We got our millionaires, a whole bunch of them in 1967. They gave us two pro leagues. By 1970 they’d virtually all disappeared, one league -- the North American Soccer League -- remained, on its last legs. A key millionaire remained. Lamar Hunt. The man who fought to keep pro soccer alive.
We hadn’t been wrong about the millionaires, not quite, but we were missing a vital point. Maybe because most of us were not American born. We were missing the Clay Berlings of this world. And Clay was about to show us that we weren’t nearly as smart as we thought we were.
Out in California, a million miles from New York, insurance agent Clay Berling had gone along to see some Oakland Clippers games in the NPSL. And Clay, an American with no previous exposure to soccer or any interest in it, liked what he saw.
Clay didn’t fit our New York vision of a soccer-savior. Not at all. Not a multi-millionaire, not a public figure. But Clay had something we hadn’t reckoned with, an American determination, an American belief that he could make things happen.
So, pretty much at the very time that the NASL was in dire danger of vanishing, Clay began to publish Soccer West. He’d seen that soccer suffered from the very lack of press attention that we were so bitterly -- and ineffectually -- lamenting in New York. Soccer West -- its first editions were put together, it’s said, on Berling’s kitchen table -- caught on very quickly, becoming Soccer America, and then a weekly. Working as the editor-in-chief was Clay’s exuberantly enthusiastic daughter Lynn. A remarkable family, them Berlings.
I saw a lot of those early editions, I still have some. My friend David Hirshey was then a young reporter just starting in the formidably anti-soccer sports department of the New York Daily News. Hirshey was contributing stories to Soccer America -- stories he would never get into the Daily News. Clay’s persistence, his belief, his hard work, produced a vital part of those early days ... days when there were no computers, no internet, and no soccer on television. Soccer America brought the nation’s soccer people together, spread news and notes and names that were just not available anywhere else. My column, SoccerTalk, moved to Soccer America in 1981, and has been there ever since. So Clay Berling, in a sense, has been my boss -- well, one of them -- for a long time. The perfect boss. One who never interfered with his writer. Not once. I had been apprehensive about that ... after all, an American who couldn’t know much about soccer, he was bound to have weird ideas, no?
No. Absolutely not. I met Clay many times, usually at the annual coaches' convention. We had numerous short conversations about all aspects of the game. Clay never put a foot wrong. I still wonder how, in such a short time, he had managed to get such a wide knowledge of the sport.
Sure, he’d done a lot of work in youth and adult soccer in California since he fell for the sport, but there was more to it than that. He was at ease with the international side of the sport too, the games, the names.
Above all, Clay was at ease with people. My single adjective for Clay would be: courtly: “suitable for a king’s court, dignified, polite, elegant” says my dictionary. A big man, an impressive man and -- something the dictionary failed to notice -- a man with a welcoming smile.
That Hall of Fame category -- “Builders” -- to which Clay was belatedly elected in 1995, could have been created with exactly him in mind.
Clay was a pioneer who, through Soccer America, had an enormous influence on the spread of the sport throughout the USA. I can not think of anyone -- outside those at the very top level of the sport (and very few of those) -- who had a bigger, and a more important, influence.
Clay was the man we didn’t know about, back in New York in the early 1960s, when we dreamed of our multi-millionaire benefactor. We forgot, maybe never realized, that not-so-rich Americans could be important too. They could dream, too.
Clay Berling was an ordinary American -- but an extraordinary ordinary American. He gave soccer what it so crucially lacked in 1971, really a sort of a meeting place, a reassurance that fans, wherever they were, had friends all across the country. Everyone now involved in soccer in this country owes a great deal to Clay Berling and his inspired invention of Soccer America.