When the referee blows his whistle to start the opening game of this year's Major League Soccer season, MLS will officially become older than the North American Soccer League ever got. The NASL lasted 17 seasons, and the 2013 season will be MLS' 18th. So this seems an appropriate time to recount the decline of the NASL from the heights that it enjoyed in the late 1970s to its demise in 1985, a decline that MLS has avoided.
I said in a post last summer that I think the main cause of the NASL's demise was its over-expansion in 1978, but pinpointing when the decline began is difficult. The first signs of it may have appeared in 1980, when ABC cut back its television coverage of the NASL from a game of the week to just the Soccer Bowl, although average attendance did hit an NASL high of 14,997 that season. In 1981, attendance was still strong, at 14,674, but the bellwether New York Cosmos, whose average had topped off at 50,842 in 1978, were seriously sliding, down to 36,717 in 1981.
The indications that the NASL was losing ground became unmistakeable in 1982. There were continued cutbacks in TV exposure. The number of teams in the league, which had reached a high of 24 in 1978, now was down to 14, and one of the six who folded before the 1982 season was the Dallas Tornado, the last remaining survivor from among the league's original 17 teams in 1968. The league's attendance average dropped in 1982 to 13,436, and the Cosmos, despite winning another championship, fell to 30,153. The results of all this were apparent at the NASL title game, where the festive atmosphere of just a few years before was gone. If the highs of 1977-79 hadn't been as high as they were, maybe the drop-off wouldn't have seemed as bad.
The last two seasons of the NASL were ones of increasing desperation. Attendance dropped only a bit more in 1983, to 13,197, but it fell to 10,689 in 1984. The Cosmos were down to 26,614 in 1983 and 12,834 in 1984. In 1983, attempts by the league to run an all American franchise in Washington and to convince FIFA to give the 1986 World Cup to the United States both fell flat.
The NASL played its final season in 1984, but it didn't intend at the time that 1984 would be the last. At the end of the season on Oct. 3, there still were plans for a 1985 season. There had been nine teams in the NASL in the 1984 season, and four of those, the Cosmos, Toronto Blizzard, Minnesota Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies, expressed an interest in playing in 1985. Clive Toye, the man behind the building of the Cosmos in the 1970s, took over as head of the league after NASL president Howard Samuels died of a heart attack on Oct. 26, 1984. Toye hoped to attract a few more franchises to join those four.
New York and Minnesota both played in the Major Indoor Soccer League in its 1984-85 season, and while the Strikers fared well, the Cosmos suffered a flood of both red ink and defeats that caused them to drop out of the MISL in mid-season on Feb. 22, 1985. Two weeks after that, they announced that they had decided not to pay their performance bond for the 1985 NASL season and would attempt to play an independent schedule of friendlies instead. With that announcement, potential team owners that Toye was wooing began to get cold feet, and with only two teams committed to playing in 1985 (Toronto and Minnesota), Toye yielded to the inevitable and announced the folding of the league on March 28, 1985.
The end of the NASL was an event that, by the time it happened, had been seen coming for so long that its immediate impact was somewhat muted. Within a few years, however, American soccer fans began to realize how keenly they felt the gap that the end of the NASL had created, and that feeling certainly was a part of the impetus behind the creation of MLS a decade later.