The NASL’s first crisis

Posted on February 25, 2013 12:25 am

That the North American Soccer League died an early death, after 17 seasons, is well known. That it nearly died a much earlier one is less famous.

The NASL’s survival of its crisis year of 1969 was due largely to the efforts of three men, Clive Toye, Phil Woosnam and Lamar Hunt. Toye and Woosnam both were British expatriates and both had come to America for supporting roles in this new soccer venture that was starting here. Woosnam, a veteran star with several Football League teams and an extreme rarity among British pro soccer players, a college graduate, had come to be coach of the Atlanta Chiefs (in 1968, he ended up coaching the U.S. national team in World Cup qualifying as well). By this point, he was executive director of the NASL. Toye, who had been the chief soccer writer for the Daily Express, a huge London newspaper, had crossed the Atlantic in 1967 to become general manager of the Baltimore Bays, and by 1969 was Woosnam’s assistant. Hunt (above), the son of legendary Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, was a money man, of whom there had been a number a year or two before, but he was not like the other team owners. Hunt was committed to this venture and didn’t join the scramble for the exit at the end of the 1968 season, particularly impressive considering that his team had won just two games and lost 26 that season.

Toye and Woosnam were crammed into a tiny office in the bowels of Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, and their efforts there became famous among NASL people, but the contribution of Hunt was equally crucial to the NASL’s survival. In addition to owning the Dallas Tornado of the NASL, Hunt also owned the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. The fact that he was willing to stick to his commitment to soccer and invest his time was well as his money in efforts to keep the NASL afloat is a very important factor in why American soccer has the respectability that it does today.

Reporter Alex Yannis, who covered the New York Cosmos for the New York Times throughout their existence, quoted Woosnam on the subject of Hunt’s work in his 1980 book, Inside Soccer: “The main reason we stayed alive was the presence of Lamar Hunt. People knew who Lamar Hunt was and that he would not stay with a league he didn’t believe had a future in the United States.”

Yannis also quoted Hunt: “Phil and everybody else in the league give me too much credit….Phil Woosnam is the guy who really kept it alive. He went out and knocked on doors. I just gave the league a little stability because of my involvement in other sports.”

The NASL started to rise again in 1970 when two American Soccer League teams, the Washington Darts and the Rochester Lancers, jumped leagues. It was a narrow thing according to Toye. Washington agreed to switch to the NASL, but only if Rochester would also. So the negotiations with the Rochester owners, Charlie Schiano and Pat DiNolfo, really were for two teams, not one. Maybe more than two in a sense, considering that the NASL would have folded without them. After considerable back and forth, Schiano and DiNolfo agreed to make the move and the NASL stayed in business (and those Washington and Rochester teams ended up playing for the NASL title in 1970).

The NASL went on to famous things during its flight of 17 seasons, but it came awfully close to crashing on takeoff.

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