The first hint that Phil Woosnam must be a very stubborn man comes from the short, bristling crew cut he has worn for 15 years. The next is that he is commissioner of the North American Soccer League. The NASL is a unique miracle of survival that began as a great oak and grew to be an acorn. This week, fitfully reviving, it opens its sixth annual season.
Woosnam is an evangelical immigrant from the farm country of central Wales and his assignment as commissioner is to sell professional soccer to Americans, a challenge comparable to persuading the Red Chinese to start up a pro golf tour. Woosnam probably would tackle that, too, and convince Chairman Mao he could win the seniors.
"Woosnam will never be accused of thinking small," says Furman Bisher, columnist and sports editor of The Atlanta Journal. "He'd have kept the Titanic afloat with confidence alone. He could have turned the Johnstown Flood into a trickle."
"He's the only guy tenacious enough and positive enough to keep soccer going," says Dick Cecil, a vice-president with the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the man who in 1966 hired Woosnam to run the Braves-owned soccer team, the Chiefs.
Lavish endorsements, these, but indicative of the forces Woosnam has been battling uptide for the past six years, first as player-coach and general manager of the Chiefs, then as NASL commissioner. Woosnam and pro soccer have stayed afloat through the euphoric spending sprees of the early days and then the shattering fiscal morning after. Compared with their problems, player strikes, antitrust suits and congressional investigations are stuff for half a day at the office. So does Woosnam worry and retreat into dark Welsh melancholy? Not half of it.
"It's because we are about to turn the corner," Woosnam said recently, a broad smile on his lean, bony face as he greeted a visitor to the cramped league offices on the less glamorous end of New York's Park Avenue. "It is all just about to happen. In six or eight years our franchises will be worth more than those in the National Football League. Right now we offer the best investment in all of professional sport."
Woosnam really believes that a franchise picked up today for $25,000 will be worth over $20 million by 1980. After all, he is a devoted product of that nine-tenths of the world that remains baffled by America's mulish reluctance to accept what is clearly the best game. He was a slender 33-year-old inside right with Aston Villa in the English Football League's First Division when first lured across the Atlantic during what appeared to be the Great Breakthrough of 1966. Major league soccer had come at last and with not just one league, but two. One group, the 12-member United Soccer Association, obtained official recognition from the FIFA, world soccer's ruling body. The other, the 10-team National Professional Soccer League, settled for a generous television contract with CBS. The leagues' backers included Lamar Hunt, Jack Kent Cooke, Judge Roy Hofheinz and the managements of the Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, which added up to something of a financial deluge. On hindsight, a nice, steady soaking rain might have been healthier.
Readying for the inaugural 1967 season, scouts swarmed over the soccer world in search of players, coaches, general managers and entire squads. For $20,000 a year Woosnam agreed to be the Chiefs' general manager, coach and backup player. "He was an obvious choice," recalls Clive Toye, formerly chief soccer writer with The Daily Express of London and now general manager of the New York Cosmos in the NASL. "In addition to being a skillful player he was a leader, a quarterback with great ability to get the most out of himself and the other players."
Woosnam regarded the new assignment almost as a sacred mission, a logical application of the experience he had gained in close to a decade at the top in British soccer. Perhaps even his university degree in science would prove helpful. Alas, never has a missionary entertained so many misconceptions about the natives.
"I thought that competition between two rival leagues would be beneficial," says Woosnam. "It was a disaster. I thought the ethnic groups would welcome us. They practically ignored us because we weren't up to old country standards. I thought the kids would be playing the game in elementary school. They hardly got involved until high school. Finally, I thought the clubs would stay with soccer for five years, no matter what the losses, and give the game a real chance to catch on."
This was the worst misunderstanding of all. With two leagues wooing a market that seemed barely capable of supporting even one, the opening season became a wild spending spree. A few annual budgets reached $1 million. At the end of the year five clubs, their resources seriously depleted, vanished forever from the scene. So did the two leagues.
The 17 survivors declared a truce and merged into the North American Soccer League, but the apathy was appalling. Attendance at league games averaged 3,000, compared to a break-even requirement in excess of 20,000. Three clubs each lost over $500,000 and owners began to fold their franchises like so many wooden camp chairs. CBS canceled its contract and the Great Breakthrough became the Great Breakdown. A shivering little group of five members—Dallas, Atlanta, Kansas City. St. Louis and Baltimore—remained. All that really remained was Hunt and his multimillions.
"We were trying to build a pyramid from the top down," says Woosnam. "We needed to do more groundwork at the schoolboy and amateur level."
Obviously needed also was the man who could have saved the Titanic. Woosnam had not been up to anything quite so superhuman, but he'd been trying. In two years at Atlanta he produced a big winner on the field and his club had performed prodigious feats of promotional and educational work among the area's young fry. Woosnam was voted in as the digest-size league's new commissioner. He might have been better off packing up his wife Ruby and their two children and cutting for home.
He stayed and enlisted Toye. then general manager of the Baltimore Bays, to join him as second-in-command. Their first office was in the visiting team locker room at Atlanta Stadium. "The locker room was carpeted, but it was not otherwise an auspicious beginning," Toye recalls. Auspicious? Not all of the five teams even had complete rosters, to say nothing of coaches or general managers or, finally, a schedule.
First task was to keep the league afloat. Woosnam demanded that the five survivors drastically reduce player salaries and other operating costs so that annual budgets could be pegged at a manageable $200,000. Then he split the season into two contrasting halves. During the first half of 16 games, each club was represented by a team imported wholesale from Great Britain. Woosnam hoped that the high quality of play would build momentum at the gate and carry through the second half of the season when the rosters consisted mainly of second-raters from overseas.
The momentum never developed. When West Ham United (Baltimore) and Wolverhampton (Kansas City), two top English First Division clubs that would have drawn 50,000 fans at home, opened the season in Baltimore, only 5,128 people attended. The nadir was reached one night in Dallas when Dundee United and Kilmarnock fought to an exciting 3-3 tie before fewer than 200 fans.
"We got so discouraged," says Toye, "that Phil and I would sit in our locker-room office whacking a soccer ball back and forth off the wall with our feet and issuing expletives with each kick."
Woosnam went on the attack. He ranged the country talking to recreational groups, high schools and colleges, searching for programs that would be mutually beneficial. Backed by Hunt's fiscal clout and enthusiasm for soccer, Woosnam and Toye put on a drive to recruit new franchises. They were after not only bankrolls but people who would promote the game locally at the youth level, build the bottom of the pyramid.
"It's important to learn soccer's skills during the formative years, so that they become second nature," says Woosnam. "After 15 it's too late."
For months Woosnam and Toye worked 12 to 16 hours a day seven days a week. Baltimore and later Kansas City dropped out, but Washington and Rochester joined up, then Toronto, Montreal and New York, with Toye as its general manager, came in for the 1971 season. League attendance figures jumped from an average of 3,400 per game in '71 to 5,200 in '72, just 2,300 shy of the break-even average of 7,500.
North American soccer still sails in troubled waters. In one six-week period last fall Woosnam found new owners for Rochester, Atlanta and Miami (which had moved from Washington) and established a franchise in Philadelphia. The NASL is not yet national—there is no league team west of St. Louis—but plans call for expansion to 16 clubs by next year, possibly four of them on the West Coast. And International Famous Agency—which negotiated the Montreal 1976 Olympic ABC-TV rights—is working on a television deal. To stretch out a season that now runs only from May to August, Woosnam hopes to add a full indoor schedule of six-to-a-side soccer by next winter. The rules would resemble those of ice hockey. In an effort to juice up scoring outdoors, the league is experimenting with a less restrictive offside rule and Woosnam is even contemplating an increase in the size of the goal.
The most hopeful sign, however, is that more and more North Americans are actually playing the game. Over 600 colleges now field organized teams. All of the league cities as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, Boston, Baltimore, Washington and Cincinnati are running junior programs. Right now 85% of the NASL's players are foreign-born or imported, but Woosnam claims that imbalance will soon end, that by 1980 the percentage will be reversed in favor of native Americans.
"Everything is changing," says Toye. "Phil's persistent optimism has been catching. Now the atmosphere at league meetings is electric. Decisions are made zip-zip-zip. We can walk through doors in big business and television that have been closed to soccer for years. Older Americans may have been brought up to play sports with their hands, but everywhere you look you see a new generation of athletes who are also learning to use their feet. I think that is ultimately what will put soccer over as a major league. The new Pelé, whoever he is, is alive and well and he's an American."