NASL reunion attracts former players and nostalgic fans
FRISCO, Texas -- Long before Pele, there was Ken Cooper handing out coupons for free beer in shopping malls.
Not to mention the Kiwanis Club luncheons, nightclubs and fourth-grade classrooms he daily worked like a car salesman on a showroom floor. In fact, teammate Roy Turner did sell cars between Dallas Tornado games to make ends meet.
Pele saved the North American Soccer League in 1975 and overexpansion destroyed it by 1985. But first there were players like Cooper canvassing parking lots in orange blazers and pale blue ties, baiting fans with drink vouchers to come watch a sport that held little relevance in this country.
``We were entrepreneurs before the word was ever invented,'' said Cooper, who played goalie for the Tornado in the 1970s. ``You had to do everything, from lining the fields to blowing the balls up to getting people in the stadiums to see us play.''
More than 20 years after the Chicago Sting beat the Toronto Blizzard for the last championship, about 75 former NASL players and coaches will gather near Dallas on Sunday for the league's first significant reunion. About 40 will play in a brief match at the new Pizza Hut Park, two hours before FC Dallas hosts Real Salt Lake.
Global stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Georgio Chinaglia -- who all played for the dominant and wildly popular New York Cosmos -- won't be there. Perhaps the most recognizable player to RSVP was Greg Ryan, who played for the Cosmos and is now the head coach of the U.S. women's national team. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, a pivotal NASL architect who also owned the Tornado, said he would try to attend.
But the NASL's stars, much as they spiked soccer's visibility in the United States in the mid-1970s, were only part of the reason why many fans still feel a sentimental attachment to the defunct league. Among them are Austin's Dave Wasser, who grew up watching the NASL and organized the reunion.
About five years ago, Wasser began collecting NASL game tapes like an obsessive fan of a rock group stockpiling bootleg tapes. At first he bought ads in newspapers, but when he learned that former players had the most tapes, he began contacting them directly.
He also discovered an underground of NASL mourners similarly cultish in their devotion to the league. New Zealand's Grant Beran never saw a game before Wasser shipped him a tape. Now he owns more than 30 tapes and spent more than $2,600 on travel arrangements to attend the reunion.
``I found it was really colorful with all the uniforms and the team names,'' Beran said. ``There was a really glamorous, razzmatazz thing about it. English soccer looked drab and dreary, but this looked really glamorous.''
ABC television thought the same thing. Impressed with the 70,000-plus crowds drawn by the Cosmos, the network signed a two-year contract with the league in 1979. Jim McKay was assigned as the play-by-play commentator and Verne Lundquist was a sideline reporter.
Lundquist said McKay told him before their first game that he had the same feeling about the NASL as when ABC launched its ``Wild World of Sports'' in 1961. But the NASL's debut on national television began with a bad omen - ABC went to a commercial and missed the first goal of its inaugural broadcast.
Lundquist said their games never pulled decent ratings and he believes the league's death knell was when ABC pulled the plug after two seasons. But he understands why fans remain attached to the league.
``I think there was this sense of fun that abounded throughout the league, but the expectation level was so darn high,'' Lundquist said.
Hunt agrees. NASL certainly laid the foundation for its successor, Major League Soccer, and the league dramatically increased the popularity of American youth soccer. But without that framework, Hunt said it was too difficult to consistently draw large audiences.
``The problem it had is that it was way before its time,'' said Hunt, who would meet with his Tornado players after practices to brainstorm marketing strategies. ``There were no grass roots, no youth programs like there are today. ...There's no such thing as an instant major league.''
The NASL lasted 17 seasons before mounting debt and the effects of expansion were too much to overcome. But, players said, it was fun while it lasted.
``The league had personality,'' said Ryan, who was a defender on two championship teams with the Chicago Sting. ``People are attracted to unique personalities. We certainly had plenty of that.''