The Fan Cave at my house doubles as a guest room, and considering it’s basically wall-to-wall memorabilia, it serves as quite the conversation starter.
But memorabilia conjures memories, memories are reminders of the past, and one friend who has occupied the Fan Cave calls it the “Death Room.”
She’s not wrong.
World Football League, United States Football League, World Hockey Association – every wall is a tribute to leagues and teams that no longer exist.
But leading into the museum/mausoleum is a much smaller room that is devoted entirely to soccer – and no league is more prominent than the original North American Soccer League.
There are a pair of NASL game balls, including one autographed by members of the Philadelphia Fury (Mick Jagger, Peter Frampton, Rick Wakeman and Paul Simon were investors). There are programs galore, ticket stubs, even a press pass for the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs.
Shoot, I have a Team America media guide – the Team America that existed before Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady turned them into World Police marionettes.
Some of my artifacts were obtained via eBay, a few came from yard sales, and one in particular is an actual purchase that has survived for 43 years now.
It’s the 1976 edition of “The Complete Handbook of Soccer,” edited by the late, great Zander Hollander. It includes more than the NASL, of course, but what was once the biggest soccer deal in North America is given the most ink.
It’s currently displayed in a shadowbox, but now and then I’ll take it out and thumb through it.
Today will be one of those days because it’s the anniversary of the death of the original NASL.
I can’t remember if I heard about it on ESPN or saw a blip in the local paper – and living in Birmingham, Alabama, it would’ve been no more than a blip – but the news that came down on March 28, 1985, was no surprise.
What once was a 24-team league that showcased the “rock star” New York Cosmos had only two teams left when it went teats up.
Thus, the sport that had taken the United States (and parts of Canada) by storm was nothing more than a drizzle by the time the league shuddered.
They were fun times while they lasted, though.
Seeing the World Cup on an episode of “Wide World of Sports” in 1970 made me curious about association football, but the NASL turned that curiosity into a passion.
By the time Pele suited up for the Cosmos in 1975 I was already a huge fan of the Beautiful Game, although I was still working through finding “my” NASL club.
I already liked New York because of Werner Roth and Shep Messing, but Kyle Rote was a homegrown superstar, and that made the Dallas Tornado attractive.
Elton John was part owner of the Los Angeles Aztecs, so the team in SoCal was a cool option (especially after Sir Elton convinced George Best to sign), and the Tampa Bay Rowdies also had a certain charm, mainly because their marketing team had us all believing that “soccer is a kick in the grass.”
Ultimately, it was the arrival of Giorgio Chinaglia in 1976 that convinced me to go all-in with the Cosmos, and a super supporter was born.
I soaked up all the NASL news I could find, and when the league was shown on ABC for a three-year run starting in 1979 I was in front of the TV for every match – didn’t matter who was playing.
As the decade rolled over to the 1980s, however, the bloom was already off the rose.
While the Cosmos once packed the Meadowlands, their attendance began to decline rapidly – and interest in America’s premiere soccer organization was going downhill fast, as well.
By 1984 the NASL was down to nine teams and the Cosmos’ final home match that year drew less than 8,000 fans.
A league that had turned soccer into the “sport of the future” in North America was becoming a thing of the past, and when only the Minnesota Strikers and Toronto Blizzard were willing to be part of the circuit in 1985, the plug was pulled.
I was heartbroken.
Sure, it was mostly a retirement league for international stars looking to cash in on their fame one last time, and it wasn’t built to develop American players.
Yet, I didn’t care.
In the days before the Internet, social media and thousands of television channels, it was a way to actually see players I had once only read about.
It inspired me to forget my dreams of playing American football and embrace my 5-8 frame, which was the exact height of Pele’ and just an inch shorter than Best.
Playing high school soccer was one of my favorite experiences (I wore No. 10, by the way), and I probably wouldn’t have been inspired to work at it so hard if not for the NASL.
Naturally, my fandom has evolved in the 35 years since the league’s demise.
Most of my interest in American soccer is at the grassroots level; I gave a loose follow to Major League Soccer for many years, but now I can take it or leave it. My hope is that the National Premier Soccer League’s new professional venture will grow into something I can truly get behind.
As for international football, it’s so readily available I can watch top-tier competition from around the globe practically whenever I want. (Celtic FC, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund – in that order – are the clubs I support).
But I’ll never forget the “good old days,” and being a North American Soccer League enthusiast were some of the best days of my sporting life.