Believe it or not, the USA and Canada shared a semi-high profile soccer league from 1968-1984. This league, the North American Soccer League, started as box office poison but by the late 1970s was attracting many over-the-hill superstars like Pele, Pete Best, Johann Cruyff, and averaging almost 15,000 fans per game. The league destroyed itself in 1984 but after a 12 year hiatus a new attempt at a big soccer league in the region was initiated with Major League Soccer. MLS is now 13 years old itself, which is the exact same point at which the old NASL started to peak and crumble simultaneously. There are many parallels and also differences between the leagues. Is history repeating itself or will MLS kick ass?
DIFFERENCE: FORMATIVE YEARS
Fans avoided the NASL in its formative years, with average attendances around 3,000. On the contrary, MLS started fairly strong with 17,000 average in its first year, staying in the 15,000-17,000 range ever since.
After the NASL decided it was viable, it exploded very quickly and had over 20 teams at its peak. Supposedly, overexpansion was to be avoided by MLS but it recently announced it plans to have 20 teams by 2012 – doubling the size of the league over a ten year period.
DIFFERENCE: FRANCHISE STABILITY
Only two MLS teams have folded and only one has relocated. The NASL had one team or another fold or relocate almost every season.
DIFFERENCE: FOREIGN PLAYERS
Because soccer was (still is?) relatively unpopular in the US, most of the players in the NASL were foreigners. The league required only that 2 US citizens be on the field at any time, meaning there was little opportunity for American players to secure roster positions and improve the quality of American players. MLS initially only allowed a few foreign players per team, creating a haven for American soccer development. The situation is even reversed now, as most of the best US players play in the more prestigious leagues in Europe. To cope with expansion, MLS is now allowing up to 8 foreign players per team, acknowledging that the American player pool, especially with its best players in Europe, can’t sustain high quality play in a 20 team league.
SIMILARITY: FLAGSHIP FRANCHISES
The NASL threw a disproportionate amount of weight behind its New York Cosmos franchise, with many of the superstars ending up there. For some reason, MLS has followed suit to some extent, with the Los Angeles Galaxy, paying ridiculous amounts for David Beckham and also signing the most famous American player, Landon Donovan.
SIMILARITY: OVER THE HILL SUPERSTARS
It took a decade, but MLS is finally becoming a home to the big-name has-beens. Beckham is the most famous (although he still plays for England so might not really be a has-been) but others like Lothar Mattheus, Hristo Stoichkov, and Cuautemoc Blanco have followed suit in recent years and rumors constantly abound regarding other players.
Most MLS teams have or are attempting to secure their own stadia. NASL teams shared stadia with NFL or college football teams.
DIFFERENCE: INTERORGANIZATIONAL RELATIONS
MLS compete in the super old US Open Cup tournament, which pits them against minor league teams. The best MLS teams also compete in the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament involving teams from all over North/Central America and the Caribbean to determine region’s champion. The NASL created a vacuum for itself and gave a cold shoulder to these tournaments and their organizers.
SIMILARITY: SALARY ISSUES
When the NASL exploded, so did salaries, which helped kill the league. MLS has a strange system that involves a strict and still rather low salary cap with exemptions for “Designated Players” (aka superstars). This often results in a few very highly paid players on one end and some making as little as $20,000 on the other end. The salary gap results in a talent gap. As Sports Illustrated recently pointed out, there are several quality American players that are able to make more money starring for minor league teams than by sitting on the bench for an MLS team. The idea that quality players are skipping MLS for minor leagues was supported recently when Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders* made it to the playoff stage of the CONCACAF Champions League while all 3 of the 4 eligible MLS teams fell earlier.
*=these teams play in the USL Division 1, USA’s top minor league, but entered the Champions League as Division 1 teams representing their respective nations