The Game of Musical Chairs that Preceded the NASL

Three years ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation went through a process involving sanctioning of the establishment of a professional league, in this case a first-division women’s league. For a time, this threatened to be a very divisive process, with competing bids and the possibility of more than one league attempting to get off the ground. Fortunately, a solution was reached that appeared to be acceptable to all involved. This was not the first time that such a situation has arisen, however, and things have not always gone as smoothly.

The Federation has been faced with competing bids for a first-division pro league before. The most recent case happened in 1993, and the resolution of it was a relatively unturbulent one, at least at the time of the USSF decision on the matter (what turbulence there was came later in the form of a players association lawsuit). Major League Soccer was voted the winner over two other bidders in a competition for the right to begin a first-division men’s pro league. However, the 1993 events weren’t the case that the federation was remembering unhappily before the most recent competition was amicably resolved. The one that the 2000 events harkened back to took place in the 1960s and was part of the process that eventually led to the start of the North American Soccer League in 1968.

The NASL arose out of a soccer fever that overtook North America, or a part of it, in the mid-1960s. A significant number of those whom it overtook were sports promoters who thought they saw a moneymaking opportunity as a result of the increased interest in soccer shown in the United States, particularly in New York, in the early 1960s. These efforts began before the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany, so they can’t be said to have resulted entirely from that game. One group of bidders announced in May 1966 its intention to begin play in 1967, and all three bidding groups appeared at the USSFA’s annual meeting in San Francisco in June 1966. Still, the televising of the 1966 World Cup final in the United States unquestionably added some momentum to the efforts. It seems likely that there were many after seeing their first soccer game on that July 1966 Saturday when England beat West Germany, 4-2, who thought this was a typical soccer game, that this sort of dramatic, end-to-end, six-goals action took place every day.

As a result of this upsurge of interest, the U.S. Soccer Football Association (USSFA) and the Canadian Soccer Football Association (CSFA) were besieged in 1966 by bidders seeking to get their sanction for professional leagues to begin the following year. Sanction from those two organizations was required because they were their countries’ links to FIFA, and connection with the world body was needed in order for a league to operate as part of the world soccer community rather than as an outlaw.

The USSFA and CSFA did not wish to have to sanction all of the three bidding groups. They knew that the market for professional soccer in North America was not limitless, that there was not enough potential business to be divided up this way. Further complicating the matter was the fact that the USSFA had long granted exclusive rights to operate a pro league on the East Coast to the American Soccer League, which was not pleased by the appearance of these competitors.

The question of the size of the potential market for professional soccer in the United States didn’t seem to concern the promoters of the idea very much, or at least not as much as it should have. True, reaction to the World Cup final had been favorable, but on the strength of that one game alone, large numbers of American fans were not about to rush out and buy season tickets the way they did for the more traditional sports.

Another aspect that was misunderstood by the entrepreneurs, and misled them, concerned the ethnic groups involved in American soccer. Here, the businessmen reasoned, was a ready-made market, just waiting to be cultivated. Surely people of English, Scottish, German, Italian, Greek, Ukrainian and other national origins would welcome such a competition and would rush to support their local teams.

Unfortunately for the investors, the ethnic soccer fan was very discriminating, which many of the investors were not. Many of those investors didn’t know first-rate soccer from fourth-rate. This potential ethnic market did, however, and was ready to turn up its collective nose at the product that the investors thought it would welcome. Additionally overlooked by the investors was the fact that many ethnic soccer fans in North America were interested in players or teams only from their own homelands. They were not going to be turned away from following their own local ethnic semi-pro teams, as well as following the pro soccer doings in their homelands across the ocean, by some ersatz pro collection that the American investors were offering them.

One of the most striking examples of the lack of understanding of soccer by some of the organizers came in February 1967 in a statement by a pay-TV executive who was one of the leaders of a prospective New York team. “We regret not having international sanction, which would be necessary for competing in the World Cup matches,” he said. A man deeply involved in an attempt to organize a professional soccer league did not even know that the World Cup was for national teams, not clubs.

A low level of knowledge of the sport that they were dealing with was not necessarily considered a drawback, however. In January 1967, when Dick Walsh was introduced as the commissioner of the North American Soccer League (soon to be renamed the United Soccer Association in order to avoid confusion with the other league), he had no hesitation about noting that “I don’t know the difference between a soccer ball and a billiard ball.” He almost seemed proud of this fact.

If the investors didn’t understand their potential audience, the USSFA and the CSFA understood it. The two organizations had decided in 1966 that they would sanction only one of the three groups applying for permission to form a coast-to-coast professional league; that one league was all the market would bear. In return for their approval, the two national associations demanded a franchise fee of $50,000 from each club, plus four percent of the gate receipts and 10 percent of the television revenue.

At that USSFA meeting in San Francisco in June 1966, only one of the three competing groups, then known as the North American Soccer League, had agreed to the payments, and it received the nod from the USSFA, although the sanction agreement was not officially signed for another six months. The other two groups refused to fold, however. Instead, they merged and decided to go ahead without sanction, thus putting themselves outside of all “organized” soccer in the world. This group formed the National Professional Soccer League – which has no connection to the recent indoor league of the same name — knowing that its teams and its players would be banned by FIFA from having any contact with clubs or organizations sanctioned by the USSFA, the CSFA or any other national federation allied with FIFA. In short, the USFA and CSFA failed in their efforts to limit the number of pro leagues trying to squeeze into what they felt was a limited market.

The United Soccer Association started play in 1967 with a hastily assembled league composed of European and South American pro clubs in their offseasons, very much like the teams in the International Soccer League that had played in New York in the early 1960s. The difference was that instead of representing themselves, they represented American cities. England’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, for example, became the Los Angeles Wolves for a few months.

Players knew that signing with the unsanctioned NPSL could result in their being banned from the sport worldwide by FIFA. The NPSL did have two major advantages, however. First, it had a national television contract, which the USA did not. CBS had announced in October 1966 that it had signed a long-term contract with the NPSL for rights to televise the league’s games. Second, it wasn’t limited in its schedule by the offseason window of the foreign clubs’ seasons. While the sanctioned USA was able to play only seven weeks, from May to July, the unsanctioned NPSL played three times as long, from April to September.

Along the route toward the two leagues’ 1967 seasons, there were a series of merger attempts between the two leagues, each of which was declared by involved parties to be promising, but each of which eventually fell through.

On Sept. 20, 1966, Joe Barriskill, secretary of the USSFA, expressed hope after a meeting between the presidents of the rival groups. “They had a full discussion and talked of getting together,” Barriskill said. He added that both leagues expected to vote on the merger suggestion the following week.

It never happened.

In December 1966, it was reported that FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous, who was known to favor sanctioning of both leagues, was ready to step into the fray.

“A giant step forward could be taken at a series of meetings this week in New York and Houston,” the New York Times reported, adding that Rous was expected at the New York meeting.

“Soccer’s big-time professional debut has been stalled by a feud between two new, well-heeled leagues,” the Times said. “Still, indications were yesterday that an agreement – perhaps a merger– was near.”

The upshot of the meetings was that the USSFA confirmed its earlier sanctioning of the USA (then still called the NASL) and not the NPSL, and the two leagues remained unmerged.

On March 9, 1967, at the same time that it announced that it was changing its name to United Soccer Association, the until-then-NASL announced the members of a committee to explore the possibility of a peace treaty with the other league.

The chances of peace seemed even greater on March 27, 1967, when it was reported in Pittsburgh that the NPSL and the USA had been discussing a possible merger. “In a statement issued here today,” the New York Times said, “the commissioners of the new leagues said they had been conducting ‘a dialogue on mutual problems’ for some time”.

USA commissioner Walsh was reported as saying that the NPSL “approached us to discuss a merger. The door has always been open. The meetings have been going on once a month for the last 90 days and there was progress.”

Again, no merger happened, but merger talk continued during the leagues’ inaugural seasons. In June, USSFA president Frank Woods announced that immediate steps would be taken to bring the NPSL into organized — rather than outlaw — soccer. The New York Times reported that “It is expected that the governing body [the USSFA] will soon arrange a meeting between NPSL representatives and officers of the USA, which is currently sanctioned.”

Still, no merger happened.

One thing that the two leagues did have in common by the end of their 1967 seasons was red ink. Both leagues drew fairly well in their opening weeks but quickly faded at the gate as the novelty wore off, and their losses fueled further merger talks.

On Sept. 7, 1967, the New York Times reported:

“The merger of the USA and the NPSL is expected to be announced tomorrow, following a meeting of the two rival leagues’ boards of directors in Chicago.

“Ken Macker, commissioner of the NPSL, said today he is optimistic merger will be accomplished, giving the U.S. one solid soccer league instead of two, which suffered heavy losses this year.

“Macker said that the problems of what to do with cities with a franchise in each league has been the stumbling block but indicated an agreement has been worked out.”

What happened a few days later was not a merger, but the filing of an $18 million lawsuit by the NPSL against the USA, the USSFA and FIFA, charging them with conspiracy to drive the NPSL out of existence and violation of federal antitrust law. In some ways, this lawsuit mirrored the players association lawsuit against MLS three decades later, raising some of the same issues.

The suit charged that the three groups had made a contract giving the USA exclusive control for 10 years over who might operate pro teams in the United States, that the three had spread rumors that any foreign players who came to this country to play in the NPSL would be drafted into military service and sent to Vietnam, and that the three had denounced the NPSL as an outlaw league and blacklisted foreign players whom the league tried to sign.

The NPSL further signaled its intention to keep fighting in October, when it signed a new television contract with CBS.

The losses that the two leagues had suffered made the merger inevitable, however, and it finally took place in December 1967. A preliminary merger agreement was announced on Dec. 7 by the USA, although not yet by the NPSL. A few days later, the two leagues, now one and going by the revived name of the North American Soccer League, announced an alignment of 20 cities, with no city to have more than one team, in the 1968 season. By the end of that season, with the flow of red ink still unchecked, the thought of having more than one team per city was the least of the NASL’s problems. The NASL was far from being out of the woods. But it seemed to have surmounted the two-league problems of 1966 and ‘67, problems that had set an example that the USSF well remembered when faced with competing women’s league bids three years ago.


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Garner, Paul. Soccer Talk: Life Under the Spell of the Round Ball. Chicago: Masters Press, 1999.
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