The rise and demise of the NASL: Pele, Best, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and the lessons MLS learned

Ryan Baldi
Pele and Johan Cruyff with the NASL badge

The NASL lasted only 16 years but those fingerprints can still be seen across America, where Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff and others once thrilled fans.


The North American Soccer League – which began its final season 40 years ago this month – lasted only 16 years before folding, ushering in a 12-year wilderness period in which the world’s game could claim no fully professional league in the United States. But its influence on US soccer endures.

From its embracing of multinational diversity among its players, to its melding of American sports culture with traditional soccer principles, to its knack for generating hype and imbuing its teams with a unique sense of character and identity – the NASL’s fingerprints are marked indelibly on Major League Soccer’s foundations.

And if there is one aspect of MLS’s model borrowed most directly and successfully from the NASL, it is the luring to the league of some of the biggest names in the game to entice fans, legitimise the brand and provide a sprinkling of star power.

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“I was fortunate enough to play for the Los Angeles Aztecs when they brought in the best coach in the world, Rinus Michels, and he brought with him a guy called Johan Cruyff,” says former NASL veteran Chris Dangerfield.

My main memory of the league is being given the opportunity to play with and against so many fantastic players. You could argue some of them were coming towards the end of their careers, but they were still fantastic individual players. I played with George Best in San Jose. I played with Cruyff, Eusebio. And the crowds that you would play in front of, there’d be 75,000 people in New York to watch Pele or Franz Beckenbauer.

Like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now the likes of Lionel Messi and Luiz Suarez in MLS, the superstars the NASL attracted came to the league in the later stages of their careers. The New York Cosmos had to coax Brazilian legend Pele out of retirement to sign for them in 1975. But also like their MLS successors, the NASL’s big-name imports still had plenty left in that tank.

“I played against Cruyff many times,” says former England assistant manager John Gorman, who played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. “He went back to Holland after, and Beckenbauer went back to Germany. People thought you were finished going over there but these were still really good players.”

There was no better indication of how good the ageing stars still were than when a 35-year-old Best scored one of the greatest goals of his illustrious career while playing for the San Jose Earthquakes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1981.

Collecting the ball 40 yards from goal, the Manchester United icon set off on a weaving dribble that took him past four defenders before firing into the net from six yards. It was a moment of typical Best genius, one fuelled by a competitive fire that still burned within him.

“He was pulled back at the halfway line,” says Dangerfield. “He broke away, but the referee called it back. George said to the ref, ‘I was gonna score.’ The ref said, ‘You were never gonna score from there, get over it.’ So he took the quick free kick, went round everybody and as soon as he scored, the first thing he did was run to the referee and say, ‘I told you I’d score.’

We’d have a 30-by-30 grid in training with big goals at either end and teams of three. George would say, ‘I bet you $10 I can get everybody on the ground before I score.’ He’d get the ball and he’d end up with all three outfield players and the goalkeeper sitting down and he’d put the ball in the net.

“The time I spent with George, he was as good as gold,” Dangerfield adds of the notoriously troubled winger. “We went through six months when he wasn’t drinking because they’d just had baby Callum and he was trying his hardest not to go and do that. We’d play darts and he would have a cup of tea. But when you went for a cup of tea, there was always somebody who’d say, ‘I’ve just put a bit of vodka in George’s tea for him so he’s OK.’ It was the outside influences that came in.”

Cruyff, another of Dangerfield’s former teammates, was renowned as one of soccer’s great thinkers and would go on to leave as big a legacy in the coaching world as he did as a player. During his time with the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats, the Dutchman regularly shared his wisdom.

“Cruyff was fantastic after training, working with the young American kids,” Dangerfield says. “If you wanted to go for a coffee with him and, for him, a cigarette – he used to smoke 20 Camels a day – he would talk to you all day long, but there was one caveat: in the end, you had to agree with him. He’s the best player I played with or against.”

Initially, the NASL struggled to find a foothold in the American sports landscape after its inauguration in 1968. An early broadcast deal was scrapped due to poor viewing figures and 12 of the league’s original 17 clubs folded after the first season. But by the mid-70s, after the addition of the New York Cosmos in 1971, backed by Warner Communications, and the club’s subsequent signing of Pele, the NASL became a big-ticket attraction.

“The field was very short, hard astroturf,” Dangerfield, who was among the first wave of English players to make the cross-Atlantic move in 1975, remembers of the rudimentary set-up he found with the Portland Timbers. “It was like a carpet laid on top of concrete. It had a big dip as you went across the field, like a wave in the pitch.

“In the first game, we played Seattle at home and we lost 1-0. There were probably 1,500 fans in the stadium. Everybody was going, ‘What have we set ourselves up for here?’.

Fast forward to the last few games of the season, it was a complete 180. People were lining up overnight to buy tickets. The team had to bring in extra bleacher seats from the local high school so more people could get into the stadium. People were watching from rooftops of buildings across the road so they could see into the stadium. The media was going crazy.

“It was really hot, but we loved it,” Gorman remembers of leaving Tottenham to join the Rowdies in 1979. “We’d train with our shirts off. Even the coach, Keith Peacock, used to have his shirt off. Only the manager, Gordon Jago, would have a shirt on.

“We used to play in the same stadium as the Buccaneers and we used to get bigger crowds than they did. Rodney Marsh was our biggest star. My first home game was against New York Cosmos and we beat them 3-2. Pele was there but he’d just retired. They had Carlos Alberto, Rudi Kroll, Franz Beckenbauer. They had an amazing team.

The travelling was hard. You’d play three games in a trip. You’d play in Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton, for example. I remember in Edmonton there were huge mosquitos – you should’ve seen the size of them!

Pele’s Cosmos debut was broadcast by CBS to a national audience of over 10 million. The NASL was beginning to receive regular coverage from major sports publications and 75,000 fans packed into Giants Stadium to watch the Cosmos beat the Rowdies 3-1 in the 1978 Soccer Bowl – the NASL equivalent of the MLS Cup.

Amid this rise in popularity, the NASL leaned into razzmatazz and spectacle, encouraging teams to enlist cheerleaders and put on half-time shows. There was no greater example of the league’s penchant for publicity-baiting than when, with the final pick of the 1976 draft, the Chicago Sting selected Marilyn Lange, Playboy’s reigning Playmate of the Year.

“I wouldn’t want to play against the guys the Sting play,” Lange said. “They’re too rough.”

“We had half-time shows like you see at the Super Bowl,” Gorman remembers. “The Eagles were on at half-time once. The crowd was packed in before the match. It was a July 4 game. There were always things like that. It wasn’t just football; it was a big event.”

By the early 1980s, though, the NASL bubble didn’t burst, rather it slowly began to shrivel. With an economic recession, the addition of an unsustainable number of expansion franchises, a dispute with the players’ union and a failure to secure a national broadcast deal after a contract with ABC ended in 1981 all cited as contributing factors, the league shuttered after the 1984 season.

“The league had its ups and downs,” Dangerfield says. “That was down to ownership coming into the league and not being prepared for what it would take to be successful. Everybody was up against the New York Cosmos, who had endless buckets of money. They set the standard. Because they were so successful and brought in the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer, other teams tried to compete with them.”

“The NASL could have been 10 times bigger than MLS is now if they’d have gotten the right TV contract,” Gorman suggests. “The NASL wanted to get an ABC contract, which would have been like Sky with the Premier League, where they pumped a lot of money in.

Also, when I came, you had to play three American players. The rest could be foreigners. They then decided to go the opposite way and say only three foreign players were allowed. That’s what ruined it, for me. The American fans liked to see all the foreign stars coming over.

And they still do. Just one of many lessons MLS learned from the rise and demise of the NASL.

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