Friday, March 1, 2013

Remembering the NASL

Tomorrow, the 18th season of MLS, Major League Soccer begins.  My "local club," the New York Red Bulls -- known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars from the league's founding in 1996 until 2004 -- open the season on Sunday night, at 7:30 Eastern Time (4:30 local), away to the Portland Timbers in Oregon.

MLS has now lasted as long as the last major attempt to make soccer "major League" in North America.  The North American Soccer League lasted from 1967 to 1984.  (A league of that name is now North America's "second division.") Essentially, it was a merger of 2 leagues that began play in 1967, trying to ride the wave of interest brought about by England's home-soil World Cup win the year before, and the subsequent documentary about it, Goal!

The United Soccer Association had teams that ran a summer schedule in between the European winter seasons, importing entire teams from elsewhere.  From England, Wolverhampton Wanderers became the Los Angeles Wolves, Sunderland became the Vancouver Royal Canadians, and Stoke City (then featuring England World Cup heroes Gordon Banks and George Eastham, and not yet the thugs they've become under current manager Tony Pulis) became the Cleveland Stokers.  From Scotland, Aberdeen became the Washington Whips, Hibernian (a.k.a. Hibs) became Toronty City, and Dundee United became the Dallas Tornado.  From Ireland, Shamrock Rovers became the Boston Rovers.  From Northern Ireland, Glentoran became the Detroit Cougars.  From the Netherlands, The Hague's ADO Den Haag became the San Francisco Golden Gales.  From Italy, Cagliari (featuring the great Gigi Riva) became the Chicago Mustangs. From Brazil, Bangu became the Houston Stars.  And from Uruguay, Cerro became the New York Skyliners.

Nearly every USA team had a well-known owner.  New York was owned by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, who was paying most of its attention at the time to building the new Garden on top of Penn Station.

Boston was owned by Weston Adams, owner of the Boston Bruins.  Chicago was owned by Arthur Allyn, who owned the White Sox.  Cleveland was owned by Vernon Stouffer and Gabe Paul of the Indians.  Dallas was owned by Lamar Hunt, of the Dallas Hunt oil family, and Lamar also owned the Kansas City Chiefs and had founded the AFL.  Detroit was owned by William Clay Ford, of the Detroit Ford auto family, and William also owned the Lions (and still does).  Houston was owned by Roy Hofheinz, the federal Judge and former Mayor who owned the Astros.  Los Angeles was owned by Jack Kent Cooke, who then owned the Lakers and Kings and was building the Forum for them, well before he sold it all and bought the Washington Redskins.  San Francisco was owned by George Fleharty, who ran the Ice Follies.  Toronto was owned by Steve Stavro, a Maple Leafs executive.  Vancouver was owned by a Canadian Army general, E.G. Eakins.

And Washington was owned by Earl Foreman, who owned various franchises over the course of his career, including the nearby Baltimore Bullets in the NBA and the Washington Caps in the ABA, who became the Virginia Squires, and it was Foreman who was the first man to sign Julius Erving to a pro contract and then sold him to the New York Nets.

In spite of these magnates, the USA did not do well.  They couldn't sell out the facilities, as nearly every team played in an MLB or an NFL stadium.  The Skyliners drew an average of 8,766 to the original Yankee Stadium, which in its pre-renovation configuration had 67,224 seats.

The Championship Game drew only 17,842 to the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum.  Los Angeles/Wolves won the Western Division, and Washington/Aberdeen the Eastern, and faced each other for the title.  L.A. led 3-2 going into the 89th minute, but Frank Munro -- who, ironically, would later star for Wolves in England -- scored to send the game to extra time.  Derek Dougan (later to become a much bigger star for Wolves) seemed to clinch it in the 113th, but in the 120th and last minute of regular time, Munro scored again.  There were no ties in this league, so it looked like the game would go to more extra time.  But in stoppage time, in the 122nd minute, Ally Shewan scored an own goal, and L.A. won, 6-5.  (It didn't seem to bother Shewan much: He continued to play for Aberdeen and is a member of their Hall of Fame.)

The othre league was the National Professional Soccer League.  Unlike the USA, the NPSL had mainly North American players.  In most cases, the owners were owners of other local teams: The Atlanta Chiefs by the Braves' William Bartholomay, the Baltimore Bays by the Orioles' Jerry Hoffberger, the Los Angeles Toros by the Rams' Dan Reeves (no relation to the Cowboys running back of the time who became a successful coach), the St. Louis Stars by Bill Bidwill of the football Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Phantoms by Peter Block and Richard George of the Penguins, and the Philadelphia Spartans by John Rooney, a son of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney.  There were also the New York Generals, owned by RKO, which owned WOR-Channel 9 (now WWOR), and thus had an easy time getting TV rights; the Chicago Spurs, named for London's Tottenham Hotspur, who were very successful at the time (this was a long time ago);  the Toronto Falcons, and the Oakland Clippers, who ended up winning the title.

Not much could be said for the New York Generals.  Like the Skyliners, they couldn't sell out the old Garden, with its 18,496 seats, let alone the old Yankee Stadium, with 67,224.  But they had 2 players whose names you should know.  Cesar Luis Menotti played for a number of clubs in Argentina, including Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors, and in 1978 would manage his country to win the World Cup on home soil.  And Gordon Bradley, a midfielder from Sunderland, would play in New York again.

The NPSL had the advantage of not taking entire teams from elsewhere, teams that were emotionally committed to other places on other continents.  So they could get the jump on the USA and start earlier, on April 16.  But CBS didn't really know what they were doing on their TV broadcasts.  Jack Whitaker (later on ABC) didn't know soccer, and his color commentator, former Tottenham captain Danny Blanchflower, went out of his way to say that the standard of play was poor.  In addition, referees were told to call fouls when there weren't any, so play could be stopped long enough to put in TV commercials, as opposed to the running clock "football matches" usually have.

There was also the issue of each league putting a team not just in one city, but in some cases both in one stadium.  Both leagues' New York teams played at Yankee Stadium, both L.A. teams played at the Coliseum, and both Toronto teams played at old Varsity Stadium rather than the new Exhibition Stadium.  In addition, each league had a Chicago team and a Toronto team -- this at a time when Toronto did not have teams in either MLB or the NBA; indeed, no foreign teams would enter any U.S.-based league until the Montreal Expos began MLB play in 1969.  (True, the NHL had the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, but it was still based in Toronto, not New York like today.)


Clearly, having 2 leagues wasn't working, so they merged to form the NASL.  But there are certain things that make American sports fans different from the rest of the world.  For one thing, we don't like ties.  So a penalty shootout was instituted, and additional "team points" in the standings were given depending on how many goals were scored.  A college draft was instituted, which solved the problem of how to stock the teams.

Unfortunately, the need for attention clashed with the need for competitiveness.  As a result, the NASL made the mistake that the Mets had already made in 1962, and that the New Jersey Devils would make 20 years after that: Get big names that the locals would already know.  Since it wasn't really possible to get big-name soccer players who had already played in the respective cities -- the average age of the best-known U.S. soccer team to date, the 1950 team that shocked England in the World Cup, was 43, and the man who scored the only goal, Joe Gaetjens, was already dead -- this meant going after stars from the British leagues, and from the popular national sides of the era: 1970 Champions Brazil and runners-up Italy, and 1974 Champions West Germany and runners-up the Netherlands.

In some cases, this worked.  The New York Cosmos got the greatest of them all, Pele. They also got Pele's Brazil and Santos teammate, Germany and Bayern Munich legend Franz Beckenbauer, Netherlands and Ajax Amsterdam stars Johan Neeskens and Wim Suurbier, Dennis Tueart of Manchester City, and striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who led Lazio to its first Italian title in 1974.  (They've only won one other scudetto, or shield, in 2000.) They also got Rick Davis (though, like Rick Nelson, most people called him "Ricky"), probably the best American player of the time.

Beckenbauer's club and country teammate Gerd Muller had enough left to star for 3 years with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.  From PSV Eindhoven's 1978 Dutch titlists and UEFA Cup winners, goalie Jan van Beveren gave his all for Fort Lauderdale and then the Dallas Sidekicks, and remained in Texas to coach for the rest of his life.  In 1979, the Los Angeles Aztecs signed the greatest Dutch player, maybe the greatest European player, of all time, Ajax and Barcelona wizard Johan Cruyff; a year later, he began a 3-year stint with the Washington Diplomats.  (He also played 2 exhibition games, or "friendlies," with the Cosmos).

The problem was, just as the nascent Mets got Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, and eventually Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn in the waning days of their career, most of the stars in the NASL were well past their prime:

* Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, heroes of West Ham's 1964 FA Cup and 1965 Cup Winners' Cup, and England's 1966 World Cup, were well past it when they played for the Seattle Sounders.  And while men from England would not have been fazed by the gray "sky" of the Kingdome roof, that awful, pale green, hard-as-a-rock artificial turf couldn't have been good for them.  Harry Redknapp, while not yet in the starting XI by the time the Hammers won those cups, did play 7 years for them, and both closed his playing career and started his coaching career with the Sounders.

* Also from the '66 England team, and Everton's 1970 League Champions, Alan Ball played for the Philadelphia Fury and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

* Also from the '66 England team, and Stoke City's 1972 League Cup winners, goalkeeper Gordon Banks had played with Stoke as the Cleveland Stokers in 1967, and then tried to revive his career after a 1972 car crash blinded him in one eye, and he played for the Strikers in 1977 and '78, before hanging up his boots (which is what they call cleats in English soccer).

* From Benfica of Lisbon, winners of the 1962 European Cup, and the Portugal team that finished 3rd in the '66 World Cup behind England and West Germany, the legendary Eusebio played in 1975 with the Boston Minutemen, 1976 with the Toronto Metros, 1977 with the Las Vegas Quicksilvers, and 4 games in 1978 with the New Jersey Americans, who played at Memorial Stadium in New Brunswick, just 8 miles from the house where I grew up, and I never knew this all-time legend was that close to me, until 2011.

* From Everton's 1963 League Champions and 1966 FA Cup winners, Jimmy Gabriel played 5 seasons, none spectacular, with Seattle, including with Moore and Hurst.

* From Queens Park Rangers' 1967 League Cup winners, Rodney Marsh played the last 3 seasons of his career with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.  Which sounds less like the name of a soccer team, and more like the name of a hooligan firm supporting it.

* From Tottenham's 1967 FA Cup winners, Mike England (who, despite his name, was from Wales) and Jimmy Robertson, wound down with Seattle, including playing with Moore, Hurst, Gabriel and Redknapp.  (England, unlike Robertson, stayed with Spurs long enough to win the 1971 and '73 League Cup and the 1972 UEFA Cup.)

* From Manchester United's 1967 League Champions and 1968 European Cup winners, George Best played for the Los Angeles Aztecs from 1976 to '78, the Strikers in '78 and '79, and the San Jose Earthquakes from '80 to '82.  Also from that Man U team, Brian Kidd played for the Atlanta Chiefs and the Strikers (including the Strikers' last season, in Minnesota).

* From Manchester City's 1968 League Champions, 1969 FA Cup, and 1970 Cup Winners' Cup, Colin Bell played with San Jose as Best's teammate in 1980.  Bell and Best, together at last... although at 34 Bell had nothing left (5 games, no goals) and at the same age Best had not much more (26 games, 8 goals, although he pumped in 13 more the next year).  Debuting with City in '70 was Willie Donachie, and follwoing 2 League Cup Finals with them he played with the Portland Timbers in 1982.

* From Leeds United's 1969 and '74 League Champions and 1972 FA Cup winners, Peter Lorimer played for the Toronto Blizzard, Johnny Giles with Ball in Philly, and David Harvey with Ball in Vancouver.

* From Chelsea's 1970 FA Cup and 1971 Cup Winners' Cup teams, Peter Osgood played with Ball and Giles in Philly, Charlie Cooke with Best (but not Cruyff) in the Los Angeles area for the Aztecs and the Anaheim-based California Surf, Peter Bonetti for the St. Louis Stars, and Alan Hudson for Seattle (though after Moore and Hurst were gone).

* From Huddersfield Town's 1970 Second Division Champions, Frank Worthington played for Philly, before returning to England and playing for the Southampton team that very nearly beat out Liverpool for the 1984 League title.

* From Arsenal's 1971 League and FA Cup "Double," Charlie George played for the Minnesota Kicks, future manager George Graham for the Surf (but not at the same time as his former Chelsea teammate Cooke), Bob McNab for the San Antonio Thunder (where he was a teammate of Bobby Moore in 1976) and in Vancouver, Peter Simpson for the New England Tea Men.  Ball played for Arsenal, starting the next season, for 5 years, before moving on to the NASL.  (The Tea Men, named in honor of the Boston Tea Party, shared Foxboro Stadium with the New England Patriots.  Kind of odd that Englishmen would play for a team with that connotation.  Even worse, in 1980 the club went broke, and moved to North Florida.  "New England Tea Men" made a little sense; "Jacksonville Tea Men" made none.)

* From Derby County's 1972 and '75 League titlists, Alan Hinton played for the Dallas Tornado alongside Serbian star Ilija Mitic.  He, Colin Todd and Kevin Hector played for Vancouver.  Archie Gemmill, who would later follow Derby manager Brian Clough to Nottingham Forest and win the League in 1978 and the European Cup in '79 and '80, played the 1982 season for the Jacksonville Tea Men.  (I can type it as many times as I want, it will still look stupid.) Roger Davies was an exception: He had plenty left after leaving Derby, playing for the Tulsa Roughnecks, winning the NASL's Most Valuable Player award with Seattle in 1980, and also playing the '83 season with the Strikers.  Bruce Rioch arrived at Derby in time for the '75 title, and played 2 years for Seattle.  Charlie George also played for Derby, between Arsenal and Minnesota, but arrived after the '75 title.

* From Wolverhampton's 1972 UEFA Cup runners-up and 1974 League Cup winners, Captain Mike Bailey played for Minnesota alongside Charlie George; Derek Wagstaff, like the aforementioned Derek Dougan, had played for Wolves in Los Angeles and went on loan to Kansas City in 1969; and Kenny Hibbitt was on loan to Seattle in 1982.

* From Liverpool's 1973, '76, '77, '79 and '80 League Champions, their 1974 FA Cup, their 1973 and '76 UEFA Cups, and their 1977, '78 and '81 European Cups, Steve Heighway played for Minnesota, arriving after Liverpool's '81 European Cup, after they had already released Charlie George, who, like Heighway, had scored in extra time of the '71 FA Cup Final.

* From Legia Warsaw and the Poland team that knocked England out of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, and then finished 3rd in that World Cup behind West Germany and the Netherlands, Kazimierz "Kaz" Deyna played for the San Diego Sockers.

The Vancouver Whitecaps seemed to specialize in past-their-prime legends: Ball, Lorimer, Harvey, McNab, Hinton, Todd, Hector, Phil Parkes, Frans Thijssen, David Watson

There were some notable examples of "footballers" playing in the NASL before rising to stardom in British leagues:

* Unlike Wagstaffe, Derek Dougan had quite a bit left when he arrived in the U.S.  He had already made his name at Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Peterborough before playing with Wolves in Los Angeles and on loan with Kansas City, before reaching his peak with Wolverhampton.

* Graeme Souness played 10 games for Montreal Olympique in 1972, while on loan from Tottenham (for whom he never played a senior match but was on their 1969 team that won the FA Youth Cup), before heading back, winning the Second Division with Middlesbrough in 1974, 5 First Division titles with Liverpool between 1979 and '84, and the European Cup in '78, '81 and '84.  Later, he led Glasgow Rangers to 3 Scottish titles as player-manager, before going back to Liverpool as manager.  The joke among Liverpool fans, who hate Manchester United, is that, while United boss Alex Ferguson said he had achieved his goal of  "knocking Liverpool off their perch," it was really Souey who did that, through poor managing.

* Brian Talbot played for Ipswich Town, who loaned him to the Toronto Metros in 1971 and '72.  He returned to Ipswich, and helped them win the FA Cup in 1978, defeating Arsenal in the Final.  Arsenal then bought him, and he helped them win the Cup in 1979, making him the first man to win back-to-back FA Cups for different teams.

* Trevor Francis was a high-scoring but frustrated striker for Birmingham City, but was loaned to the Detroit Express.  He helped them win a division title in 1978, and then caught Clough's attention: Ol' Big 'Ead signed him for defending League Champions Forest, and he helped them win their 1979 and '80 European Cups, later starring for Sampdoria in Italy, Rangers in Scotland and Sheffield Wednesday in England.

* Peter Beardsley played for Carlisle United before going to Vancouver, and later starred for Newcastle and both major Merseyside teams, Liverpool and Everton.

* And Bruce Grobbelaar, probably the greatest player ever to come from the nation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), washed out with a few South African clubs, before gaining notice in goal for Vancouver, leading to Liverpool signing him, and he starred for them in their greatest period, including with Souness as teammate at the beginning and as manager at the end.


But the NASL didn't know what it was doing.  Like so many other startup leagues -- the early AFL, the ABA, the WHA, the WFL, the USFL and the XFL -- league and team management was such that the right hand (or should that be foot?) didn't know what the left one was doing.  Clubs frequently moved because they were short on cash, and winning titles didn't seem to matter.

Typical of this was its signature franchise, the New York Cosmos.  They didn't even start until 1971, and played that season at the old Yankee Stadium, with an average attendance of 4,517 -- meaning 63,000 empty seats.  They played 1972 and '73 at Hofstra Stadium, across the Jericho Turnpike from the Nassau Coliseum, and 1974 at Downing Stadium on Randall's Island in the East River.  Attendance didn't get noticeably better.

They opened the vault for Pele in 1975, and attendance picked up a little.  But Downing Stadium was a crumbling relic of Franklin Roosevelt's Works Project Administration, built in 1936 and not improved since -- unless you count getting the lights from Ebbets Field in 1960, which remained in place when Downing was torn down in 2002 to make way for the new Icahn Stadium.  It only seated 22,000, and even with Pele, they could only half-fill it.  The field was in such bad shape that there were dirt spots where there should have been grass, and the spots were painted green.  Pele complained about the hardness of the surface.  The Cosmos knew they had to get a new place to play, or else the greatest player in the history of their sport would, himself, be history -- and so would the club, in all likelihood.  They couldn't use Yankee Stadium because it was being renovated, and as a result both New York baseball teams and both New York football teams were using Shea Stadium in 1975, so there was no room for on the schedule for the Cosmos.

When Yankee Stadium reopened in 1976 after its renovation, the Cosmos moved back, and attendance picked up.  So while the House That Ruth Built was home to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Frank Gifford and Sam Huff -- and would be to Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter -- it was also, oh so briefly, home to Pele, who appeared in a Pepsi ad on the inner back page of the 1978 Yankee Yearbook.

Giants Stadium opened at the Meadowlands in 1976, too late for the NASL season of that calendar year, but the Cosmos came in for 1977, and finally, they began to sell seats.  The aforementioned Gordon Bradley, who had played for the Cosmos and managed them, returned to manage them, and, having already won the League title in 1972, won it again in '77.  In that year's playoffs, they played the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and drew a crowd of 77,691, a sellout and still the largest crowd ever to attend a club soccer game in North America.  (Unless you count Mexico as "North America," as the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City has topped that many times.)

Pele then retired, and his testimonial match, against his former club Santos, drew another sellout.  He played a half for each club, scoring for the Cosmos in the first half and nearly doing so for Santos in the second, and the Cosmos won, 2-1.  President Jimmy Carter attended and gave a speech.  Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali, who loved to tell people, "I am the greatest of ALL TIME!" was also there, and had to admit, "Now I understand: He is greater than me."

Despite Pele's retirement, the Cosmos stayed at the top, winning the title again in 1978, '80 and '82.  The biggest reason was Giorgio Chinaglia, the hot-tempered Italian striker.  But while Giorgio was the Cosmos' greatest asset, he was also their downfall.  He got in good with Steve Ross, who ran the club under the banner of Global Soccer, Inc. for owners Warner Communications.  Warner was trying to fight off a hostile takeover from Rupert Murdoch (yes, that Rupert Murdoch), and as a result, sold off Global Soccer... to Chinaglia.  In other words, Chinaglia was player, owner, and string-puller for whoever he wanted as owner.  And as owner, Chinaglia didn't know what the hell he was doing.  The club missed the Playoffs in 1984, and he had to fold them.  The NASL itself folded soon after, unable to survive without a New York franchise.

The Major Indoor Soccer League had been doing well, with Steve Zungul starring for the New York Arrows at the Nassau Coliseum, and Julie Veee (yes, 3 E's, that's not a typo) for the San Diego Sockers.  But it wasn't the same game, as a plastic pitch that was small enough to be laid over a hockey rink, with hockey boards to keep the ball from going out of bounds so easily, led to higher-scoring games; essentially, the MISL was a cross between soccer and pinball.  Some people loved it, but soccer purists hated it, and the target audience was never going to see that era's big stars -- France's Michel Platini, Brazil's Socrates, Italy's Paolo Rossi -- playing in the MISL.

But a generation of kids from Kearny, New Jersey, who had grown up watching the Cosmos as their "local club" would revive American soccer, playing several years for the U.S. national team and getting it to the 1990 World Cup, its first in 40 years.  Kearny produced  goalie Tony Meola, midfielder John Harkes, Uruguayan-born midfielder Tab Ramos, and midfielder Claudio Reyna, although unlike those 3 graduates of Kearny High School he played nearby for St. Benedict's Prep of Newark.  Defender Mike Windischmann was born in Germany but grew up in New York City, and defender Peter Vermes was from Delran in South Jersey and played for Rutgers.

This led to the U.S. getting to host the 1994 World Cup, at legendary American football stadiums like the Meadowlands, Soldier Field in Chicago, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, Foxboro outside Boston, Stanford outside San Francisco, the Silverdome outside Detroit, the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, and the Final at the Rose Bowl outside Los Angeles. The U.S. advanced to the knockout round before losing to eventual winners Brazil.  With so many Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans in the New York Tri-State Area, Giants Stadium was a natural to host the Group Stage match between Italy and the Republic of Ireland, which brought in 75,338 fans and was won 1-0 on a goal by Liverpool star Ray Houghton (by ten playing for Aston Villa).

The tournament featured Brazil's Romario, Dunga and Bebeto; Italy's Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio; Germany's Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann, now the U.S. national team manager; Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta (but not Diego Maradona, banned due to a failed durg test); Irleand and Liverpool stars Houghton and John Aldridge; Sweden's Henrik Larsson, Kennet Andersson and Martin Dahlin; Romania's Michel Preud'homme and Gheorghe Hagi; surprise team Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov; Russia's Oleg Salenko; Spain's Fernando Hierro and Josep "Pep" Guardiola; Cameroon's Roger Milla; Colombia's Andres Escobar, whose own goal guaranteed the U.S. would advance and led to his murder when he returned home; and the Netherlands' Dennis Bergkamp, later to star for Arsenal.  (England did not qualify -- none of the British Isles "Home Nations" did, for the first time since before 1950.)

It was the best-attended and most-profitable World Cup ever staged, and it still is.  It made MLS financially and promotionally possible.  It took a few years for some of MLS' clubs to get out of American-football-specific stadiums that were really bad for soccer atmopshere, including Giants Stadium; but once they did, it got going.  The Red Bulls, Washington's DC United, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New England Revolution, the Philadelphia Union, the Columbus Crew, Sporting Kansas City, the Colorado Rapids, and clubs taking the old names of the San Jose Earthquakes, the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps have been resounding successes.  Canada has gotten into it with the 'Caps, the Montreal Impact, and Toronto FC.

MLS has lasted this long because the people behind the league and its individual clubs have learned from the mistakes of the NASL.  True, MLS has adopted the NASL pattern of "This is where soccer legends come to die," bringing in aging stars like Matthaus (a 16-game, no-goals flop with the MetroStars in 2000), Manchester United's David Beckham (LA), Arsenal's Thierry Henry (New York) and Freddie Ljungberg (Seattle, Chicago Fire), Brazil and Real Betis' Denilson (FC Dallas, not to be confused with the Arsenal flop of the same name), Mexico and Barcelona's Rafa Marquez (New York), and Tottenham's Robbie Keane (LA).

But it's also been a springboard for American players to star, to make their places on the national team, and to play in Europe: Landon Donovan (LA, Everton), Tim Howard (New York, Manchester United and Everton), DaMarcus Beasley (Chicgo, PSV Eindhoven), Clint Dempsey (New England, Fulham and now Tottenham), and Michael Bradley (New York, currently with AS Roma in Italy).

Tomorrow, MLS begins its 18th season -- as many as the NASL played (or 1 more, if you don't count that first season when it was technically 2 leagues, not 1).  And it's in better shape than the NASL ever was.

But we shouldn't forget the NASL.  Without it, MLS wouldn't have been possible.  And the fans know this, bringing the passion: The Empire Supporters Club here in Jerse, the Sons of Ben in Philly (named for Franklin), the Screaming Eagles in D.C., the Midnight Riders in New England, Section 8 Chicago, Centennial 38 in Colorado, the L.A. Riot Squad, the 1906 Ultras in San Jose, the Emerald City Supporters in Seattle, U-Sector in Toronto.  These people know and love the game, and that wouldn't have happened if the NASL hadn't happened first.

Who knows, if the NASL had been able to generate fans like that, it might have survived, and I would still be a Cosmos fan -- instead of waiting for the new group trying to bring the Cosmos back to get their act together and become the kind of rivals for the Red Bulls that "the DC Scum," Philly and New England are standing in as.

Forza Metro! Come on you Boys in White!

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