US pro soccer's 50th anniversary: 'They called us communists and midgets'

Michael Lewis
The New York Generals take on the Chicago Spurs at Yankee Stadium 50 years ago this month. Photograph: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock

No games were played in MLS or the NASL on Sunday. That’s too bad, because it would have been an appropriate day to commemorate a significant anniversary for North American soccer.

Fifty years ago on Sunday, on 16 April 1967, professional soccer took its first bold steps on this continent as the National Professional Soccer League made its debut. Unlike today’s game, fans did not exactly swarm to the stadiums. Some 45,210 spectators attended five games, equivalent to a decent crowd for the modern day Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field.

Still, you have to start somewhere. Ten owners decided to test what would become choppy waters. Soccer wasn’t totally foreign to this country. Amateur and semi-pro leagues, stocked mostly with ethnic-backed teams and players, had been around for decades. Bill Cox popularized the game in New York City with his International Soccer League. Then, people with deep pockets caught soccer fever while watching the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany, which was televised in the US.

The 10 NPSL clubs primarily were owned by football, baseball and hockey teams and played at baseball or football stadiums. The teams were: Atlanta Chiefs, Baltimore Bays, Chicago Spurs, Los Angeles Toros, New York Generals, Oakland Clippers, Philadelphia Spartans, Pittsburgh Phantoms, St Louis Stars, and Toronto Falcons.

Robert Hermann, for whom the MAC Hermann Trophy is named, was league president. That year turned into a wild ride for pro soccer, because two leagues toiled to grab sports fans’ attention and dollars. The United Soccer Association, which moved up the start of its league by a year when the NPSL announced it would begin, had the blessing of the US Soccer Football Association (now US Soccer). The NPSL, on the other hand, negotiated a TV contract, a 10-year deal with CBS that paid $1m a year.

Each of the 12 United Soccer Associations franchises, by contract, simply imported whole teams from Europe and South America to play under new names. (Dallas Tornado, for example, simply used Dundee United’s squad for their inaugural season.) The owners included Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt (who later operated the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas in MLS), LA Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke, joined by various owners of football and baseball teams.

The No 1 challenge for the NPSL and the USA was how to sell a that most Americans did not know or care about – and the new leagues were not exactly met with open arms.

“There wasn’t too much to laugh about in 1967,” Baltimore Bays GM Clive Toye said. “The knowledge of the game and what it looked like and how it was played was so strange and foreign to Americans in so many ways. What’s soccer? ‘It’s like kickball.’ No, it’s not like kickball. It’s different. That was the nice people. The nasty people called us communists and midgets. I remember one of the west coast newspapers called us commie midgets. So that went down well.”

The soccer landscape was virtually barren. Trying to find basic equipment turned into a scavenger hunt. “When I got there, there no players, no goalposts, no uniforms, no soccer balls,” Toye said. “It’s bloody laughable when you think about. How the hell I did it I have no idea.”

Starting at the ground floor, teams found creative ways to recruit players. In 1966, 20-year-old Brazilian-born Eli Durante scored six goals for Ecuadorian club Emelec in an LA tournament in 1966.

“Outside the dressing room there were people from the Toros recruiting us,” Durante said. “Back then we were clandestine players because the league was not Fifa affiliated. They gave us a bunch of money to come over. They gave me like $12,000 a year, no taxes, an apartment and food for the year. You were making $4,000 in Ecuador. It was a big pay raise. It was incredible.”

Chicago Spurs striker and US international Willy Roy did not have to travel too far to find a team: he was a hometown scoring hero in the Chicago semi-pro leagues. He had no reservations about playing in what he called “the wild league” because of the lack of Fifa affiliation.

“My future was going to be in the United States,” he said. “Sooner or later things usually work out. That was not on the top of my list. The top of my list was becoming a better player and helping the team win games.”

The Clippers were fortunate, hiring Aleksandar Obradovic from Red Star Belgrade and the Yugoslavia national team. He recruited Ivan Toplak as coach. They brought in five Yugoslavian players, forming the team’s core.

“It gave us a tremendous advantage over all the other teams that were forming in the national professional soccer league,” vice-president Derek Liecty said. “Many of them didn’t have a clue where to turn to get players, managers, coaches. He was the key to our having a successful and great team.”

Being a pirate league made for some unusual transfers. Liecty said the Clippers gave their Costa Rican players money “so they [could] literally buy themselves out of their contracts because Saprissa did not want to have Fifa know that they were dealing with us. That’s the kind of thing we had to deal with. Other than the constant pressure from the United States Soccer Federation of trying to get Fifa to interfere with what we were doing and warning clubs not to deal with us, it was very stressful. Not so much for us, but for the other clubs it was even more of a problem.”

Baltimore used English, European, South American and Caribbean players. That included Jamaican twins Art and Asher Welch, and Dennis Viollet, then Manchester United’s all-time goalscorer and a survivor of the plane crash that killed 23 people at Munich in 1958.

CBS televised the inaugural match – Baltimore v Atlanta at Memorial Stadium – that Sunday. The encounter pitted two future movers and shakers of soccer – Toye, who signed Pele to a historic contract with the New York Cosmos in 1975 – and Woosnam, who became the NASL commissioner.

Veteran US sportscaster Jack Whitaker was the play-by-man man. Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham to their 1961 double, was the analyst. The Bay prevailed 1-0 thanks to a goal from substitute Guy Saint-Vil. Saint-Vil might be familiar to US national team supporters – he helped Haiti eliminate the Americans from 1970 World Cup qualifying.

At first, fans tossed back balls that were kicked into the stands, but some took home souvenirs. Six balls reportedly weren’t returned.

“In no other country do they keep the balls,” Bays coach Doug Millward said. “It must be a baseball peculiarity carried over to soccer. I hope they realize we can’t lose $2,000 in balls a game and expect to survive.”

Maybe, maybe not.

“I’d rather lose the balls than points,” Toye said.

And for good reason. Teams were awarded six points for a win, three points for a tie and none for a loss. They also received a point for every goal scored (capped at three) to encourage attacking play.

In Philadelphia, 14,163 curious souls showed up at Temple Stadium – the largest crowd of the day (that was 5,000 more than turned up for Phillies-Mets baseball game the same afternoon). Because the Spartans did not have enough ticket sellers, team vice president Jerry Lawrence and ticket manager John Laughlin put rolls of $2 general admission tickets in their pockets and sold 400 on the street.

“I’m elated,” Spartans director Art Rooney told the Camden Courier-Post. “We ran out of programs and Coke and a couple of other things. I couldn’t be happier.”

On the field, Pennsylvania governor Raymond Shafer used a Greek coin from 300 BC for the pre-game flip, and kicked out the first ball. Philly recorded a 2-0 triumph over the Toronto Falcons behind Englishman Peter Short’s two goals in 79F heat.

The smallest crowd – 4,725 – turned out at Soldier Field to watch the Spurs defeat the St Louis Stars 2-1; club officials claimed tornado warnings kept the numbers down. Roy tallied twice in his pro debut.

“You want to prove yourself you belong on the team,” said Roy, who finished second in league goalscoring with 17, earning rookie of the year honors. “That was my job. People expected me to do my part.”

Roy marveled at the mix of nationalities and their talented players, rattling off several names. His list included former Argentine international defender Ruben Navarro, who performed in the 1962 World Cup and won two Copa Libertadores titles before joining the Spartans and earning 1967 MVP honors.

“There was talk of getting [Franz] Beckenbauer to play in the States,” Roy said. “When you heard they were going after players like that … wow!”

In Oakland, Julie Christie threw out – yes, threw out – the first ball before the Clippers and Pittsburgh battled to a 3-3 draw as the Phantoms struck three times in the final 17 minutes.

The club began as the California Clippers with hopes being a San Francisco team before Liecty talked about the only option of playing at a “rotting, fog-ridden, windswept stadium called Kezar Stadium in the Golden Gate Park.”

He convinced them to move to the new Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and they were renamed the Oakland Clippers that June. It was there the Clippers captured the NPSL crown in the second leg of the final against the Baltimore Bays.

There were plenty of struggles on and off the field. Players did not exactly get rich for winning the title, each receiving $1,500 bonuses. League attendance dipped to 4,849 a game, well below the 9,000 goal, and the league reportedly lost close to $5m. Pittsburgh went through three coaches. And there was a scandal in which English referee Peter Rhodes was quoted by the press that he had been instructed by CBS to tell players to stay down after they were tackled so commercials could be shown during games.

As for the United Soccer Association, that league certainly had its moments as well (before the leagues merged to form the NASL in 1968). But that’s a story for another time.

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