The original North American Soccer League will always hold a special place in my heart.
Despite its overspending, overreach and ultimate self-destruction, it broadened my football world and allowed me to become fully immersed in the Beautiful Game.
But as much as I loved the NASL, I also admired the American Soccer League – as much as I could. It was rare to find anything more than league standings in my local paper, so I usually had to wait on the annual release of the “Complete Handbook of Soccer” to get ASL info.
Although completely overshadowed by the league that featured Pele, George Best and Johan Cruyff, it had been around since 1933. Its longevity was impressive, despite spending much of its existence as a low budget, Northeast-based circuit. (Its headquarters were based in Providence, Rhode Island).
So when former NBA great Bob Cousy was named ASL commissioner on December 19, 1974, I was hopeful. Sure, Cousy was a basketball legend with no ties to association football, but almost everyone knew his name. And the American Soccer League desperately needed some name recognition.
“It’s the first opportunity that has come along that allows me to stay in sports and retain my home in New England,” Cousy, who continued to work as a TV color commentator for basketball and consultant for various companies, told United Press International. “It’s great to be working with people who are dedicated to their work. And lastly, I guess I need fulltime employment.
“It’s a sport I know nothing about but I’m willing to learn.”
When Cousy took the reins of the ASL, it featured the Boston Astros, Connecticut Wildcats, Delaware Wings, New Jersey Brewers and New York Apollo in the East Conference while the Cleveland Cobras, Cincinnati Comets, Indiana Tigers and Rhode Island Oceaneers made up the Midwest Conference.
“I’m no stranger to public relations work,” Cousy said. “I’ve kissed my share of babies, marched in parades and flown helicopters to push pro basketball. The ASL wanted publicity, and that’s why they came to me.”
While the NASL was stocked with international stars (mostly in the twilight of their careers), Cousy advocated a more homegrown approach.
“We’ve got to start thinking of our American colleges as our farm system,” he told UPI in a 1975 interview.
But the ASL also needed to widen its footprint if it wanted to become a legitimate national league. Cousy was tasked with figuring out how to make that happen in a financially responsible way.
“Realistically, no one is making dollars in soccer at this time – the big guys or the little guys,” he said. “For instance, our franchises sell for $35,000. (NASL franchises) go for $350,000. Pele has helped our cause even though he’s with the other league. He’s generated some fringe benefits for us.
“Since Pele’s arrival people have been coming to us and discussing franchises. Before, I was chasing them around.”
In 1975 the ASL was still regional, although the Chicago Cats, Cleveland Cobras and Pittsburgh Miners added three major markets.
But 1976 saw expansion to the West Coast, with the Los Angeles Skyhawks, Oakland Buccaneers, Sacramento Spirits, Tacoma Tides and Utah Golden Spikers (replaced during the season with the Utah Pioneers) joining.
“They (the NASL) look better right now,” Cousy told Associated Press in a May, 1976, interview, “but our approach is more sensible. With our numbers, we can draw 3,000 or 4,000 a game and stay in business and stay in the black. Our grocery store is smaller than their supermarket.”
Indeed it was. But the “Mom and Pop” league struggled against the big box NASL. Franchises came and went, and with rare exceptions attendance was terrible. In 1979 Cousy resigned his post with the ASL, and at least one league official was happy for the change.
“The commissioner doesn’t have to be a soccer man,” Pennsylvania Stoners president and coach Willie Ehrlich told the New York Times. “But once he’s bitten by the bug, he’s got to show it. After five years as commissioner, Cousy still goes around telling people he knows nothing about soccer.”
With or without Cousy, there was no happily ever after for the ASL. It folded in 1983 and while five franchises survived to form the original United Soccer League, that venture played only one full season in 1984. In fact, America’s pro soccer bubble burst completely that year as the NASL also went cleats-up.
Still, the American Soccer League competed over six different decades and is deeply rooted in United States soccer history.
It never really grabbed the spotlight, but give it credit for trying to step out of the shadows.