The history of soccer in America is a varied, star-studded affair encompassing disaster, triumph and struggle. Its trajectory is straight out of Hollywood and the real meat of the story lies not in Major League Soccer or World Cup USA ’94, but the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Between 1968 and 1984 the sport in the USA went through its adolescence, displaying at once brashness, insecurity, swagger and indiscipline. Without it, MLS would be very different today and might not exist at all. For all its major problems, NASL mattered.
The league was formed in 1968, the result of a merger between two very different professional football leagues, both of which existed for a single year. The National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) was not sanctioned by any governing body and effectively had no television coverage. The United Soccer Association (USA) owned the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA, now the United States Soccer Federation) sanction and the FIFA rights that came with it, but it was no ordinary first division: it was not populated by American teams.
Instead, teams of varying stature from Europe and South America were simply imported intact; CA Cerro (New York Skyliners), Sunderland (Vancouver Royal Canadians), ADO Den Haag (San Francisco Golden Gate Gales) and even Shamrock Rovers (Boston Rovers) were among those represented.
In spite of the bizarre nature of this league it achieved supremacy over the NPSL and the unfavoured league refused to go down without a fight, bringing an antitrust lawsuit against the USA, USSFA and seemingly any other governing body for which it could find an address. NASL was born of necessity, and it would go on to become one of the most remarkable leagues in the history of football.
The pre-season was riddled with changes: Boston Rovers (from the USA) became Boston Beacons; Vancouver Royal Canadians (USA) absorbed San Francisco Gales (USA) – who made way for Oakland Clippers – and became Vancouver Royals; Chicago Spurs (NPSL) moved to Kansas City to avoid a clash with Chicago Sting (USA), and would record the highest average attendance in 1968; Los Angeles Toros (NPSL) moved to San Diego to avoid clashing with Los Angeles Wolves. You get the picture. In addition to those moves, the Skyliners folded to make way for New York Generals, and Philadelphia Spartans and Pittsburgh Phantoms disappeared due to losses.
And so began the North American Soccer League, with 17 teams across four divisions – Atlantic, Lakes, Gulf and Pacific – and one Ferenc Puskas, coach of the Royals due to something of a fluke of the merger, provided the first glimpse of the star quality that would eventually come to define the league above all else. The stories, however, would develop elsewhere.
The inaugural champions of the North American Soccer League were Atlanta Chiefs, who succeeded under the tutelage of player-coach Phil Woosnam. Woosnam was one of three former Aston Villa players (the others being 1957 FA Cup Final hero Peter McParland and future Villa and Portland Timbers coach Vic Crowe) who played for the Chiefs in the triumphant 1968 season, and his future was a controversial one as the longest-serving commissioner of the league.
The Chiefs topped the Atlantic Division ahead of Washington Whips and New York Generals, defeating Lakes Division winners Cleveland Stokers in the play-off semi-finals and emerging victorious from a final against Pacific Division champions San Diego Toros. At this stage play-off matches, including the final, were two-legged affairs. After a goalless first leg draw, a 3-0 win saw the Chiefs past the Toros to win the title for the only time.
Strangely, Malcolm Allison also wrote himself into Chiefs history in 1968. After his Manchester City side (then champions of England) were defeated 3-2 by Woosnam’s charges while on a pre-season tour, Allison famously described the Chiefs as a fourth division side and proclaimed that the victory was a one-off that they could never repeat. When one of City’s tour games was cancelled Woosnam challenged Allison to a rematch and the Chiefs won again, defeating City 2-1.
It wasn’t just the former Villa trio who would enjoy ongoing recognition after their careers ended. One of the goalscorers as the Chiefs humiliated Manchester City was Kaizer Motaung, a 23-year-old South African striker who went on to score 16 goals in 15 matches and be named as the league’s inaugural Rookie of the Year.
As it turned out, Motaung’s goalscoring ability was just the beginning of his talents. In between two spells in NASL (the second representing Denver Dynamos) it was Motaung who launched Soweto’s iconic Kaizer Chiefs, named after the club where he had overcome a difficult settling-in period to enjoy such success in 1968. The Amakhosi came to life in 1970 and have enjoyed enormous success, racking up silverware seemingly for fun.
In the meantime, Motaung’s reach extended into South African industry and into football administration, including a position of power on the board of FIFA World Cup 2010, undoubtedly his country’s proudest football event. He also sits on the South African Football Association’s executive committee and on the board of the Premier Soccer League.
Despite enjoying a huge amount of power within the game, Motaung’s progress of late has not been without incident. His coaching appointments have come into question along with his reticence to dispense with some incumbents; current boss Vladimir Vermezovic has come in for particular criticism, and Kaizer’s son Bobby – effectively the club’s director of football – is no stranger to the odd controversial statement.
Even away from Georgia the 1968 NASL season created stories and had an impact on the future of the game, particularly domestically. Dallas Tornado had a disastrous season, winning just two regular season matches after struggling to rebuild after Dundee United had “been” the Tornado in the United Soccer Association in the season previous.
The club’s owner, Lamar Hunt, was a genuine soccer visionary in the States and his impact is still felt today, just over five years after his death. NFL stalwart Hunt’s involvement in multiple sports led to the NFL seeking a rule forbidding cross-disciplinary ownership, a challenge that was defeated by the NASL and allowed the assimilated Texan to go on to be a founding investor in Major League Soccer – at one point he helped save the league by owning as many as three clubs simultaneously – and has the US Open Cup, one of football’s oldest cup competitions, named after him in 1999.
The individual legacy of Hunt is almost unequalled in the American game, but in terms of collective impact Atlanta Chiefs arguably had more than nearly any professional American side since World War II. Since Woosnam guided the Chiefs to their triumph in ’68, New York Cosmos and LA Galaxy have had a profound effect on soccer in the USA and its reputation abroad. But with Woosnam running NASL and later taking on a key marketing role at US Soccer and Motaung forming one of Africa’s best known clubs, the Chiefs’ global influence shouldn’t be overlooked.
By Chris Nee
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona