July 20, 2013
By Charles Cuttone
Woosnam deserves the thanks of the game
Every soccer match in this country this weekend should have a moment of silence for Phil Woosnam, the Commissioner of the North American Soccer League, who passed away Friday at age 80.
Soccer would not be what it is today in this country without Phil Woosnam. Not the pros, not the youths, not the colleges. It was Woosnam, who along with Clive Toye and the late Lamar Hunt, that kept the original North American Soccer League alive after the 1968 season when it was reduced to five teams.
At that time, soccer was still the enclave of ethnic leagues and a few colleges. It was the NASL which planted the seed in many of its markets for the growth of youth soccer and the professional game as we know it today.
Back then, the sport was hardly a blip on the map. The five teams, Atlanta Chiefs, Dallas Tornado, Kansas City Spurs, St. Louis Stars and Baltimore Bays, soon grew to eight, with one of the new clubs being the New York Cosmos.
At the time, the league was being run out of the visitor's locker room in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
"We were the league’s only two employees," Toye told Big Apple Soccer's Michael Lewis. "And we talked and talked and talked . . . about Pele, about the World Cup coming here, about American players and so on and so forth.
"We decided that if/when we found the owners for a New York club, one of us would run the league and one of us would run New York."
Toye got to run New York, and Woosnam the league. The NASL office moved to New York, and for a time the team and the league shared space on Park Avenue.
That was when I first met Woosnam, a smiling, affable Welshman who was the eternal salesman for the sport.
Toye and Warner Communications eventually landed Pele. Woosnam went into full salesman mode, working on sponsor, TV and expansion deals.
Some said the league expanded too quickly, and perhaps that’s so. But that expansion fueled the growth of the sport. Future U.S. National Team stars Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Claudio Reyna fell in love with the beautiful game in the shadow of Giants Stadium. Mia Hamm went to see Washington Diplomats games while visiting her grandmother. Brandi Chastain started playing in the San Jose Earthquakes youth system.
The league may not have survived, but the seeds planted by the North American Soccer League and its Johnny Appleseed--Phil Woosnam -- are the stadiums, the youth academies, the pro teams, the national team that we see today. For that, he should be remembered.