In an American nation dominated by fast-paced and often violent sports, the game of soccer has remained mostly in the background. Early attempts at professional soccer were mostly unsuccessful as smaller leagues were in competition with one another for an already meagre fan base. The first noteworthy operation was the American Soccer League which lasted a mere twelve years before it was struck dead by the Great Depression. It was only later in the century that soccer would find place in America.
For a seventeen year span, from 1968 to 1984, the North American Soccer League was the top tier of the American game. The NASL began optimistically with an inaugural season featuring seventeen teams including one from Canada.
Dismal attendances and low revenues led to the dismantling of all but five teams for the second campaign, and the dream seemed to be over even as soon as it had begun. But during the mid 1970s these initial struggles were left far behind as the league enjoyed a period of immense success and expansion.
The rules of the game were amended for the NASL to fashion it after the image of already popular sports played in America. A common belief was that excessive scoring and gimmicks were necessary to draw crowds. The league introduced shootouts to resolve draws and 35 yard lines for offside rather than the traditional half field line, amongst other rules which irked FIFA.
The poster child of the league was the New York Cosmos, who signed Pele in 1975, even after the Brazilian sensation had retired from international competition. Attendance tripled over the two following seasons, encouraging the team to also make a deal with German great Franz Beckenbauer.
The league was at its peak for the 1978 season, during which the twenty-four team league drew an average attendance of over 13,000 fans per game. But even in these heady days there were signs that the flame was beginning to flicker.
Many teams attempted to imitate the glamorous image cultivated by the New York Cosmos, especially as it had proven to be very successful to the American audience. Large contracts were offered to aging European players, bringing them across the Atlantic even though the average American showed little to no interest. Player salaries increased as scouts scoured the world for the big ticket names. Even then some of these players themselves often disliked NASL regulations and failed to take the league seriously. It soon became apparent that management was spending more money than it was making, trying to compete with other professional sports leagues in North America when the league simply was not prepared.
The crux of the matter was simply that America was not a soccer nation. They already had one football and that was quite enough. Even the league’s reshaping of the game failed to interest sports fans who thought soccer too dull and slow. The final nail in the coffin was delivered when the United States was beaten by Mexico for the right to host the 1986 World Cup. What could have been an opportunity to refresh the country’s on again, off again love affair with soccer vanished along with the final season of the NASL.
But a single beacon continued to shine even as the league faded away into nothingness. Interest had increased exponentially among youth programs and registration in the sport surpassed the American sports of football and baseball. It was only a matter of time before the country would have another shot at professional soccer. After resurgence by the United States Men’s Soccer Program and several appearances in the World Cup, America was ready for another try. Nine years after the death of the NASL, Major League Soccer debuted.
The MLS currently consists of fourteen teams, one of which hails from Canada. While mindful of the reasons for the downfall of the NASL, the MLS already has made plans for extensive expansion, hoping to add four teams by 2011. In stark contrast to the NASL the league accepted most of FIFA’s standards for their game, with only minor changes.
The current second tier of American soccer is the United Soccer Leagues First Division, which came into being soon after the MLS. Keeping with tradition, the new league has struggled, drawing little interest and leaving franchises struggling to stay afloat. While there is no established system of promotion and relegation between the two leagues, several USL-1 teams have expressed interest in being part of the MLS expansion.
American soccer is still far removed from the level of play and rabid enthusiasm exhibited in European stadiums, but with the hard lessons of the past fresh in the minds of the present, the country can only look towards a glorious future.