November 16, 2010
By Charles Cuttone
MLS embracing some NASL history, mis-remembering other
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber is certainly more accepting of the North American Soccer League, its history and what the league meant to U.S. soccer and to developing soccer fans around the country than the league’s previous administration. But he still needs to get some of his facts about the league correct.
Since Garber came on board ten years ago, MLS has embraced the use of names originated in the NASL. The San Jose franchise was the first to go that route, changing from the abysmal Clash to the Earthquakes, the name of the team in the NASL from 1974 until 1983. Seattle Sounders FC followed suit last year, and next years the Timbers and Whitecaps names will be in MLS, in Portland and Vancouver, respectively.
Garber called this part of the changing attitude of the league and how it markets itself.
“I can’t comment on the names that were created before I got here,” Garber said in response to my question on Tuesday’s conference call.” When I did arrive, we became very focused on authenticity. Authenticity in some clubs were traditional names like FC Dallas for example, or Toronto FC. Tradition in other markets like Portland and Vancouver is building on the success that they had and the legacy that they had from the NASL, and in many of those cases those teams lived on in the minor leagues. The soccer support in those markets didn’t leave, it just changed, so those new teams have wanted to continue that history.”
The most storied name in the history of American soccer, the Cosmos, also is undergoing a revival. Former Tottenham chairman Paul Kemsley bought the name earlier this year, and has begun to market the brand, forming youth academies in New York and Los Angeles. They want to take the next step into MLS, and Garber and the league are in talks with the organization as well as others about a second New York area team.
Garber also mentioned on his conference call that MLS was looking to incentivize attractive play, perhaps by awarding points for winning and for scoring goals.
Sound familiar to you old timers?
The NASL used a six-plus-three points system. Teams that won the game got six points for the win, plus up to three additional points for scoring goals, so a nine point win was possible. There were no draws in the league. Tie games were decided with a shootout from the 35 yard line. Losing teams also could gain up to three points for scoring goals.
Perhaps the adoption of a similar rule would help some alleviate some of the snooze fests we regularly see around MLS.
So, two stars to the commissioner on NASL history.
On the next subject, however, he gets an “F.”
That is on the misconception that teams in the NASL “bought on-field success.” The designated player rule has produced mixed results in MLS, and no team with a DP has won the league championship—yet. They won’t this year either, since neither FC Dallas nor the Colorado Rapids have a DP.
Garber said the league salary budget, allocation money and ways it handles buying, selling and paying players ensures a level playing field, so the RSLs, Colorados and FC Dallas’s of the league can compete with the New Yorks, LAs and Chicagos.
Ok, we get that. But Garber’s explanation was a little off base.
“That’s the point of all of this,” Garber explained of the MLS system, which limits team spending. “We don’t want to have a system that existed in the NASL or might exist in other leagues where you can buy success. You might be able to balance success with designated players, but you are going to have to make sacrifices by not being able to spend as much money with the rest of your roster.”
I can understand where Garber’s thinking comes from. After all, the Cosmos were the New York Yankees of the NASL, spending for high-priced talent that naturally helped the club become a winner. But, that did not really create a league of haves and have nots.
From the time the Cosmos first signed Pele in 1975, to when the league folded in 1984, they won four Soccer Bowls. In 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1982. They also lost in the final in 1981. Four titles in ten years. A little better average than the Yankees have had, but nonetheless, hardly the dominance their spending would suggest. The teams that won titles in the other years, the Tampa Bay Rowdies (1975), Toronto Metros Croatia (1976), Vancouver Whitecaps (1979), Chicago Sting (1981 and 1984), and the Tulsa Roughnecks (1983) had few if any high-priced players.
So, perhaps the lesson for MLS is that, while the league may not be doomed to repeat the history of the NASL, it is still working on remembering it.