In September 2014, Ian Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League hit bookshelves around the world.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a portrait of the original North American Soccer League and the salad days of the professional game in the US and Canada. Throughout the book, Plenderleith recounts the tales of a league that few today will remember; and in some cases, ever have watched. From the ill-fated Team America in Washington DC to Eusebio’s four team NASL sojourn, Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an extensive look at the fly-by-night league.
While other books and documentaries have been based on the New York Cosmos or Pele, Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer takes a broader view of the league, with many of the stories told by the NASL players and coaches themselves.
This week, World Soccer Talk was able to sit down with Ian Plenderleith to talk about the NASL, soccer in the US and Canada and the years of North American soccer that are unknown to younger generations today.
Drew Farmer: Firstly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed reading your book Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League. How did the concept for the book come about and how connected were you to the original NASL?
Ian Plenderleith: How the book came about is simple – I wrote a few features about the league down the years, and was amazed that there had been no comprehensive book written about it. There are books about individual teams, especially the Cosmos, or by individual players who featured in the league, but nothing covering the whole league’s evolution and demise, and looking at the bigger picture of the NASL’s 17 years.
I had no connection to the NASL at all while it was actually in existence, other than knowing it as a faraway league where a lot of British players went during the summer, and that they wore garish kits, had weird names, and played on ‘plastic’ (artificial turf) pitches. The Tulsa Roughnecks actually came and played at my home town club Lincoln City in 1979 (we beat them 9-2), but I missed it completely as I was on holiday with my Mum. I bought the program off eBay, but I have no recollection of it happening at the time.
Drew Farmer: You are a resident of Washington DC, though originally from the UK. Compared to the 70s glory years of the NASL, what is your current opinion of US soccer and Major League Soccer?
Ian Plenderleith: First, I actually just moved from Washington at the start of the year, after living there for 16 years, and now I’m in Frankfurt, Germany. However, that’s given me time enough to form an opinion of US soccer.
I get asked a lot to compare MLS with European leagues. Is it the lower end of the Premier League? Is it Championship level? Is it better than the Swiss first division? I think those comparisons are not only impossible to make, but they miss the point. US soccer is a long-term work in progress, and it is making steady steps forward, with occasional setbacks. Its development is a little like the other nascent-to-rising footballing nations – Australia and Japan. They don’t have the 100-150 years of tradition and history of European and South American nations, so everything is happening at a different pace, under different social and economic circumstances. That is, their survival and progress depends on a lot of external economic factors – how they compete with sports already established in their countries, and with the major European leagues being broadcast on TV.
So you don’t have 100s of clubs springing up spontaneously, because it’s the new craze, as happened in Europe and South America (although this did happen in some areas of the US in the early 20th century too). You have people sitting down with a business plan, a stadium blueprint, and marketing surveys to see if there will be demand for semi-pro and pro soccer. By necessity, it’s quite calculated, and this has led to MLS being much more stable than the NASL, which was a kind of Wild West league in many ways.
Drew Farmer: Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer had interviews with several of the big players of NASL era. How easy was it to compile the interviews and match information for the book? Were most players and people interviewed quite forthcoming? Was there anyone you wanted to interview that declined?
Ian Plenderleith: Well, Pele and Johan Cruyff were not available, needless to say, though I did ask politely. Many others were much more co-operative, and I am truly grateful to them – in many respects, it’s their words that make the book, and I wrote everything else around them. It was intensive work (I had a very short deadline, which I more or less imposed on myself), but hugely enjoyable. Players were generally wary until I explained what I was trying to do – give credit to a forgotten league and put it in its deserved historical context. After that they were happy to talk. Sometimes they were very vague or evasive on the rock ‘n’ roll side of things, but I was fine with that – I didn’t set out to write a ‘they-all-took-loads-of-drugs-and-had-loads-of-sex’ book. I’m sure some did, some didn’t. It was the 70s, after all. But to me, that’s not a particularly interesting aspect.
Drew Farmer: Near the end of the book, Rodney Marsh had a few quotes about the new NASL and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Ian, what are your thoughts on the revived league and can it return to something similar to the original league? Do you share Marsh’s thoughts on the league?
Ian Plenderleith: No, I don’t agree with Rodney on that one, though I can see why he denigrated it – he’s someone who’s used to top class football. That’s what he played, and that’s what he wants to see. For me, the more teams and leagues there are, the better. Personally, I’d watch anything (and I do) – I grew up watching Lincoln, Scunthorpe and Grimsby, after all.
I had a bit of a testy email exchange with the current [New York] Cosmos, though, because they objected to me referring to the new league as “semi-pro” in the book. That wasn’t intended as a putdown. In many respects, the old NASL, especially in its early years, was semi-pro too, at least according to my definition. That is, players played and were paid for less than half a year, at least until they started the winter indoor league(s). To me, semi-pro is when you have players on contracts that mean they have to work other jobs, because the break between seasons is several months long, or because the players are also coaching or working other jobs to make a living. There’s no shame in that for a brand new league in a country like the US. In that respect, many MLS players could have been classified as semi-pro until they re-negotiated the minimum wage in the latest round of pay negotiations. It’s not an insult, it’s just a reflection of a league’s status at this point in time.
Can it grow to the size of the old NASL? Again, I think that question doesn’t really apply. I think eventually it would be best if the leagues merge and we end up with two or three divisions with at least some form of relegation and promotion when that’s sustainable. The US is, after all, the ultimate meritocracy, or at least in theory. It can also be more protectionist than a Soviet planned economy.
Right now, though, MLS and NASL seem to be in an unspoken competition, and from what I can gather at this distance, they’re not on especially good speaking terms.
Drew Farmer: Similar to the last questions, do you believe MLS, like NASL, has expanded too quickly? Last season saw the league contract Chivas USA. I believe people are overestimating soccer’s popularity in the US, which is producing a saturated market of teams (Keeping in mind, I am a Yank currently living in the UK). Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
Ian Plenderleith: I’ve been surprised by the pace of recent expansion. It’s not necessarily bad from an economic point of view, because every new city has been carefully monitored by MLS for its potential as a soccer market, and the fee to found a new franchise now is quite phenomenal – $100 million, I think – so it’s not like the old NASL days when new teams were handed out willy-nilly to anyone with a down payment and a local college football stadium that needed filling on off days. Now you need to have a new soccer-only stadium, or at least the very concrete plan for one. Chivas USA, by the way, was a special case – it was a bold idea to try and bring more Hispanics in to watch MLS, but it was a bust in the end because Mexican fans didn’t want to watch a pale imitation of a real Mexican team. But I give MLS credit for trying – most people thought it was a good idea at the time.
The problem, as you point out, could be the saturation of quality. My personal view is that now is definitely the time for MLS to consolidate on expansion, and stand back and concentrate on the quality of players and the level of entertainment, now that they have the league itself on a fairly stable foundation.
Drew Farmer: Back to the NASL, in Rock ‘n’ Roll soccer over expansion was mentioned as one of the death nails in the league’s coffin. If the league hadn’t expanded so rapidly in the 70s, would it have survived or do you believe it would have died a slightly slower death do to other factors?
Ian Plenderleith: It would have had a much better chance of surviving, although that wouldn’t have been the only factor. But it’s generally true to say that over-expansion is one of the key factors behind the league’s sudden decline – too many clueless owners were allowed in who thought they were going to make a fast buck out of soccer, then dropped out when they realized they were losing cash hand over fist. Other people say that it would have survived if the US had been given the 1986 World Cup [fully explored in Chapter 7 of the book], or if cable TV had been available to all the nation’s households just a couple of years sooner – NASL soccer as a minority sport would have been a perfect fit for cable TV. These are all important reasons why the league failed.
Drew Farmer: Other than the New York Cosmos, there is a generation or two of soccer fans that have very little knowledge about the NASL. As an American born in the early 80s, the league was dead by the time I had discovered soccer. Again, other than the Cosmos, what was the team or teams that made the biggest impact on soccer in America?
Ian Plenderleith: The Tampa Bay Rowdies, the San Jose Earthquakes, and the three teams in the Pacific North West were all very important. Teams in places like Dallas and Atlanta, where no one had played soccer before, laid the basis for generations of youth soccer players. But I always cite the Minnesota Kicks, a team I also write about extensively in the book. Part of that was fortuitous – a lot of the people I talked to happened to play for the Kicks at some point. But they also embodied the whole story of the NASL. They rose out of nowhere very quickly, they attracted huge crowds with savvy marketing and a very successful team. Then they sank and went bust as rapidly as they rose, but they made an enormous impact – several of their players stayed on in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, because they loved it and they have continued to develop the sport in that area with coaching schools, etc. And the Kicks are still revered. Reviving pro soccer there through Minnesota United, who started in the new NASL and are going to join MLS in 2017, proves that the Kicks laid the foundation for the sport to grow in the long-term – which is one of the messages of the book, that the NASL wasn’t strictly a failure, it really did plant the roots for the game’s current popularity in the US.
Drew Farmer: There’s quite an extensive portion of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer about Washington DC’s difficulties with soccer in the NASL era. Has DC solved those problems or has MLS just made it a point to keep a team in the capital no matter what?
Ian Plenderleith: MLS vaguely threatened to move DC to Baltimore or somewhere else a few years back when it seemed that the protracted negotiations for a new stadium might never end, but the league didn’t want that to happen any more than DC fans did. There’s a core of very loyal support for the team in the city now after 20 years, and they are also seen as a ‘storied’ team as they have four MLS Cup titles. The league doesn’t have that much tradition – much as they over-use the word in their marketing – so I don’t think they ever wanted to lose one of the teams that can boast at least a wee bit of tradition. Also, as in the NASL days, there’s a certain prestige to having a team in the nation’s capital, now matter how fucked up the local politics are that might make it difficult for pro teams to operate there.
Drew Farmer: In addition, I knew nothing about Team America ahead of the book. In your mind, a good idea overall?
Ian Plenderleith: Good? Probably not. Fascinating? Definitely – it’s a typical NASL story. In fact, it was one of the aspects of the league I’d written about before that made me want to delve further into its history.
Drew Farmer: In your opinion…
What was the best kit of the NASL years?
Ian Plenderleith: The Cosmos had the cool to go with their green kit, and their plain white shirt too. Other kits were interesting to outlandish, but the Cosmos had the style, no question.
Drew Farmer: Best team?
Ian Plenderleith: Obviously the Cosmos were the best on the field, but my personal favorites are the Minnesota Kicks, the crash-and-burn upstarts with the joint-toting tailgaters.
Drew Farmer: Best team name?
Ian Plenderleith: The very appropriately named Tulsa Roughnecks. Followed closely by the Las Vegas Quicksilver.
Drew Farmer: Best player of the NASL era?
Ian Plenderleith: Giorgio Chinaglia. Bad-assed brilliance.
Drew Farmer: Best game?
Ian Plenderleith: Pele’s last competitive game, the 1977 Soccer Bowl between the Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders. Not that many goals, but a huge number of chances, some excellent football and brilliant goalkeeping at both ends.
Drew Farmer: What can fans of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer expect next from you? Is there a new book on the way in the near future?
Ian Plenderleith: I’m working on a few ideas for my next book, but it’s too early to say yet exactly what it will be about.
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