Bill Nuttall: 'Barriers to entry are always going to be a question'

An All-American goalkeeper at Davis & Elkins in 1970, Bill Nuttall enjoyed a short career as a professional player before moving into the coaching, marketing and business aspects of the game. He was general manager of the U.S. national team during the leadup to 1994 World Cup and worked for more than a decade for Diadora before retiring to live in Chattanooga.

At 69, he has been a board member of Washington Youth Soccer and currently sits on the board of NPSL team Chattanooga FC, which is planning a move to Division 3 in 2019. CFC is weighing both alternatives: the United Soccer League or the proposed National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).

SOCCER AMERICA: After playing professionally in the old NASL, working in the Major Indoor Soccer League, and managing the U.S. national team as a residency camp in the early 1990s, what’s it like to live in a small city (population: 177,000) that has an amateur soccer team?
BILL NUTTALL: I’m real happy. It’s great to be involved and I’m glad they let me get involved. It’s fun and keeps me occupied. Everybody in the city knows about it and it’s pretty impressive.
SA: Some NPSL teams pay their players but Chattanooga does not. It is run by local businessmen and has firmly established its place in the city. How far back does your involvement go?
BILL NUTTALL: I think the city could sense this was all about community businessmen trying to give something back to the community in the form of soccer. In my first year [2015], we were averaging about 3,500 a game. We make the playoffs and in the first round of the playoffs we get about 9,200.

We’re in the final against the Cosmos; the Cosmos ‘B’ team is in the NPSL. You can have pros in the NPSL though we’re all amateurs. We have on-line sales and we’re watching the on-line sales coming in, and we get more than 10,000 tickets sold in advance. We ended up with [18,227] for an amateur NPSL final. [Editor’s note: Cosmos ‘B’ won the game,  3-2, in extra time].

I guess the ironic part is all these college kids had to go back to their colleges and play in front of 400 people rather than the 4,000 average we’ve been getting. Pretty impressive. I’m so happy I found this niche. I can enjoy the games and watch the city embrace this team. I’m very, very lucky.
SA: What issues do you face moving up to Division 3?
BILL NUTTALL: Chattanooga Football Club is definitely interested in pursuing Division 3 status for 2019. We’re on the record with that. D3 either goes USL or NISA, if NISA survives. There would be two Division 3s and then it’s a matter of getting sanction and all of that.

So I’m not outside of the fray. We’re a little bit into the fray because we’re being courted by both entities. We’ve got this [next] season to see how it shakes out and make some decisions in August or September because we’ll have to have the initial funding.

Our budget is about $800,000. I think the average USL budget for D3 is about $1.5 million.
SA: Since Chattanooga aspires to play in Division 3 what are your thoughts regarding promotion and relegation? It is among the facets of competition that is being proposed for the National Independent Soccer Association by Peter Wilt.
BILL NUTTALL: In the lower divisions, it’s worth the discussion. Movement from D2 to D3 and vice versa would be worth considering. But the way we’re structured in this country you need the right amount of investment and the right amount of financing to make it to the top level. I just don’t see it happening.

But I’d like to see how it would work with the D2 and D3 level because you’re not investing a couple of hundred million bucks. I think it would be a fun experiment and I know Peter Wilt has spent a lot of time verbalizing it and showing it. He’s a smart guy and he’s got some good ideas and it’s worth consideration but I don’t see it happening at the MLS level.
SA: How realistic is such a process in the short-term? It seems a viable Division 2 isn’t on the horizon just yet.
BILL NUTTALL: There are a million variables to be resolved before you can even start talking about it. In the NASL, you have two or three teams spending a lot of money and everybody else just scratching for survival. Are there going to be requirements and limits for D2, with a budget limit and a salary cap, or is it going to be like the rest of the world where you have four teams, sometimes five, in most countries that dominate the table?

You get a Leicester City once every 50 years but the rest of the time you can pencil in the top four teams in Spain and Italy and England and Germany and be pretty close every year. The rest of them are fighting to stay above the [relegation] line.
SA: You ended your playing career in 1976, eight years before the old NASL folded. The current version is locked in a court battle with U.S. Soccer and its future is murky. How do you think this will shake out?
BILL NUTTALL: What baffles me is U.S. Soccer as the governing body gave the NASL seven years to try hit the minimum standards and as soon as you tell somebody they can’t do something, everybody files lawsuits. That’s the litigious nature of our society.

The NASL has been de-certified, they’ve taken it to court, it’s been thrown out of court, and now they’re on an appeal and trying to take it to the next level. I guess the Roccos of the world [Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso] have enough money so they can continue to just litigate. But where’s it going? The NASL has teams bailing out so you have less teams than you did before.

San Francisco wins [the league title] and they’re not going to be around next year. And how many people told them not to go to Kezar [Stadium]? It's just amazing that so many people come into soccer that have no clue about previously what was going on and they’re going to reinvent the game and in a year or two they’re gone.

SA: The old NASL burned through dozens of teams and hundreds of millions of dollars before it folded in 1984. Many critics proclaimed that to be the end of pro soccer in America. Yet the pro game has come back, albeit in a much different form. What was it like for an American player more than 40 years ago?
BILL NUTTALL: When I was playing with the [Miami] Toros, I can’t tell you how many elementary-school P.E. classes we visited. [Tommy] Mulroy and I did two a day during the week, so we’re doing eight to 10 a week in 1976. We’re doing these clinics and showing these young kids how to play the game so when they grow up they’re going to want to watch pro soccer. That was kind of the philosophy.

The NASL came and went, the [Major Indoor Soccer League] came and went, and so did a few other leagues. I think four or five of the teams Tommy played for he never got a final check, or many checks. In those days there was zero regulation.

For me with the Toros and the [Fort Lauderdale] Strikers and also with the Sidekicks, we never had that problem, thank goodness. With our ownership groups I was lucky. But with other teams I can tell you there was some crazy stuff.
SA: Speaking of crazy, the U.S. Soccer federation set up a full-time training camp to compensate for the lack of a Division I league leading up to the 1994 World Cup. You had a wide range of duties beyond those of managing the team, starting with head coach Bora Milutinovic.
BILL NUTTALL: There’s a lot more money in the game today, big money. We had no money. My job as a general manager was to get enough ticket revenue and appearance fees to cover our expenses each month. And I have a coach who wants a game every 10 days. You can’t have guys out in Mission Viejo sitting and training for months on end. They’re going to kill themselves.

That creates another dynamic. I’ve got to get a game every 10 days and make the monthly budget as well as the yearly budget, and I don’t have any teams. You can’t play Brazil or Germany all the time and none of them want to play you in-season. I’d been looking for countries who wanted to play a friendly during the international break and the U.S. wasn’t top on their list at that point.

I was sending telexes all over the world, everywhere. When Spain responded and we were going to play in Spain [in 1992], I was overjoyed.
SA: There were guys playing in Europe during that time but it’s not like U.S. players were in big demand after losing all three games at Italia ’90.
BILL NUTTALL: I’m going back a little here, but the U.S. team was basically embarrassed at the 1990 World Cup. We had a bunch of college players playing in that World Cup, so I give a lot of credit to Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, Paul Caligiuri, John Harkes, and the other guys who just went out to try to find a club in Europe.

It wasn’t like teams around the world were saying, “American players!! Great! C’mon in here! We’d love to have you!’ It was more like, ‘You want to try and play in our country?’

They broke the ice. Then Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel went over there. They deserve all the credit for the credibility that we have, not forgetting the debacle of not qualifying. Those guys really started the ball rolling.

We had quite a few guys in Europe from 1991 to 1994, and it was a big commitment from [USSF general secretary] Hank Steinbrecher and [USSF president] Alan Rothenberg to set up the team in Mission Viejo with Bora’s unique training program, I guess you could call it. We had no pro league at that time but we had a damn good [1992] Olympic team that gave us players like Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas.

Those were the pioneers of soccer. Here we are today and the kids have no clue. It’s hard to find kids who can recognize Pele. I have a picture of me and Pele in my office, and I always ask the players who come in, ‘Who’s that guy?’, and they’re not sure. They can pick out Messi in two seconds.

People in their 40s and 50s know Pele but people in their 20s have very little recollection.
SA: Since the world ended six weeks ago when the USA stumbled on the last day of Hexagonal play, just about everything regarding soccer in his country has come under increased scrutiny. What is your take on the situation and the challengers to current president Sunil Gulati?
BILL NUTTALL: We need to calm down and sit down and figure out what needs to be tweaked. Pay-to-play is not going away. Our system is built on that. Streamlining player development and finding players outside the system is really an area that needs to be addressed and looked at.

If you talk about player development at the youth level, we’re so splintered out that U.S. Soccer should definitely consider direct registration, a direct playoff system, a direct player identification program. All those things need to be looked at.

What do you think the reaction would be at the DFB if I rolled into town, and said, “I think I’m going to start a Division 2 league and a Division 3 league and if you don’t let me, I’m going to sue you. And by the way, we’re going to have four or five different youth associations, and we’re going to splinter away from you guys.”

’94 changed the money picture. Nike came in, Chevrolet came in, everybody came in and changed the whole atmosphere. Sunil understood all that and he parlayed it into some really big reserves for the federation, and started paying coaches and players big money, and the expectations are much higher.

I think Sunil’s done a fabulous job bringing the new generation to this level. Dan Flynn deserves a lot of credit for that as well. There’s no quick fix to the team. You can imagine what Italy’s thinking right now, and Holland. They’re talking about revamping everything, but we’re a much bigger country and it takes a lot longer to make things happen.

SA: Among the presidential candidates are two ex-players you know well from your stint as national-team general manager, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri, who also found clubs in Europe to help their playing careers. What you think of their qualifications?
BILL NUTTALL: It would be interesting to see from a players’ perspective if one of them were to be elected. They are both good guys but they still probably lack managerial experience in a non-profit situation. Having said that, I think Sunil is a pretty hands-on guy and the CEO of U.S. Soccer could run the day-to-day, so it would be a question of how a Wynalda or Caligiuri would handle the Board [of Directors], which is a pretty high-powered board with a lot of savvy people on it.

When [Bob] Contiguglia was president [1998-2006], it was a different kind of board. This is a really a corporate board. These are very high-powered people and keeping the board on-task as far as setting policy and not micro-managing is where the next president should be. I’d be curious to see whether Paul or Eric can understand that part.

Having said that, I don’t know who does other than [vice-president] Carlos Cordeiro, who has obviously sat on boards all his life. You can say that the board’s good, the money’s good, you just need somebody there who represents the people as the president. Let the CEO run the business and let the people in Soccer House do what they do and go from there.

See I answered that in a very political way.
SA: Well, it was a very political question.
BILL NUTTALL: Yes, so I thought I’d just dance around it.

It’s like running the federal government, there are so many factions you’ve got to have pretty thick skin and be ready to operate under a lot of scrutiny, because social media keeps all that going on.

Sunil thrives on that. He’s a very smart guy and he thrives on all that pressure. I don’t know. You look over all the candidates but I think the next question is how long does Dan Flynn stick around, because the CEO is really the guy who is in the trenches every day and keeps the Soccer House ship on course.

And what about the new coaching schools and all the foreign coaches who are involved in that? That’s another area the new president has to take a look at.
SA: Many people believe the USSF coaching schools need extensive revision. What deficiencies you see in the infrastructure of coaching?
BILL NUTTALL: The coaching courses are becoming more and more difficult and longer, and tougher to get into. That may help at the top tier but we’ve got to make sure our lower-tier coaches can have access to that and get some good training before going too far out.

Right now the A, B, and C courses are very tough. They are longer and put more demands on the people and the coaching staff, too. Barriers to entry are always going to be a question.

Which is also a big problem in finding and developing players.

Yes, absolutely.

1 comment about "Bill Nuttall: 'Barriers to entry are always going to be a question'".
  1. Bob Ashpole, November 25, 2017 at 4:28 p.m.

    Interesting interview. 

    Pay to play is a complicated problem. There are a lot of obstacles coming together to prevent kids from playing soccer, and most of them are connected to parents in some manner. 

    I regret to say that US culture has changed greatly since my youth over 50 years ago. Many families do not value athletics and musical instruction, or even playing traditional childhood games, which promoted physical, mental, and social development. Today we have fewer children, fewer athletes, and those we do have are less developed when they enter organized youth sports.  

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