Soccer America celebrated its birthday this week.
Wednesday marked Soccer America's 49th birthday, which means we've begun our 50th year of publishing!
Like most birthdays these days, it was a muted affair. We sent out a few messages via social media and were frankly overwhelmed by the response from well wishers who told us how we impacted their love of soccer.
Clay Berling founded Soccer America (originally Soccer West) in 1971 on the basis that the media ignored soccer, and as he wrote in his first Direct Kick, Soccer America "will fill that void of soccer news."
That was the special connection Soccer America had with its readers in its early days, especially those builders in the 1970s and 1980s who did not know there were others like them putting down stakes in other parts of the country until the they read about them in Soccer America and were inspired by them to continue.
Many well wishers recalled how Soccer America introduced them to the beautiful game. Or allowed them to keep up with soccer. Some subscribed to Soccer America in its first years. An old friend, photographer John McDermott, said he must have been one of the earliest subscribers. "I had it sent to me in Vietnam."
Soccer America's greatest feat -- our greatest source of pride -- is that it is as relevant today as it was back then. Many of the themes from Soccer America's early days remain true today.
Clay published the first issue on April 8, 1971, working out of the basement of his church, the Albany Methodist Church in Albany, California. It happens to be
across the street from that church where my wife Shirley and I have lived for the last 23 years.
The first Soccer West cost 25 cents. Clay's first Direct Kick included a sales pitch, a special introductory offer: "Slip $2 in an envelope to us for the next 10 issues. Make us prove our value." Better yet, he offered three subs for $5: "Add the names of two friends: a library, your local high school or your local college." (I can't count how many longtime readers have told me they discovered SA at their local library.)
The first issue -- eight pages -- included mentions of many familiar names. Like Clay, Matt Boxer, Don Greer, Herbert Heilbern, Lamar Hunt, Ron Newman, Harry Saunders and Clive Toye are all in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
The first issue happened to coincide with the start of the North American Soccer League's fourth season. It had expanded from six to eight teams. Three teams joined the league -- the New York Cosmos, Montreal Olympique and Toronto Metros -- and one folded -- the Kansas City Spurs.
A few tidbits from the SA preview:
"Dallas, backed by oil billionaire Lamar Hunt, was at the bottom of the original league in the early years, but their management started with youth and a strong building program. Four years later, Dallas is going strong."
"In Atlanta, the Chiefs have taken on the Washington Darts in a preseason exhibition game. Notable about this game is that they are playing for the Kiwanis Cup. They have local Kiwanis clubs sponsoring and helping with the promotion. You really get to middle America through the service clubs. Good for Atlanta."
It took decades, but that early push in Atlanta has finally paid off in a big way with Atlanta United.
The original Soccer West offered a combination of local and national news. Some of the
"CSFA's all stars test America's best" (a preview of a two-game series between Cal North all-stars and the U.S. Olympic team -- which indeed qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympics);
"Letter from San Diego" (a look at the burgeoning soccer scene in San Diego: 600 fans showed up for the first CIF championship and 33 aspiring coaches were signed up for a 19-week coaching course at a local adult school);
"Cosmos hitch to German" (a report on the partnership between the new Cosmos and the local German-American League, the New York area's dominant league, a deal struck by Toye, the Cosmos GM, and Heilbern and Saunders representing the German-American League).
The Cosmos later packed Giants Stadium, averaging 47,856 fans a game in 1978, a record that they held for almost 40 years until Atlanta United came along. Toye was responsible for signing stars like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, but he always said the success the Cosmos had was due the work they had done in their early years selling themselves in the New York soccer community to organizations like the German-American League.
"'A lot of these new owners thought all the Cosmos did was spend a lot of money on players,'' Toye told Lawrie Mifflin of the New York Times in 1983 as the NASL began to unravel. ''And that all they had to do was spend a lot of money on players, too, not realizing the seven years of hard work that went into the Cosmos before 1978.''
The lessons of those early years that Soccer America chronicled remain relevant today as soccer unravels through no fault of its own because of the coronavirus pandemic. Soccer will only be as strong as the roots it has put down in local communities.
Like Soccer America has over its 50 years, pro clubs and youth teams will need the strength of the special connection they have with fans and players and their families to get through this current crisis.