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Pheonix from the flames- The fall and rise of American Soccer.

309,593,030 – this is the number of people living in the United States at this present time. In terms of interest, football (or what the Americans call “soccer”) lies far behind Basketball, Baseball and American Football, which for years have all been in the focus of the American public’s eyes.

Ever since their domestic league started in 1968 (under the original name the North American Soccer League), it has been an extraordinary roller coaster show of mismanagement and star signings, ranging from 75,000 watching the New York Cosmos to just 4,000 watching a game played by amateurs at Schaefer Stadium, home of the Boston Minutemen; “So we don’t end up like the NASL” became a common quote in countries trying to start up leagues.

Things are changing, with the USA’s performances at World Cups improving, the national league attracting bigger names and the financial situation secure, the future looks bright for the beautiful game. But things have not always looked so good.

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Ironically, the birth of American Soccer was started by England. After the World Cup in 1966 was aired for the first time in America, a good response from fans led to the NASL being created. The league started in 1968, and despite a typically rough American start- a 17 team league was created, but only 5 teams finished the season- the NASL’s fortunes were rising.

The league slowly and steadily grew until 1975, attendances steadily increased, the quality slowly improved and the league was happy with its steady, if not shocking, progress. This was until one player changed everything. This was when the emergence of one player changed it all: Pele.

Pele’s arrival to New York Cosmos drew all eyes to the league, American Soccer was suddenly the next big thing, with Pele being rapidly followed to New York Cosmos by Franz Beckenbauer. But NYC weren’t the only team doing it- Eusebio, George Best, Giorgio Chinaglia and Gordon Banks, to name just a few, joined the “Soccer” revolution. With the influx of foreign talent as well as a better standard of play, the future looked bright.

However, it wasn’t without its problems- San Diego Socker president Jack Daley claims that “It became fashionable to chase the Cosmos. Everyone had to have a Pelé. Coaches went around the world on talent searches, forcing the prices up.” There was also the problem of the players still thinking they were bigger than the club- A famous story is of Johan Cruyff, after his move to the Los Angeles Aztecs, all but in name managing the team. On a long journey across the country to an away game, he persuaded the bus driver to ignore the pleas of the management and told him where to go, despite never having been to the place before. They arrived perfectly and without hitch.

At the time though, the problems were minimal in comparison to the benefits, with attendance hitting 70,000 for the big games. The underlying problems- the amount of wages, attendances as a league average never reaching over 15,000- were put aside as the league, for the first time in its history, became the most star studded spectacle on the planet. To all but the finance managers, the league’s place as the future forefront of football looked set in stone. But the problems caught up with them.

“We spent too much money trying to market teams as if they were instant big league franchises before the attendance and money justified it.” This, stated by Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern, is the quote which perfectly sums up the NASL’s demise. As much as all the money in the world can draw players, it can’t create fans- and this was the fatal flaw to the NASL’s formation.

The league was caught offside- it just couldn’t handle the wages being spent; the number of fans willing to pay to watch was too few and the distance to travel was too far. Portsmouth to Newcastle, the longest distance to travel in an English premier league game in 2008 (around 700 miles), pales in comparison to the average distance for an MLS game in 2008 was around 1,500 miles.

With more and more franchises being created every 90 minutes, the league had grown to 24 teams- meaning the travel costs were higher. Just a year later over half of the 24 clubs had folded. The clubs were still losing ridiculous amount of money. By 1984, only 9 clubs in all of North America had survived. In an interview with Noel Lemon, the general manager of the Roughnecks, he claimed that “We changed directions so many times; you didn’t know what would happen next. Days after the biggest crowd ever in Washington, D.C., the franchise folded. We’d shift from foreign superstars to grass roots and back again.”

Fifa struck the final blow, the decision to award the 1986 world cup to Mexico and not the USA was the equivalent of a double footed tackle to the NASL, and it was hard enough to put the league out of action for 12 years. A few days after 16,821 watched Chicago Sting beat Toronto Blizzard 3-2, the last ever game of the NASL, the league folded.

For a country the size of America- almost 38 times bigger than the United Kingdom- 12 years of only amateur football being played is astounding. The league was only reformed due to the USA, after the heartbreak of not being awarded the 1986 World Cup, then being awarded the 1994 World Cup hosting rights. The NASL, now under the name of Major League Soccer, was created in 1993 to help aid the hosting of the World Cup.

Luckily, the tournament was a huge success, with the average attendance for the tournament hitting over 69,000, the highest ever for a World Cup, and still to this day the 1994 World Cup was the highest attended sporting event in USA history. The USA managed to qualify to the second round, and despite a 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Brazil, their performances were considered a huge success.

After years of careful planning, the league started up in 1996, with 10 teams, with the first two MLS cups being won by the Bruce Arena-led DC united. But after failure to get past the first round of the World Cup in 1998, officials once again worried about the leagues future and desirability to fickle fans. They drafted in Don Garber, a former NFL international chief, and his expertise and leadership were key to securing the leagues future. Garber was instrumental in forcing the construction of football-specific stadiums for the league, backed by financiers Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz.

The leagues value was shown between 1998 and 2002. Regular MLS players, such as Brian Mcbride and Clint Mathis continually showed their worth to the national team, and the league was won by five different teams in this period, while the USA’s national teams rebirth continued in the 2002 world cup. The USA beat Portugal and Mexico before a narrow 1-0 quarter final defeat to Germany, but the progress was being shown. By now, it was time for American players to start showing their worth in the European leagues. In a two year period, Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan moved to Manchester United, PSV and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. More clubs joined the league, and the growth continued. The league has now grown from its initial 10 teams to 15 teams, with hundreds of smaller clubs being created across the country.

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It was then revealed in January 2007 that David Beckham, a multi-million pound player, one of the best players of the last decade, was joining LA galaxy. He was, and still, is a player with the draw of a modern day Pele. Since then, despite the arguments to his commitment, (He left LA Galaxy on loan to join AC Milan in January 2009) he has proved his worth to the MLS. Attendances wherever he plays are around 30% higher. More well known players joined such as Juan Pablo Angel and Freddie Ljungberg. These signings were big enough to keep the fans happy but not so extreme the whole clubs wage is blown on one player. Football, or soccer as it is known over there, is slowly becoming the American’s sport.

Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham (23) DC United tied with Los Angeles Galaxy 0-0 at RFK Stadium, Saturday August 22, 2009. Photo via Newscom

Just take the current world cup- the USA finished top of a group consisting of former world champions England, A strong Slovenian team and Algeria, a nation which beat 3 time consecutive African Cup of Nations winners Egypt in a play off.

The only thing holding the Americans back was themselves, and now they’re unleashed. Europe and South America, beware; the USA are ready, and nothing can stop them.

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