The work of the Chiefs and Tornado was repeated by others across the country. The Cosmos would not have taken off in 1977 without the groundwork their first coach, Gordon Bradley, did introducing the game across the New York metropolitan area. Soccer leagues and school programs popped up around the country, but they never became local institutions the same way that football and basketball, or baseball and ice hockey in their own ways, became linked to local high schools and colleges and in turn fed and feed players to the pros, tying the rope that connected them to the major leagues.
I've followed probably close to two dozen pro soccer leagues -- men's and women's, outdoor and indoor -- over the last 60 years. My oldest soccer memory is of watching a Sunday night telecast of an International Soccer League game in 1962, the same year my dad took me to the Garden. I didn't know what I was watching, but I remember going the next day to get my biweekly Monday haircut (ugh!) at Pete the barber's in Sloatsburg, New York, the next town over from where we lived, and Pete, who was a short Greek man, was talking with one of his friends sitting in the shop about the same game I had just watched.
The most successful pro soccer league -- by a wide margin -- has been Major League Soccer. In terms of its staying power (26 years). Its size (27 teams). Its support (five straight seasons of average attendance of more than 21,000 before the pandemic hit). Its infrastructure (all the soccer-specific stadiums and training facilities built at a cost now in the billions of dollars). And its stability (only four teams have folded, only one, Tampa Bay, never replaced in their city). But interest in MLS remains minimal on the national level. One only needs to see where the audiences for the two opening games on ABC and FOX rank in terms of 2021 network soccer broadcasts or more broadly compared to network broadcasts of American major leagues.
I'd argue that has much to do with soccer's lack of strong local institutions that the other American major leagues benefit from and is the most important reason why an "open" model should be considered, both for creating stronger local soccer institutions and connecting them to MLS.
I have heard a lot of people last week talk about why an "open" system should replace the "closed" system that is in place in MLS and has been in place in every pro league since the Chiefs' outlaw NPSL and the rival United Soccer Association began in 1967. I haven't heard anyone say they believe an "open" system will happen any time soon. (I'd add that no one could have imagined, say, in 1985 that we'd ever see an outdoor league like MLS is today either.)
The local connections that tie neighborhoods and towns and cities to clubs are what make soccer unique around the world. They prop the sport up in the face of market forces that otherwise make it increasingly unsustainable. (Many point to the flood of American money into European soccer as a sign of the strength of its model. The counter: European leagues are desperate for investors, any investors, to keep their clubs afloat, and many clubs are for sale at bargain-basement prices.)
Without those local connections, an investment model grew the sport in the United States, and MLS took it one step further, instituting all kind of mechanisms -- single-entity, salary cap, targeted spending, limited free agency, restrictive player entry, all incorporated into a collective bargaining agreement -- to deal with those same market forces that set off the current crisis in European soccer.
Every now and then, the so-called Fricker plan is brought up. The plan the late Werner Fricker, the USSF president for seven years (1984-90), developed as the answer for a new pro league -- an open system with promotion and relegation across three tiers -- and presented at the 1988 AGM in Philadelphia.
We covered that AGM extensively in Soccer America. It was the USSF's 75th anniversary, and FIFA president Joao Havelange attended, just weeks after FIFA awarded the USA in the 1994 World Cup finals. But we forgot about the Fricker plan about as quickly as the plans for the Super League were dropped this week. Not because it was a bad plan -- it was, in retrospect, the best chance to introduce an "open" system -- but because the Fricker plan was simply never going to happen.
The Fricker plan was never going to work because there was nothing to build it on. American soccer was probably at its lowest point in the late 1980s. Ironic, given FIFA's view of the U.S. market as a gold mine. The stain of the NASL was still fresh on the walls of American soccer. The pro teams that existed in the new American Soccer League and Western Soccer League were weak. Most of the ethnic clubs that kept soccer going after World War II had disappeared. And the explosion of Latino soccer was still a few years off. College soccer was growing (modestly) but it didn't count -- it was outside the federation family, and if anything it was competition for everything the federation needed: donors, facilities, media support, coaches.
Those working on a new pro league were having a hard enough time trying to get one league off the ground -- the 1994 World Cup came and went without any certainty that MLS, even with a plan as brilliant as the plan was that Alan Rothenberg, Sunil Gulati and Mark Abbott devised, would happen -- let alone a multi-tiered league like what Fricker had proposed.
And then there was one other issue. Those that mattered -- FIFA pushing the federation to start a league, the networks offering coverage on which everything else in the league depended -- were never going to give what something like the Fricker plan needed above all else: time.
Sixty years of trying -- I'll include Bill Cox's ISL, my introduction to the game -- has gotten us to where we are today. MLS plus four other outdoor pro leagues (men's and women's). Eighty-nine pro teams operating this spring. Quite amazing actually. But still very, very imperfect.
Downing Stadium Photo: Paul Gardner