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MLS Needs to Credit NASL for Its Success

Seattle Sounders logo MLS Needs to Credit NASL for Its Success

On Thursday night in Philadelphia, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was interviewed on the Fox Football Fone-In show by Eric Wynalda and Nick Webster. There was one particular statement that Garber said that peaked my curiosity. It was in context of MLS and how the league has been in business for 15 years. “For 50 years, professional soccer has failed [in this country].” said Garber.

The issue I have with Garber’s comment is that it belittles the incredible success that the NASL achieved in the United States and around the world during the 70s and early 80s. Yes the league eventually went belly up and ultimately failed, but the league achieved far greater success than Major League Soccer. Garber’s comment is also insulting to other leagues in the States such as USL, WPS, NPSL and former leagues such as the USA (United Soccer Federation) – that was popular in the mid-to-late 60s – and indoor soccer leagues, which were popular in the 80s and 90s.

I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League in the United States in the 70s and 80s, we wouldn’t be where we are today in the soccer landscape in this country. And Major League Soccer would not exist as we know it.

The popularity of the NASL introduced the sport to the mainstream and created a solid fanbase in this country. On top of that, the league became popular on a national and local scale due to the press and TV exposure, as well as incredibly successful worldwide as some of the best players in the world (in their prime, I might add) moved to the States to play in the NASL.

It was not only soccer fans that were born during the 70s and 80s thanks to the NASL. US soccer players were also born. Young kids grew up on NASL, many of them idolizing their heroes on the field and later became some of the greatest soccer players the US has ever produced.

Ever since the league formed, MLS has long tried to distance themselves from comparisons to the NASL. More recently, when the new team was being organized in Seattle, officials resisted putting the name Sounders among the team names to choose from. After Seattle fans protested vociferously, the Sounders name was reluctantly put into the hat. And the rest is history.

The decision of the Seattle fans to choose the Sounders name and the resulting success of the team in the northwest is partly due to the legacy that NASL left. Sounders was the name of the NASL team that played in Seattle from 1974 to 1983. By selecting the Sounders name, the MLS team was able to tap into the legacy of NASL and the foundation of soccer support in the Seattle area. And then to build upon that, which they more than certainly did making Seattle one of the best team launches in the history of not only soccer but any sports franchise, according to Garber.

So yes, Garber is correct when he says that professional soccer has failed for 50 years in the United States. But he needs to add a disclaimer when he says that and give professional soccer credit where credit is due, whether it be the NASL, USL, WPS or other professional organization.

This entry was posted in Leagues: Major League Soccer, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
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23 Responses to MLS Needs to Credit NASL for Its Success

  1. BayVol says:

    Don is correct, but if pressed with a a follow up such as yours, I am sure he would agree with you.

  2. golazo52 says:

    Unfortunately mr. Garber is parroting the line of the old school sports establishment in the us. I understand his uneducated position given his NFL background. I went to a dozen Cosmos games and the MLS despite is slow growth is not there yet. Given his unrestrained optimism I do hope that he will permit the players to earn a living in a free market that this country permits its other citizens

    • Roger says:

      I think that the best for US soccer is for MLS to fold and the NASL to take over.The people around this new NASL are by far more soccer minded.

      Our game is a game of meanings and symbols.There are reasons why soccer generates so much pasion all around the world. there are reasons why Real Madrid is called “Real”; there are reasons why Manchester United is called “United”; and Arsenal is called “Arsenal; and so on.

      Every importtant club in the world has a history.Its colors,emblems,kits designs mean things.Clubs are even often asociated with social,economical,religioues and eben political implications.Soccer is indeed a very complex and interesting game,full of history ,pasion and symbolism.

      By creating a fake league , with meaningless symbols and stupid team names; by lightly using names like “Real” and “United” like it is all a joke, the ones comanding MLS show ignorance and disrespect to our game. Therefore MLS is a plastic,soul-less product.

      I love Association Football(hate to say soccer)and I want it to be suscessfull in America,but the fans deserve the real authentic version of it.The new NASL is the best bet for the true soccer fans.

      As for MLS,I pass; I rather watch Cirque do Soleil.

      • d says:

        i too hate saying “soccer ” and i hate the nfl for inflicting it on us. but the last thing football needs is yet another false start. mls stays. a name change would certainly be very “cheeky”. mlf? – why the hell not , lets take are true i.d. back!

  3. Charles says:

    golazo52,

    We agree that players should earn a living, a lot in my opinion, for playing soccer for our enjoyment. How does that happen though ? How do we get there ?
    The Cosmos playing in the finals every year meant that other cities didn’t make it and eventually even Seattle couldn’t draw fans.
    I went to every game the Sounders last year in NASL. The announced attendance was below 10k and there weren’t that many there. That was after drawing 25k+ for a quie a while.

    You can make fun of the NFL all you want, it is the most profitable and BY FAR the best run league in the world. The NFL has about 30 teams, there are 3 or 4 teams that are struggling to pay their players in England’s top 30.
    Go look at the joke of leagues, EPL and LaLiga for an example of what I don’t want to see and will not support.
    Chelsea 7-2, ManU 3-0 today, those were not shockers. The teams they played have probably not beaten them since NASL was up and running.

  4. Charles says:

    Oh yeah meant to say, I have been going to Sounders games every year for 30 years now. Would I be saying that if they were named something stupid like Seattle Football Alliance or whatever English name they were proposing.

  5. Soccer Guru says:

    Bottom line: NASL was the most important development of the last 50 years in American Soccer.

    Before the NASL we had ZERO, zilch, nada.

    The NASL brought masses to the game and created a youth soccer boom that still lives today. TV audiences were bigger than for MLS and the infrastructure the NASL created made it possible for MLS, USL and the US National Teams to flourish.

    NASL is still the best and most important league in US Soccer history, and the names associated with the league do not lie.

    HOWEVER, what this “new” NASL is doing to destroy the name and the legacy of the league is a problem. The NASL is a holy name in the lore of American Soccer history. The attempt of these clubs to prostitute the name for marketing gain and try and ride off of the nostaliga of the great league itself is shameful.

    • dave2010 says:

      “HOWEVER, what this “new” NASL is doing to destroy the name and the legacy of the league is a problem.”

      The new NASL isn’t going to “destroy” the legacy of the old NASL. This is an absurd fear. Sports names get recycled all the time – many of the hallowed names of sports teams/leagues today are not the first incarnations of those names.

      In fact there are many analogies here to American baseball history. Consider that some of the bigger minor leagues are in fact recycled names of old “major” leagues that failed, only to have their names revived later. Some major league clubs are also revived names of older clubs that failed.

      This kind of thing happens all the time. Relax: it’s not a problem.

  6. MikeinTN says:

    The NASL did ‘ultimately’ fail financially but….to late middle agers like me, it lit the spark of lifelong soccer interest. I love to watch the MLS and follow it closely but haven’t seen anything close to what I saw in the late 70′s. I will never forget George Best, Trevor Francis, Giorgio Chinaglia, Rodney Marsh, et al coming to my home town stadium. Success happens on many different levels.

    • Hal says:

      “The NASL did ‘ultimately’ fail financially but….to late middle agers like me, it lit the spark of lifelong soccer interest. I love to watch the MLS and follow it closely but haven’t seen anything close to what I saw in the late 70’s.”

      And that’s why it failed. They couldn’t sustain the league when paying those wages and transfer fees. I’m sure MLS could have decided to loosed the purse strings and bring in the quality the NASL had, but then you likely wouldn’t have an MLS to follow if that occurred. Steady growth is the way in this country.

      • Hal says:

        Let me add that you are correct that the league did influence a generation of soccer fans.

      • d says:

        mls is going to go further than all other leagues have becouse there goin slower. we were blessed to have the nasl, with every thing it acomplished but to say that the nasl was the single greatest leap for football is partizan ansd maybe stupid. people who can be taught will learn more from failure than from success, and truly lasting results are the ones that come slow.who cares the cosmos were always selling out giants stadium. all they did was pay the morgage for people who would rather not have them there at all.

  7. Uncle Ed says:

    I agree that without NASL’s existence MLS would not be what it is today. MLS can only hope to one day get there and go beyond.

    The new NASL hasn’t even started. How can you judge them? Everyone knows they are not the old NASL. They picked the NASL name because it was available and it fits. Its a business move that makes sense, nothing more. As a 2nd Division it will be hard for them to ever live up to the originals legacy… unless MLS one day folds and it can replace them but thats a long shot.

    • dave2010 says:

      “I agree that without NASL’s existence MLS would not be what it is today.”

      I’d go much farther than that: without the NASL, MLS would not exist today, and MLS would not have been launched in 1996 (or any other year), nor would there have been a USA World Cup in 1994.

      Without the NASL, we would not be here having this discussion, because soccer would still be as obscure sport that most Americans are barely aware even exists, like rugby or cricket or aussie rules, etc.

      No NASL, no MLS. It’s that simple.

  8. dave2010 says:

    Typical ignorant/missing the point response I saw on Twitter went something like this: “true if you mean that MLS owes its success to not repeating the mistakes of the NASL”.

    This is true as far as it goes, but completely misses the point, that without the NASL, we would have had no youth soccer boom, no increase in the numbers of actual soccer fans who wanted to watch live soccer, no soccer players who wanted to play professionally and for the USMNT, no 1990 World Cup qualifying for the USMNT, no 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA, and thus, no MLS.

    You have to create the fan base first. This is what the NASL succeeded in doing. Before the NASL there was NOTHING. Nothing apart from a few ethnic soccer leagues that almost no Americans knew existed.

    Don’t exaggerate the influence of ethnic soccer in the USA circa 1930-1970 just because you’ve read the history: my father lived in an ethnic German/Eastern European neighborhood in Queens, NY, in the 1930s/40s/50s, and he never even HEARD of soccer, and never saw a soccer game, until the Rowdies started playing in Tampa in 1975. If you could live in an ethnic community in NYC in the 1930s/40s/50s and be completely ignorant of the mere EXISTENCE of soccer, that tells you something about how obscure the sport was in the USA prior to the NASL.

    When the NASL started, it was almost impossible to buy soccer gear in the USA, apart from, IIRC, an obscure outlet or two in NYC and Chicago. When the Rowdies were setting themselves up in Tampa Bay in 1974, there was nowhere to buy soccer balls in the entire state of Florida, according to Francisco Marcos (again, IIRC).

    I was a kid in Tampa in 1975 (age 9); one day no one had ever heard of soccer. The next day, the Rowdies showed up and suddenly all the kids were playing soccer. And, more importantly, we weren’t just engaged in a mere “activity” (which is the problem with most youth soccer in the USA today: the kids are not fans of the sport, they just play it because their parents want them to “stay active”): we kids were rabid soccer fans, Rowdies fans, we watched as much soccer as we could (Rowdies games at Tampa Stadium, Rowdies games on cable TV and briefly network TV, Rowdies games on the radio – the “Rowdio”, etc), we kept up with the sport in Europe as much as we could in those pre-internet, pre-300 TV channels days, and we played pick-up soccer games in neighborhood streets and backyards when we had no youth soccer games to play. You don’t build a real fan base without that kind of engagement from kids from an early age.

    MLS is building on a strong foundation that MLS did not create. Garber and people like him need to understand this. The NASL sowed the seeds; MLS is only just now beginning to reap the harvest. Don’t dis the NASL just because it went out of business. It might have been a business failure, but it was a success at laying the foundation for what we have today.

  9. Oscar says:

    If you’ve been in a Sounders crowd, you know how true this is. Some of the lifelong fans of every incarnation of Sounders attend matches in Sounders T-shirts turned practically white with age, with logos nobody even recognizes now.

    I admit to waiting until the Sounders before whole-heartedly following MLS, although I woulda rooted for a PNW team from Portland or Vancouver if they had been first. Nonetheless, Kartik can take DC United/LA Galaxy’s “storied history” and shove it. How is it that fresh-faced Sounders show up to endless complaints from the “storied history” crowd, but their fans root with a discipline, enthusiasm and infrastructure that denotes 20 years more experience than any other MLS team?

    • d says:

      true that. im new england “till i die”. but i wish are fan base was a trully multi- generational one like the sounders , and portland , vancouver, montreal,…..

  10. Tempest In a Teapot says:

    Don Garber has seen the movie “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos”. Everyone knows that the NASL was an incredible moment and laid foundations. But, Garber is a sports management wonk. Garber meant that the NASL was a business failure. Can you imagine the type of talent the US National Team would have today if the NASL had continued operating beyond 1985?

    Working for Bernie Madoff was a magical time of excitement and excess. We were the most popular investment house on Wall Street. Our huge bonus checks encouraged lots of kids to go into finance. Calling Bernie Madoff a “failure” belittles the incredible success he had and the legacy he left. Can you sense my sarcasm?

  11. Seybold says:

    You’re right Oscar. Going to a Sounders game with 25-30,000 fans? Did it many times 30 years ago, nothing new there. 60,000+ against Barcelona? No different that seeing the Cosmos of Pele with 60,000+ in the old Kingdome in the mid-70s.

  12. james says:

    I too grew up in the Tampa Bay area, Clearwater to be extact, and the Rowdies planted the seeds here that are still flourishing. You can find ex-players who stayed here and now are coaches.

    We must honor and remember the past, so those mistakes are not repeated, and look to build a strong future.

  13. enitz says:

    You guys are all on the right track, the NASL, its history, the world class players and most importantly the pasionate American soccer fans that flocked to stadiums throughout Canada and the U.S. should be remembered as heros as pionners, enableing fans like me, fans who grew up in the late 80′s and early 90′s who had no American soccer role models ( during that time the only soccer you could see on T.V. in english in Denver/or the Rocky Mtn region was a one hour program on PBS called soccer madein Germany on Sunday nights) the MLS for all of it’s short- commings is creating young passainate fans who don’t care abount legacy team names or team colors, they now more than anytime in American soccer history have something to shoot for…the MLS… it’s alive and growing unliked the storied but gone, long gone NASL.

  14. jleau says:

    I think the impact of the NASL in Seattle is without question. I moved to the area in the 80′s after the Sounders had failed and the team never really lost it’s place with the community.

    If you go to any of the Sounder games you immediately realize that the team has tapped into something deeper than just an MLS expansion club. I have been to games in DC, Columbus, and Seattle and the atmosphere isn’t close.

    I attended the conference final at Columbus in 08 and there is more energy at a Sounder US Open Cup qualifier.

  15. Andre says:

    I’ve been a Vancouver Whitecaps fan ever since their Soccer Bowl ’79 season. When pro soccer returned in ’87 with the formation of the Vancouver 86ers in the Canadian Soccer League, something didn’t ‘feel’ right. Yes, pro soccer returned. To me and many fans, the Whitecaps brand was Vancouver soccer, not the 86er brand.
    Now, that all three Pacific Northwest NASL legacies(Whitecaps, Sounders, and Timbers) are going to continue on in MLS, Don Garber is going to see the light. MLS will be in for a huge treat when the NY Cosmos make their league debut.
    Traditional soccer(football) fans like Euro brands, but this is North America. Here, our teams are Team Location, Team Name. Let’s be honest here: The NASL teams did a much better job in marketing their clubs in their respective markets. For example, a team like Toronto FC have had tremedous support in the Ontario capital due to an intimate soccer specific stadium and a large international population. However, bringing back the Blizzard name(remember Jomo Sono?) and calling them “Toronto Blizzard FC” would be much better. FC Dallas going back to the Dallas Tornado, an original NASL franchise from Day 1 is another idea. That doesn’t mean that a new team in Detroit should be called the Express or a team in Atlanta be called the Chiefs. Those teams had very little support.
    Bottom line is this: the MLS needs to have teams carrying on their NASL legacies in former NASL markets that embraced those former teams.

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