“Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer” vs. NASL revisionism

Want a better U.S. soccer league? Try global dysfunction.

Yes, that’s a cynical clickbait headline. But it’s empirically true.

In Ian Plenderleith’s rollicking Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, we learn a few reasons why international players were drawn to the USA in the late 70s and early 80s.

  1. Pay, of course. At the time, wages were limited in Europe, and the NASL could outbid most top-tier clubs, let alone the lower divisions.
  2. Mood of the country. “There is little doubt that in the 1970s the United States was a more glamourous and opulent place to live than Great Britain, with its endless strikes, shutdowns, power cuts and three-day weeks,” Plenderleith writes. In Northern Ireland, of course, things were much worse, with fear of terrorism and police brutality rampant. And if you wanted to leave England or Germany, where else were you going to go? The Soviet Union?
  3. Playing conditions. Yes, the NASL played on thin artificial turf in a lot of cities. In England, where groundskeeping had not yet advanced to today’s state, they played in cold mud. The sun and the stable surfaces were great NASL recruiting tools.
  4. Dour playing styles. The NASL’s heyday coincided with the final decade of the 2-1-0 points system, giving teams that much more incentive to “get a result.” Two draws equaled one win, and a lot of teams were content to get that. The NASL, Plenderleith says, gave players a fresh new slate. (And weird rules with bonus points for goals, etc.)

So if you want to re-create the old NASL’s drawing power to bring today’s Franz Beckenbauers and Rodney Marshes to the USA, you can’t just spend a little more money. The USA today isn’t a considerably better place to live than many places in Western Europe. The big leagues of Europe have immaculate grounds, stable countries, diverse play, and money, money, money.

And even in the glory days, it wasn’t as if the old NASL brought European stars to the USA at any younger of an age than MLS brings them today. Pele was already retired and in his mid-30s, with more than 700 competitive games on his resume, by the time he joined the New York Cosmos. Beckenbauer and Marsh were in their early 30s. George Best also was in his early 30s but had punished his body with hard living, playing his last pre-NASL season with Cork Celtic and second-tier Fulham. Thierry Henry, Kaka and David Beckham were also on the good side of 35 before crossing the pond.

The “retirement league” label, which seems more than fair to apply to the NASL in Plenderleith’s telling, is one of several reasons why it’s so strange to see fans of the latter-day NASL pushing for more traditional / authentic club cultures and league systems. A lot of players talk openly about their relief to find a place with a little less pressure than Munich or Manchester.

And the NASL was as far removed from soccer traditions as any league that has actually taken the field. (That rules out League One America.) They had the shootout, the 35-yard offside rule, six points for a win, bonus points for goals scored, additional points for wearing fringe, etc. (OK, not the last one, unfortunately for the Colorado Caribous.)

Moving into the present day … how in the world has NASL 2.0 become the beacon of traditional soccer with promotion/relegation and the works? Or to be more precise, could the pro/rel crowd have chosen a less likely brand on which to make its stand?

NASL teams didn’t bother with the Open Cup. (And yes, there was a second division — the ASL — which had a few teams that might have been able to claim some NASL scalps in a Cup.) They tinkered with every rule. Pro/rel? Ha!

So hitching your “the way the rest of the world does it” wagon to the NASL brand is a bit like taking the most artificial, Autotuned pop star on today’s radio and declaring him/her the standard-bearer of modern punk rock. (Somewhere, someone is trying to write the article declaring T-Pain and Ke$ha the modern answer to the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I’d love to read that just to see contortions involved.)

But Plenderleith’s look back is a fond one. Some of the rule changes won over the players who had battled in the top European leagues, and though they’re not in common use today, they were an important part of the global discussion on opening up the game. We’re used to 3 points for a win and restrictions on passing back to the keeper, two of the soundest ideas that emerged from this bundle of ideas.

And the NASL did indeed bring together some quality players onto diverse teams. That was revolutionary. At the time, English clubs were English and Scottish, with the occasional Irish or Welsh player tossed in. German clubs were German, with the faintest smattering of players from outside.

That’s yet another reason why a modern-day Cosmos can never be quite the same as the old. When the English clubs are picking from England and you’re picking from the rest of the world, you might have a chance of compiling a team that can compete with the best from England. Now that the clubs in the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga can simply buy the world’s best talent, the gap is much larger. The novelty factor of a cosmopolitan club is dead in the post-Bosman age.

If you’re expecting a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer, you’ll be disappointed. Plenderleith dismisses the fun Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime, and this is not a collection of stories of Pele, Chinaglia and Mick Jagger at Studio 54.

Instead, you get an entertaining but level-headed look back at a league that broke a lot of rules and a lot of barriers. It’s fun to remember it for what it was rather than what it wasn’t. And it’s safe to say there will never again be a league quite like it.

The book is available for pre-order at Amazon, or if you can’t wait, get the UK edition from a third party at Amazon.

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