Thursday, March 11, 2010

Labor pains

I'm not afraid to admit it. I love talking about the NASL. The old one. Not the new one.* Something about multitude of teams (24, at one point), their nicknames (the "Rogues?" Really?), the plastic pitches, and, of course, the players makes me think "Golden Age." Pele. George Best. Franz Beckenbauer. Johan Cruyff. Ringo Cantillo. God, I wish there really was such a thing as a Hot Tub Time Machine.

(*I understand the idea of salvaging a former brand in order to inherent its former loyalists. But in all honesty, how many former NASL fans are going to be drawn to the new NASL? It's second division soccer. I know that Steve Ralston's there, along with a few other former MLS guys. But Pele is not walking through that door, fans. Giorgio Chinaglia isn't walking through that door and Shep Messing is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this league will be for all of us because there are young guys in this league playing their asses off. Whoa, sorry about that.)

But it wasn't all groovy back in the day. Heck, if it was, we'd still have the Earthquakes, Sounders, and Timbers. We wouldn't need a second NASL.

Something went wrong. Actually, lots of things went wrong. The ambitious expansion. The silly in-fighting. And it certainly didn't help that the owners made it rain like rappers at a strip club. However, one thing in particular seems to have a disturbingly familiar taste.

Yep. It was the s-word. For all the glory and glamour galvanized by the league that brought you the 35-yard offside line and penalty shootouts, players eventually became unhappy. And in 1979, they went on strike for the first three weeks of the season.

Imagine - wait, you don't have to. Here's Noel Lemon of the old, awesomely-named Tulsa Roughnecks to tell us a particular, early-April Saturday night in '79 via Clive Toye's "A Kick in the Grass":

"All of the players were supposed to walk off the field right after the national anthem. Ft. Lauderdale's players did that, I remember. We were playing Rochester in Tulsa and on the far side of the field I had two entire teams, one with our uniforms, one with Rochester's spare set, with their jackets on, covering the uniforms, ready to come in if they were needed. But, they weren't."

Doppelgangers. I love it.

Then there's more from Frank Dell'Apa on the soccer page:

“Following the NASL’s two most successful seasons, the players struck,’’ recalled local attorney Steve Gans. “In 1977 and ’78, NASL teams had a lot of success and were getting TV contracts. The league had momentum and teams like the Tea Men were getting 30,000 [at Foxboro Stadium] going head to head with a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway.

“Then, the first TV game they had on Channel 4, [the Tea Men] used replacement players against the Philadelphia Fury. There was a crowd of 400 rattling around at Veterans Stadium, which tells you the quality wasn’t good.

“As is always the case, Americans need to see a high standard. The Tea Men had players like Mick Flanagan and Gerry Daly on the team and they were calling in freshmen and sophomores in college to take their place. I was at Cornell and I got a call, but I wouldn’t do it.’’

The official attendance at that Fury-Tea Men game on April 14, 1979, was 3,291. Five days later, the Tea Men and Houston Hurricane performed before a crowd of 653 at the Astrodome.

The scary thing is that it isn't hard to picture a replay of this 31 years later. Markets like L.A., Toronto, and Seattle might be able to withstand a brief stoppage. But the rest of the league? New England, Dallas, and New York? I'm not so confident.

Gans went on about the impact of the player strike:

“Of all the things that led to the NASL’s demise, that [strike] was one of the top five things,’’ Gans said. “Not enough people cared about it to keep the momentum going. The critical mass wasn’t there; there weren’t enough roots set down.’’

"The timing [of the suit] was terribly wrong. This was a nascent league. And that inspired enmity and resentment from the owners and is probably making them less agreeable and open to being generous now. Again, that was something that was antithetical to the progression of soccer in this country."

Wow. That line about momentum sounds eerily familiar. Alas, it looks like we won't need a time-displacing hot tub to relive the NASL days.


Anonymous said...

You know, just copying and pasting Steve Gans' "memories" doesn't make them true. You're perpetuating untruths.

BrianTheOC said...

Personally, his recollection of the strike is fairly similiar to other stories (both published and spoken) so I don't question the veracity of his statements. But, this is a democratic blog. By all means, feel free to set the record straight right here.