Lessons from the NASL

In Simon Critchley’s What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, he notes that while growing up in England in the 1970s, he used the words soccer and football interchangeably, and he claims that was true of nearly everyone. He goes on to say, “Most non-American fans I have met in the US mistakenly assume that soccer is an Americanism and they are very picky and prickly about which name is used for the game, assuming that ‘football’ has an aura of authenticity which ‘soccer’ lacks” (p. xvii). Indeed, studies of UK based newspaper reports during this time confirm that “football” and “soccer” were both used in England at the time almost equally, as which point the term “soccer” did indeed seem to lose some of its “authenticity.”

Given that from 1862 onward “soccer,” as is well known, was a shorthand way of saying one was playing football in the way encoded in the agreed rules of the “Football Association” (as opposed to what were other forms of football at the time, some of which became Rugby in the founding of the Ruby Union almost a decade later), what the hell happened to make the term fall into such disrepute?

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Why did “soccer” become such a bad word—a word associated with the United States who played a different form of football—that many English people no longer use the word and indeed now look upon it derisively? Indeed, not only Brits do this, but so do some of the more elitist Americans, the type who claim not to like “American football,” but only watch “the real thing.”

A soccer spectacular

The pretty convincing answer is that the founding and growth of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that ran between 1968 and 1984 so firmly established the term with US-branded soccer that no one else wanted to use the term to refer to authentic “football.” According to Ian Plenderleith’s fluidly fun Rock’n’Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, Americans (who had to use the word soccer exclusively as football had already been taken), were seen as soiling the game by both attempting to experiment with the rules and by attempting so many forms of marketing that people cringed worldwide.

Plenderleith’s book is a wonderful read, lively introducing characters in the way of owners and players while simultaneously trying to take seriously some of the innovations that the US based league brought to the game. 

Let’s start with the ideas that dealt with marketing more than with the rules of the game, all of which he covers in Chapter 5, “Gimmicks, Girls, and Teenage Kicks: Selling Soccer to the US Public.” These changes are perhaps best described by former Everton defender Pat Howard, who played for the NASL version of the Portland Timbers. “What have I got myself in for: What kind of football is this? I mean, there were blinking charges up the wings, drunks behind the goal, firecrackers were going off… I felt it was a bit stupid.”

In Fort Lauderdale, players entered the game in or on vehicles that sponsored them; Harleys, horses, and a variety of cars. During a losing streak, they came out onto the pitch in a hearse, jumped out, and emphatically pronounced that they “weren’t dead yet.”

Each team had their very own cheerleaders; The Cosmos Girls, The Tampa Bay Wowdies, Washington Honey Dips.  And these cheerleaders were a show of their own.

During a losing streak, the Washington Diplomats brought a voodoo priest named Chief Diplascore and held a ceremony to bring the team victory.

Toronto held armadillo races prior to a game.

The Minnesota Kicks had such wonderful tailgates that loosely allowed so much underage drinking and pot smoking that many “fans” never left tailgate to go into the game.

An American spin

On the side of technical changes, with the approval of FIFA, the NASL experimented with changes meant to liven up the game and lead to increased scoring. For instance, teams got 6 points for a win, 3 for a draw, 0 for a loss, but a point for each goal up to 3, so there was almost always a reason to try to score.

Rather than penalty kicks to determine the outcome of a playoff game, there were hockey shootouts with the kicker starting at the 35 yard line and having 5 seconds to score.  The goalkeeper could come out of his box to chase the player down (something picked up by the early MLS).

They altered the rules so that backpasses to the goalie could not be picked up (something that became universal years later).

While wanting to abolish the offside rule altogether, they settled on offside only being called within 35 yards from either goal.

As one reads the book and watches as the league goes from riches to collapse, one can’t help but both cringe at some of the ideas (FIFA did not allow the NASL to use wider goals, which was one idea) but simultaneously applaud the spirit that encouraged them to experiment (and do remember that FIFA had to sanction every idea they tried on the pitch).

In the end, I do kind of get why the rest of the world looked at the carnival of the NASL and shuddered (hell, I cringed at that weird cheerleading that happened at the recent USMNT game in Nashville). I understand that the focus may have been better placed on slow growth with a good product (lessons MLS has tried to learn and implement). But that said, the laws of soccer were not given to us from on high.  And they have changed over time (check out the first draft of the FA rules, when the teams changed sides every time a goal was scored). 

A little tinkering ain’t a bad thing.  We Americans have a tendency to go overboard and do things too big. I get it. I cringe as well.  But sometimes it’s good to let one’s imagination fly.

Lessons from the NASL

The lesson we learn, I believe, is that we need to have huge respect for the traditions, including but not confined to, European game traditions. But we also need to experiment. While we are unlikely to experiment much with the rules (and I really don’t want to), we—as fans and as a culture—would do well to make the off pitch game our own.

Teams and marketing experts are certainly going to have their own ideas for what fans “should and shouldn’t do.” We shouldn’t be confined by their ideas. Neither should we be confined by European traditions that aren’t our own. Let’s take what we want and make it better in our own way.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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