OBITUARY: Phil Woosnam (1932-2013)

Phil Woosnam, who served as the commissioner of the North American League Soccer (1969-83) and under whose guidance pro soccer took off in the United States in the 1970s, die Friday due to complications related to prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 80 in Dunwoody, Ga. Less known is the fact he served as U.S. national team coach during part of its qualifying campaign for the 1970 World Cup.

(Paul Gardner remembers Phil Woosnam.)

Woosnam, who held a university degree and taught high school physics before he turned professional at the age of 26, played for Leyton Orient, West Ham United and Aston Villa before moving to the United States to play for the Atlanta Chiefs in 1967. He served as their player-coach in 1968 and became commissioner of the NASL the following year when it contracted from 17 to five teams.

Operating out of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, where they got free rent and free phones by using an office in the visitors locker room, Clive Toye and Woosnam kept the NASL alive in 1969 thanks to the financial backing of Lamar Hunt.

While Woosnam took on the task of growing the league, Toye started the league's New York franchise, known as the Cosmos, in 1971 and later signed Pele to join the team in 1975.

By 1978, the NASL had 24 teams, and it would attract many of the world's greatest players, not only Pele but Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Gerd Mueller.

But the rapid growth was too much, and the NASL collapsed almost as quickly as it had grown. By 1982, the NASL was down to 14 teams and Woosnam was out as commissioner.

Woosnam remained involved in the game after the NASL's demise. He was close to U.S. Soccer president Werner Fricker who spearheaded the successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup, but disagreements Fricker had with FIFA led to FIFA backing Alan Rothenberg in his successful campaign to unseat Fricker in 1990.

The marketing agency former NASL marketing executive Steve Caspers and Woosnam operated was cut out of the growing soccer marketing business in the early 1990s, though they later successfully sued.

Woosnam, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1997, is survived by his wife, Ruth, sister, Mair, daughter, Valerie, son, David, stepson, Randy Pearson, daughter-in-law, Susan Pearson, and grandchildren Carleigh, Cole and Luke Pearson.
4 comments about "OBITUARY: Phil Woosnam (1932-2013)".
  1. Steven Gans, July 21, 2013 at 7:43 a.m.

    Sad news, Paul, and thanks for this tribute. He was indeed a pioneer, and like most people connected to the sport in this country for a long time, one who experienced many ups and downs within it. Well done.

  2. Thom Meredith, July 21, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.

    To Soccer America Readers:

    I knew Phil Woosnam for almost the entire 40 years I've been involved in the sport. He might be the most stubborn, toughest, smartest person I ever met in the game. Certainly one of the GIANTS of our sport in North America. And, along with folks like Clive Toye and Lamar Hunt, one of the three men who provided the necessary leadership to keep the sport alive professionally during its darkest days in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
    He is one of the those people forgotten by the soccer leadership of today who mistakenly believes that the game started and has grown to its current stature in North America when and because THEY got involved in it just in the past 10-15 years BUT when the true, honest accurate history of soccer is written, Phil will be known as one of its true architects, maybe the lead builder.
    Detractors who didn't know him will say he wasn't an architect of our sport but I submit to you as someone who was there as a 'spectator' this entire time that Phil was, for sure,the Lead Contractor on the first few floors of the soccer building from which the view from the 21th story of our sport's skyscraper is clear and bright primarily due to the strong foundation Phil Woosnam helped to build so many years ago. Thom Meredith

  3. Ted Howard, July 21, 2013 at 10:56 a.m.

    I had to good fortune to be hired by Phil as I was finishing my MBA at Chico State in 1971 when the League was at a low but adding the Cosmos and 2 other new teams.

    The League office consisted of Phil, myself and a secretary -- it has all come so far in 40 years and so much of it is due to the groundwork he did. There was no grassroots soccer when he started and he and others dedicated their lives to it knowing that there was no future without a base.

    His work ethic and enthusiasm were contagious. He was not always easy to deal with because he demanded the same from others and others responded in kind. I feel very fortunate to have made a career in the game and it all came from working with him for 13 years.

    Those in the game today how a huge debt of gratitude to those founding fathers of the professional game for the foundation they laid and Phil was the leader of the movement and the catalyst.

  4. Edward Bellion, July 22, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.

    I agree entirely with the comments of my friends Thom and Ted. As a referee in the NASL, I knew Phil as a strong proponent for referees and he often supported referees' decisions when teams and owners appealed against them. He hired three excellent Directors of Officials who insisted on high standards and raised the overall level of officiating in the USA. As a result of this, several referees who were trained in the NASL received prestigious appointments to World Cups and Olympics during the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. None of this would have been possible without Phil Woosnam and the NASL. Sincere condolences to Ruth and the family.


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