Thank goodness for 'Rock 'n' Roll Soccer'

By Mike Woitalla

One of my favorite soccer memories: I was 13, sitting next to my grandfather who was visiting us from Germany, in Aloha Stadium watching Team Hawaii play the Las Vegas Quicksilvers.

I noticed that Opa, not a man prone to demonstrating excitement, was practically giddy.

“Michael, that’s Eusebio!” he said. “The world’s best player ever besides Pele. … See No. 5? That’s Wolfgang Suhnholz. He played for Bayern Munich!”

This was in 1977. After the North American Soccer League had so much success in many parts of the country, it started franchises in the middle of the Pacific and in the middle of desert -- when Vegas was a third the size it is now, had never had major league sports, and no soccer culture.

“What the hell were they thinking?” writes Ian Plenderleith in “Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League.” After one season, The Quicksilvers moved to San Diego and Team Hawaii became the Tulsa Roughnecks."

Reckless expansion was of course a main factor for the demise of the NASL, which folded after the 1984 season.

But, boy, am I thankful that the NASL did some crazy stuff. Not just because of the memory of seeing my grandfather so delighted, or because I got to watch Pele play, or had Team Hawaii players visit my school.

The NASL inspired the generation of players who made the U.S. national team respectable, like New Jersey boys Tony Meola, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, who went to New York Cosmos games. It spread the seeds that led to soccer’s current state -- neck and neck with basketball as the most popular team sport among American children.

“In 1967, 12,000 schoolchildren went through the [Atlanta] Chiefs soccer clinics, while 42 area high schools had begun to play the game,” writes Plenderleith.

But what Plenderleith does most expertly -- and is previously less covered than NASL grassroots’ impact -- is show the NASL’s impact on the global game, and how some of that stuff doesn’t seem so crazy in hindsight.

“Old World” soccer purists may have mocked halftime armadillo races, players entering the field on Harley-Davidsons, or the San Diego Chicken doing a pirouette, flopping and playing dead next to a fouled player. (Minnesota Kicks coach Geoff Barnett: “The referee goes nuts and comes over to me shouting, ‘Get that f****** chicken off the field!”)

But as Plenderleith writes, the NASL was “a league that got too much right to ignore.”

“The NASL introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points. You weren’t herded into the stadium by policemen waving wooden batons. You were a customer …”

Some of the “manufactured atmosphere” -- which could also be considered “marketing techniques aimed at wooing a new generation of fans” -- may have been over the top. But …

“Once the game started you could watch a version of soccer easily recognizable as the real thing, but which promoted scoring, played down defensive duties, and refuted the virtues of a hard-fought 1-1 draw. …

“In the 1970s, Pele, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, George Best, Gerd Mueller and Franz Beckenbauer all played in the same league. … It was a big money glamour league that aimed to entertain, while generating cash. In that respect, it was the Champions League and the English Premier League rolled into one.”

Plenderleith lays out a solid case for how the NASL was ahead of its time. FIFA may have fought the league’s attempts to tweak the rules, but later made changes that resemble some of those attempts. Publishing a wide range of game statistics, marketing to women, names on the back of jerseys -- that happened first in the NASL.

Clive Toye, the former New York Cosmos general manager, says, “We were constantly being visited by executives from English clubs to see what we were doing, asking why we were doing it.”

From all that the NASL got right to where it went astray, this colorful and important era of American soccer is in good hands with Plenderleith, a skillful writer and thorough journalist.

For those of us who lived through the NASL, "Rock 'n' Roll Soccer" brings back wonderful memories and enlightens us on aspects of the league we may not have realized. For those too young to remember the NASL, it’s a chance to comprehend how soccer took a foothold in the USA and meet the fascinating characters who made it happen -- with laugh-out-loud moments, to boot.

Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League” by Ian Plenderleith (Thomas Dunne Books 2015) 350 pages.

(Ian Plenderleith is a soccer writer and journalist who has been covering the game in the USA, Germany, Switzerland and his native UK for the past 25 years. His books include a collection of soccer fiction aimed at an adult audience, 'For Whom The Ball Rolls'. He has contributed columns, commentaries, player profiles, match reports, historical features and satirical news to numerous newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, When Saturday Comes and Soccer America.)

20 comments about "Thank goodness for 'Rock 'n' Roll Soccer'".
  1. lee stern, October 29, 2015 at 3:06 p.m.

    Haven't read the book but it sounds great. The Chicago Sting drafted Marilyn Lang, Playmate of the year in 1975. Commish Phil Woosman went beserk and fined yours truly $5000. later suspended be cause of all the great publicity it created nationaly and internationaly for the NASL draft. Kenny Stern's book "Kicks" about a college soccer draftee into the pro league is also amust.LBS

  2. Emile Jordan, October 29, 2015 at 3:17 p.m.

    Cool article. I saw Pele play 1/2 for the Cosmos and 1/2 for Brazil in I think his final game as a professional. That game was in the Meadowlands in front of like 78,000 fans. I got to see the Cosmos play at Downing Stadium joyfully sitting on the cement stadium seats in the earlier years. It definitely inspired me to play through high school and college and on a myriad of club and indoor teams. Now I play with 5 to 12 year olds as a youth coach. Fun, fun, fun. My playing highlight as it relates to the NASL was being the youngest player at Pocono Soccer Camp and scoring a goal in the upper 90 on Bob Rigby of the Philadelphia Atoms. I know stories grow with time, but it is true, really, no really, seriously really. :0

  3. Kent Pothast replied, October 29, 2015 at 8:09 p.m.

    But his last competative match was the 1977 NASL Soccer Bowl with Cosmos vs Seattle at Portland. As season ticket holders, my family was three of the 35,000 + fans to watch that. So cool. Renovated stadium does not hold that many.

  4. Kent Pothast, October 29, 2015 at 3:18 p.m.

    Am waiting for book, but hope he writes about one great innovation that rest of world did not pick up on. That was the changing of shootout from penalty kicks to format where the shooter started from midfield and had several (?) seconds to go one-on-one with goalie who could move into the attack.

  5. lee stern replied, October 29, 2015 at 3:34 p.m.

    I believe it was 20 seconds and the Chicago Sting defeated the Cosmos for the 1981 NASL championship 1-0 and earlier broke a 5-5 tie at WrigleyField against the same team with a 6-5 shoot out win.The shoot out was great and more exciting and more skillful than the penalty kick formula.

  6. Chris Perez replied, October 29, 2015 at 8:32 p.m.

    It was 5 seconds from the 35 yard line (offsides line). The 35 yard offsides line was an attempt to create more scoring chances - as I recall.

  7. lee stern, October 29, 2015 at 3:23 p.m.

    Haven't read the book yet but it sounds great !!I presume he left out the Chicago Sting signing of Playmate of the Year Marilyn Lange in the NASL 1975 draft.Comish Phil Woosman went beserk and fined yours truly $5000 but later suspended it due to all the great publicity world wide.The Sting is still a popular part of the Chicago sports culture, Just ask any Chicago soccer fan over the age 50 or thereabouts.

  8. Bob Miller replied, October 30, 2015 at 7:05 a.m.

    Lee, 59 from NW Indiana. Sting still one of my favorite teams, all these years later. Watching KHG and the boys battle Cosmos, etc are fond memories. Thanks for what you and others did back in the day.

  9. Dean Mitchell, October 29, 2015 at 3:26 p.m.

    I've read the book and really enjoyed all the memories it brought back. For all that went wrong, the NASL sure did a lot of things right and sowed the seeds for the eventual success of MLS (and now NASL & USL are thriving too). I came of age watching the LA Aztecs, California Surf and San Diego Sockers and am elated to see the revival of the Timbers, Sounders, 'Caps, "Quakes (and the new NASL Cosmos, Rowdies and Strikers).

    Great Reading! Who says the US has no Soccer History?

  10. Emile Jordan, October 29, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

    Also, as a high school age player in Ulster County, New York I played summer league and some indoor with Njego Pesa, Dallas Tornado, and Neils Goldberg, Detroit Express, when they were at Ulster Community College. They used to exist on potatoes as I found out when invited to hang out one summer day. Neils was a chain smoker that could run forever. Go figure.

  11. John Soares, October 29, 2015 at 4:07 p.m.

    Had not even heard of the book... but will buy it now. NASL was a lot of fun. "Gimmicks" were needed to attract the non-serious soccer crowd AND for the most part.... it worked!

  12. Dick Burns, October 29, 2015 at 5:51 p.m.

    That was a pretty exciting time. Sitting in the upper deck of Mile High Stadium watching Pele and Davy Clements riding on to the field on horses in western gear before the Cosmos v Caribou game and going to a hotel after the game and getting Pele's autograph. Yes it was marketing but it did introduce the game to a lot of people. Pele did not play that day but the Cosmos squad was made up of national team capt's from around the world.

  13. Dick Burns, October 29, 2015 at 5:55 p.m.

    It was from 35 yards out and 7 seconds as I recall the shot out to break a tie. Also, for a least one season, the off-side line was at 35 yards rather than midfield.

  14. Kent Pothast replied, October 29, 2015 at 8:19 p.m.

    Is there anyone that didn't think that shootout format (35 yd/ 7 sec or something close) would be fairer than PKs?

  15. Dick Burns, October 29, 2015 at 5:58 p.m.

    By the way, who could ever forget the fringed Jerseys of the Colorado Caribou. (there never were caribou in Colorado)

  16. Nicholas Concilio, October 30, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

    The shooters in the shootout had 5 seconds to get their shot off. The best shootout I ever saw was in the 1978 playoffs -- Cosmos vs. Minnesota Kicks. The Cosmos lost the first leg 9-2 (yes, 9!!!) in Minneapolis (aggregate goals were not used by the NASL to decide playoff ties). They came back to Giants Stadium and beat the Kicks 4-0 in the second leg, which forced the "mini-game" that was used to decide playoff ties if both teams won a game. The mini-game was very tense and Jack Brand, the Cosmos GK, made an unbelievable save of a header by Alan Willey that surely would have decided the match. In the shootout, Carlos Alberto was the fifth taker. He needed to score to extend the shootout. When the ref blew the whistle to start the 5-second clock, Alberto lifted the ball into the air and started juggling it off of his thigh. He moved closer to goal and just as his 5 seconds were about to expire, he volleyed the ball out of the air and over Tino Lettieri's head for the tying goal. In the next round, the Minnesota kicker's shot was saved by Brand and then Franz Beckenbauer scored with a low drive off the outside of his right foot to put the Cosmos through to the next round. They went on to win the Soccer Bowl by beating Tampa Bay, 3-1. As you can tell, I remember it like it happened yesterday.

  17. lee stern, October 30, 2015 at 12:04 p.m.

    correction. The shootout time was 5 seconds per shot . lee stern

  18. Phil Hardy, October 30, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    Just ordered the book. As a kid, my dad took me to several Cosmos games in the Meadowlands. I remember going to Franz Beckenbauer Day. Years later when I was 29 I moved to England and all my friends jaws dropped when I told them of all the world famous players on that one team. It was unimaginable to them.

  19. aaron dutch, October 30, 2015 at 2:33 p.m.

    12,000 kids thru their clinics, I dont see MLS clubs doing that for free! If this generation saw the MLS players on that level every year it would change the game in the US.

  20. Richard Brown, November 19, 2015 at 9:15 a.m.

    I was friends of one of the big soccer sposers of the Cosmos. He had Pele and Georgi Chinagilo over his house.

    Man did Georgi hate Pele :)

    No matter where he was he said he was a lot better then Pele.

    Kind of like what Christian Ronaldo talked about Messi but worse.

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