The 1966 World Cup in England opened America’s eyes to soccer. Those wide-open eyes saw full stadiums and supporters frothing at the mouth to watch a sport that was practically unknown to the majority of the USA population.
Now with dollar signs gleaming in their vision, a consortium of soccer “enthusiasts” set out to create a professional league in the USA and Canada.
What happened next was something that seems only capable in US and Canadian soccer, but ultimately, the North American Soccer League was formed in 1968 when the two leagues merged.
Yet before we got to that point in 1968, the two leagues, the United Soccer Association (USA) and National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) battled it out both on and off the pitch.
The USA was led by such North America sports luminaries as Jack Kent Cooke and future Major League Soccer founding member Lamar Hunt. The league had hoped to take its time to set up operations, but thanks to the NPSL, had to act quickly before missing the boat on soccer in North America.
On the USA’s side was FIFA as the world’s governing body of soccer recognized the league as the top-flight of the game in America and Canada. Despite this, it was the NPSL that successfully negotiated a national television contract with CBS. The NPSL’s TV contract was one of the main points that hurried the USA into existence a year before it had planned to kick-off.
But while the NPSL had a TV contract, it was labelled as an outlaw league due to not being recognized by FIFA or the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). It seemed both leagues were at a stalemate. The USA had no TV deal. Yet while having a TV deal, the NPSL, its teams, players and coaches could face sanctions from FIFA or the USSF for playing in an outlaw league.
Yet, that stalemate didn’t prevent either from recruiting players and laying the groundwork for the NASL and later MLS.
As the NPSL recruited players from around the world, the USA did something unprecedented. The league paid $250,000 to import teams from other parts of the globe for the 12 game season. In today’s money, that equates to around $1.77 million; or more than $147,000 a game.
Twelve teams were imported, including English second division runners-up Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aberdeen, Cagliari, Shamrock Rovers, Stoke City, Dundee United, Glentoran, Bangu AC, C.A. Cerro, ADO Den Haag, Hibernian and Sunderland.
Split into two conferences, the Washing Whips (Aberdeen) finished top of the Eastern Conference while the Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) finished top in the West.
The final, played in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was witnessed by a decent crowd of 17,824; and saw the hometown Wolves beat the Whips 6-5 in extra-time.
The coliseum was home to the Wolves for just a month and a half and saw crowds yo-yo between 5,000 and 12,000 fans during their home games. It also gave Wolverhampton Wanderers a unique story in a past beaming with famous names and matches.
Five months after the USA’s July final, the league and the NPSL would merge to form the NASL. Though the USA has now been eclipsed by the subsequent soccer leagues in North America. 48 years have now passed and the United Soccer Association is barely a memory in the continent’s soccer history. But it is a memory worth sharing, if not for its sheer uniqueness in a world of modern sports.
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @Calciofarmer. Drew Farmer is a Manchester, England-based journalist/blogger that has written for Forza Italian Football and World Soccer Talk. Originally from southwest Missouri, Drew covers Italy’s Serie A, English football and USA soccer.
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