Feb 5, 2018
The history of professional soccer in the United States is richer and far more complex than today’s generation of Major League Soccer fans might realize. Multiple ethnically-infused pro leagues existed as far back as the early 1900s – but when the American Soccer Association collapsed in Depression-Era 1933, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s when the next serious attempt to bring full-fledged, top-flight Division One professional soccer to US shores was pursued in earnest.
In 1966, suddenly and incredibly, no fewer than three separate groups of well-heeled American sports businessmen coalesced around the same idea, each attempting to draft off of attention-generating events like entrepreneur Bill Cox’s International Soccer League tournaments and NBC’s surprisingly high-rated, near-live national TV broadcast of the World Cup Final from England.
According to research librarian (and unwitting soccer historian) Dennis Seese (The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association), it was a tumultuous revival that ultimately yielded two hastily-assembled competing leagues the following year – the FIFA-sanctioned United Soccer Association (featuring whole-cloth international clubs pseudonymously representing 12 American cities), and the “outlaw” National Professional Soccer League (boasting a national CBS television contract and a one-month-earlier start for its ten teams) – that rushed to beat each other to the American public with their pro versions of the “world’s game.”
What resulted was near-disaster: sparse crowds, dubious refereeing, anemic ratings, and a shotgun post-season merger to form a successor North American Soccer League in 1968 – which, despite its inherited broadcast TV coverage and official international governing body approval, sputtered mightily itself. By the end of the merged NASL’s first season, only five teams remained – and the future of American professional soccer was very much in doubt.