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June 30th, 2006 12:37PM
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Founder Clay Berling on the game's ascent during 35 years of Soccer America.

By Mike Woitalla

Executive Editor, Soccer America Magazine

Clay Berling fell in love with soccer in the late 1960s and wanted to share his passion.

In April of 1971, he launched Soccer West out of his State Farm Insurance office. Demand for the publication soon came from around the nation and in March 1972 it was rechristened Soccer America.

Upon this 35th anniversary of Soccer America, we asked Berling, 75, to pick five events he believes were crucial to soccer's rise in the USA.

NORTH AMERICAN SOCCER LEAGUE. ''The NASL ignited the movement,'' says Berling. ''Seeing professionals playing the game in a stadium or on TV gave Americans a different point of view of the sport - it wasn't just a bunch of kids playing. It was something big time, and that gave the sport credibility.''

Berling's soccer introduction came in 1967 when he took his wife and six children to see the Oakland Clippers of the National Professional Soccer League, which later merged with the United Soccer Association to create the NASL. He went because it cost less than $10 to bring the whole clan. He left impressed with the skills and teamwork and soon got involved in Northern California youth and adult soccer.

''The NASL had only six teams in 1970 and it looked like it would fade away,'' Berling says. ''But people like Lamar Hunt - the real icon of American soccer - believed in the sport and the NASL survived until 1984. By then soccer had taken hold at the other levels.''

NATIONAL SOCCER HALL OF FAME. It may have taken decades for soccer to penetrate American mainstream consciousness, but the sport has a long rich history in the USA, which is spectacularly preserved at the National Soccer Hall of Fame, established in Oneonta, N.Y., in 1979. Before that, American soccer's treasures sat in storage at a Philadelphia soccer club.

''There was a lot of talk for years about creating a real Hall of Fame,'' Berling says. ''But Al Colone showed up and walked the walk. Now our game's history has a home.''

ALAN ROTHENBERG. In 1988, FIFA chose the USA to host the 1994 World Cup.

''I remember thinking in 1990 that the U.S. Soccer Federation was not prepared,'' Berling says. ''These guys didn't know anything about marketing.'Then out of nowhere came Alan Rothenberg.''

The commissioner of soccer at the 1984 Olympics and a high-powered lawyer, Rothenberg won the U.S. Soccer presidency in 1990 and became head of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee.

''The Rothenberg-Hank Steinbrecher connection really pulled the whole thing together,'' says Berling.

The 1994 World Cup remains the best attended finals in history, it provided the springboard for MLS, which Rothenberg founded, and earnings from the $50 million in surplus funds, through the U.S. Soccer Foundation, support the game at all levels.

1999 WOMEN'S WORLD CUP. ''I'll never forget being in the Rose Bowl with 90,000 fans watching the U.S. women win the World Cup,'' says Berling.

He was also there when Americans won the first Women's World Cup, in 1991 in China. Few paid attention to the first championship team. It drew huge crowds at the 1996 Olympics but was ignored by American television. When the USA beat China in 1999, 40 million watched on ABC.

''It brought women's sports to a level we'd never seen,'' Berling says. ''And it also influenced the rest of the world. Countries that hadn't shown respect for the women's game began taking it seriously.''

MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER. The 11-year-old league launched in 1996, more than a decade after NASL's demise.

''The rest of the world now respects American soccer,'' says Berling, ''and that is thanks to MLS. We would not have had the quarterfinal success at the 2002 World Cup without MLS. We may not be feared, but we are respected.''

(This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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