Phil Woosnam: A Great Soccer Pioneer

By Paul Gardner

You never can be sure how history will interpret life, but let us hope that it acknowledges Phil Woosnam, who died on Friday at age 80, as one of the key pioneers of American soccer.

Woosnam was one of the three madmen -- the other two were Lamar Hunt and Clive Toye -- who were too blinded by their faith in soccer to realize that the pro sport had died the death in 1968 when the North American Soccer League withered, overnight, from 17 teams down to a mere five.

That trio of deluded optimists kept the NASL alive and saw it regain strength, climb to 24 clubs ... the league of the world-famous Cosmos.

Of that group, for me, Woosnam was the most difficult to fathom. My relationship with him, over some 17 years it seems, was certainly a rocky one -- it returns to me now as a series of disagreements, sometimes heated, followed by warm reconciliations.

To some extent, I think I was intimidated by Woosnam -- it was difficult not to be, difficult for me as a rather indolent worker, when confronted by Woosnam’s often manic energy.

I had my own ideas about the source of all his ideas and the intensity with which he poured them out. That, I decided, was his Welshness coming through. I saw it as an almost religious Welsh fervor, and marveled at it.

He had been a top player in England, and a unique one. He had a university degree. Math, I believe. Another area that intimidated me.

He was quick to see the opportunities that America offered -- he came to the USA to join a new league, even though he knew that the league (the National Professional Soccer League) was a pirate league, not recognized by FIFA. He risked ostracism from the world game, maybe even a lifetime ban.

There was no ban for Woosnam -- not as a player, or a coach, nor as soccer executive. That should not surprise -- a short time spent with Woosnam would surely have made it clear that this man was too quick, too sharp, too devoted to soccer and too knowledgeable about it, to be kept out.

He moved smoothly into the position of NASL commissioner. I can think of very few other British ex-players of that, or any other, era who could have done that. As NASL commissioner Woosnam continued to be unique. To this day, he is the only pro soccer league commissioner of the modern era with an outstanding background in the game.

In the early 1970s, Woosnam asked me if I would work with him in the writing of a coaching book. Indeed, I would. It turned out to be a nerve-wracking experience (for both of us, I guess) as Woosnam -- frantically busy building the league -- squeezed our sessions into his jammed schedule.

Mostly they went well -- they were a superb learning experience for me as Woosnam explained intricate details and nuances of the game. Occasionally, I could tell as soon as I entered his office that this was to be a black session. I guess he’d had a bad business meeting earlier that day, something like that -- but suddenly everything, but everything, I’d written was wrong.

After one such meeting, I vowed never to return and stormed out. Early the following morning came Woosnam’s phone call setting up a meeting for that day, no mention of yesterday, only friendship and light banter to be heard.

But it was genuine. There was no need for an apology -- from either of us. This seemed again like Welshness at work again, the magic of Merlin the Wizard. Something like this must have been what he used when cajoling and coaxing new millionaire owners to join the NASL. That and the quick-fire Welsh articulacy that could be so beguiling.

Woosnam was immensely generous to me. There was a phone call from Woosnam in late 1972: was I interested in working with Pele on a series of coaching films in Brazil? Was I ever! In 1979 it was Woosnam who set up a meeting that led to my becoming the analyst on ABC’s telecasts of MLS games.

None of that could have been easy for Woosnam, because there had been splendid rows over my journalism. I had broken the news of Henry Kissinger joining the league before Woosnam was ready to announce it. I had published a pretty devastating criticism of the NASL’s 35-yard offside line -- a Woosnam invention.

But there were no recriminations. Immediate anger and gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair, yes. But the friendly smile -- a genuine smile -- was soon back.

Then it all went wrong. As the NASL hurtled toward its second -- and this time fatal -- demise, the owners turned on Woosnam. He got the blame for expanding the league too quickly -- a process that could not have happened without the agreement of those same owners. And so in 1983 he was thrown out. Woosnam, a genuine soccer man who had worked harder than anyone to grow the NASL, was replaced as Commissioner by Howard Samuel, a wealthy New York businessman, a soccer know-nothing, with a work ethic quite different from that of the workaholic Woosnam.

Not surprisingly, in 1984 the NASL collapsed. And the saddest part was to hear Woosnam blamed for it all. But it was not his fault. Of course he wanted a bigger league ... but if that was the wrong course, then it was the responsibility of the owners, all those successful businessmen, to let Woosnam know, and to rein him in. They never did that. The failure was theirs.

It was certainly not Phil Woosnam’s. I remember him only as the Welsh soccer madman who turned into one of the great pioneers of the sport in the USA.
12 comments about "Phil Woosnam: A Great Soccer Pioneer".
  1. Roger Faulkner, July 20, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.

    Stunned to hear of Phil Woosnam's death. His passion for the game was extraordinary. But for his Welsh charm and enthusiasm I and many others would never have been so involved in the game. He achieved much and yet retained his modesty and sense of humor. Every US soccer fan owes him a huge debt

  2. Dave Wasser, July 20, 2013 at 7:55 p.m.

    Paul, thanks for writing this. Phil was a good man who did a good job as NASL Commissioner. I always felt that he was unfairly blamed for the demise of the league. There was a lot of blame to go around, but he was a convenient scapegoat.

    Here is the only video I found of him as a player for the Atlanta Chiefs. The picture quality isn't great, but it's all we've got, and it's better than nothing:

    - Dave

  3. Ken Jamieson, July 20, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.

    Having read Clive Toye's book "A Kick in the Grass," one quickly realizes that, along with Lamar Hunt and Clive Toye, Phil Woosnam had a lot to do with the NASL becoming the league it was. Yes, he presided over the ill-fated expansion of 1977 and the premature move to network television with the ABC contract in 1978, but he also worked tirelessly to establish the NASL through those dark days in 1968. With men such as these Pele would never have come to the United States, not Beckenbauer, Cruyff or Marsh. Without the trailblazing of the NASL, especially through the most difficult days from September 1968 until the arrival of Pele in June 1975, MLS would not exist. Those in MLS may criticize what Phil Woosnam and the NASL did wrong, but what they did right is persevere. Had the NASL closed up shop after the 1968 season, as many expected, big league pro soccer would have died and possibly never returned.
    Each and every player, fan, owner and executive in MLS owes Phil Woosnam a debt of gratitude and if his passing is not properly recognized by MLS then it is only a further sign of their ignorance of the past and those who paved the way for MLS.
    Finally, I like to think Phil Woosnam was eternally grateful to see the revival of the NASL in 2011. The fact that the NASL continues today, even if it is division 2, is a recognition of what Phil Woosnam and the other NASL pioneers did to establish soccer as a major league sport in North America.
    RIP Phil, you will be missed by those who understand.

  4. Kevin Sims, July 20, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.

    More on Woosnam:

  5. Roger Faulkner, July 20, 2013 at 11:04 p.m.

    There is strange irony that the New York Cosmos in a few days
    will play their first real game against Leyton Orient, Phil's first club.

  6. Frank Cardone, July 21, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

    Very sorry to learn of Woosnam's passing. A true soccer pioneer. I remember the dark days when the NASL contracted to five (semi-professional) teams. We should all be forever grateful for his determination in keeping the league afloat. PG's column, beautifully written as always, gives us more insight into this man. Surprised that his decision to sport a crew cut, whatever the hair fashion of the day, was not mentioned. I hope the current NASL and MLS will recognize his passing and his contribution to professional soccer. Not to do so would be shameful.

  7. tom brown, July 21, 2013 at 11:18 p.m.

    (For Kent James) you are probably not ready to tell me I'm right but I told you Before it happened: [[[[[[[[[[[[[[POPE'S BRAZIL TRIP SPURS SECURITY, PROTEST WORRIES ]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]

    Imagine the Pope going to Brazil right after I said the vatican controls world soccer thru fifa & has done so since fifa began. The operation was to control the sport to keep control over the territory it owns Europe & S. America/C. America.....and to steal the game away from its true and rightful owners England. Oh its a "theory".... just a conspiracy theory. Does the Pope visit Brazil for health reasons? & right after the Confederations Cup produced wall to wall protests. The Pope is there to stop the protests so it won't mar their No. 1 money maker The World cup. The vatican owns it has always owned it & has controlled with an iron fist since 1970. Why should a Pope care about protests halfway around the world? Because it owns it.

  8. Charlie Evranian, July 22, 2013 at 7:53 a.m.

    Phil had a vision, passion and knowhow to achieve Soccer success in the United States.
    He fought off blind owners, union executives and the soccer elite for what he believed to be a true course of direction.
    Phil was the right man at the right time and his mark will always be remembered.

  9. Karl Junkersfeld, July 22, 2013 at 3:39 p.m.

    In the dark recesses of my mind, I remember attending a Cosmos game or two in NYC. A wonderful experience and memory. Paul, I think I recall seeing you on the sidelines clicking away. Am I correct?

  10. tom brown, July 24, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.

    Kent james -------------- do not show your lying coward's face on this board. you said I was wrong. Said it was a "theory".... I proved the theory to be fact and you.... never apologized to me or withdrew your lying statement making you a coward as well.

  11. Paul Stierle, July 26, 2013 at 3 p.m.

    My Father Hans Stierle worked with Phil on the youth level with AYSO. Andit was a rough but rainbow road being part of the pioneer Pirates. It takes great leaders who are not willing to back down from the passion for the growth of soccer and he was one of the greats. Love to his family who shared him.

  12. Bill Anderson, July 27, 2013 at 11:15 a.m.

    The article coming to criticize J. Klinsmann and his sending off and the poor state of the USMNT coming in 5-4-3-2...

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