrik Truckers/Philadelphia Americans. But teams were eventually found across the country, including Indiana: the (Gary) Indiana Tigers played 1973-4, and the Rhode Island Oceaneers relocated to Indianapolis as the Daredevils for 1978-9.
Competition with the NASL was difficult, and expanding to meet the challenge brought financial pressure. When NASL interest started to wane, the ASL felt the pinch too, and it folded a year before the junior league, in 1983.
NASL forerunners: USA and NPSL
The original NASL was where pro soccer re-entered modern American consciousness. But the start of the NASL is an interesting story in itself. In about 1966, several entrepreneurs (including Jack Kent Cooke and Lamar Hunt) decided that the US needed a pro soccer league, and began plans to launch the North American Soccer League (NASL). But at the same time, two other groups began plans for their own leagues – one called the North American Professional Soccer League, and the National Soccer League. These groups merged before even playing a match to form the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). To avoid confusion, the NASL adopted the name United Soccer Association (USA).
So both leagues played a season in 1967. The USA decided that the quickest way to start was to import teams. So it brought in wholesale foreign teams to represent its franchises. LA Wolves were really Wolverhampton. Cleveland Stokers were Stoke City. Vancouver Royal Canadians were Sunderland. Washington Whips were Aberdeen. Chicago Mustangs were Cagliari. Houston Stars were Bangu (from Rio de Janeiro). The league played from May 28 through the championship match on July 14, so the teams just played through their own leagues’ summer break.
The NPSL had its own quirks, however. To start, only the USA was officially sanctioned by the USSFA and by FIFA, so the NPSL was labeled an outlaw league and players faced sanctions for playing in it. But the NPSL had a TV contract with CBS; this proved attractive enough to bring in some players. However, the quality of play was not very high, and CBS even had the refs call fouls, and players fake injuries, to run commercials during at least one match. This led to the cancellation of the TV contract after one season.
NASL I: The Glory Years
With the challenges facing both USA and the NPSL, they decided to merge after one season, taking the original name the USA had preferred: North American Soccer League (NASL). This league combined the USSFA sanction of the USA with the TV power of the NPSL. 1968 saw the league begin with 17 teams due to the combination of the two leagues, but numbers dropped quickly for 1969 (including a half-season with teams again imported wholesale from overseas).
The league grew well from there: 6 teams in 1970, then 8, then 9, then 15 in 1974. But the league remained chaotic, with teams folding, launching, and moving almost every year. The launch of New York Cosmos in 1971 was a huge boost to the league, and the team regularly drew crowds comparable to professional football.
New York Cosmos was obviously the cream of the league, but there are several storied names from the original NASL. Names currently familiar to MLS watchers include the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps; Dallas Dynamo finds its modern echo in the Houston Dynamo. The old NASL also boasts names of current NASL II teams, including the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies, and the New York Cosmos are slated to be take the field again later this year. Atlanta, Minnesota, Edmonton, and San Antonio also fielded teams.
The NASL faced a population unfamiliar with the game, and changed the rules to accommodate American tastes. An on-field countdown clock was added to indicate remaining time and a 35-yard offsides line was used to entice more offense. The points system was highly modified too: 6 points for a win, 3 for a draw, and a point for each goal scored (up to 3).
The league was quite popular in some areas, and did get national notice, particularly after signing famed foreign players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, and Giorgio Chinaglia on the downsides of their careers. For a sense of the league, you should check out this highlight collection from a 1978 visit by New York Cosmos to Seattle Sounders.
(Seriously? Jon Miller doing soccer commentary? Love it!)
NASL was a major presence and a rebirth of North American soccer. But it wasn’t to last. I’ll post Part II next week, looking at the demise of NASL and the rise of MLS.