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As American Pro Soccer Forges Ahead, Its Past Deserves a Nod

"Never mind," was the response.

Cruyff could also be maddening. Any time the team lost, he would publicly rip everyone -- starting with his coach. Some coaches would have lost it. But Bradley would just shrug and say, "that's Johan," or, "He might have a point, he does have a great soccer mind."

What made Bradley and Cruyff great to deal with is that neither ever acted as if you had to love soccer. They both loved it, had grown up with it -- Gordon in England; Johan in Holland -- but they knew it was going to be an acquired taste in the U.S. Bradley's patience dealing with novice fans (and reporters) was extraordinary.

Cruyff never completely understood the American soccer fan. When the Diplomats lost a playoff series in Los Angeles in 1980, Cruyff was stunned when the team's plane arrived at Dulles Airport to see several hundred cheering fans waiting to thank the team for the season.

In Europe, when you lost a crucial match, you might very well be greeted at the airport by fans -- but they probably wouldn't be cheering. As we prepared to get off the plane, Cruyff called me aside, a puzzled look on his face.

"Do they not know," he asked, "that we lost?"

I thought back to the days and nights I spent with Bradley and Cruyff this weekend when I received a note telling me that Bradley is very ill. He has Alzheimer's disease and is under hospice care in Northern Virginia, where he has lived since his days with the Diplomats and then at George Mason. It is hard to comprehend that it has been almost 28 years since that extraordinary afternoon at RFK when the place was full and the stands rocked with just as much enthusiasm as they did when the Redskins were playing there.

The NASL did a superb marketing job with the sport until it overplayed its hand and expanded from 12 to 24 teams in a two-year period. That was too much, too soon, and the many weak franchises soon pulled the handful of strong ones down with them.

It wasn't until the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the U.S. that there was serious thought given again to another professional soccer league. When MLS started, officials wanted to be sure not to make the same mistakes as the NASL: the league built slowly, starting with 10 teams and a very low salary cap. It has grown since then, and there are stars now and decent fan bases in a number of cities.

But it still hasn't gotten to where the NASL was in its glory days. My sense as an outsider is that most soccer people now take the attitude that if you don't get their sport, it is your loss. The marketing of the game appears to be limited to those who are already sold on it. Maybe the arrival of David Beckham will change things, but one can't help but wonder how long Beckham-mania will last or how long Beckham will hang around, and whether he will ever actually play very much.

Still, there's hope. The sport may not be thriving, but it is surviving. That's good news. And, when fans show up for the United games at RFK on a regular basis stand and cheer for their team and enjoy the beauty of the game, I hope some of the parents will occasionally tell the kids about the NASL, about the "Sport of the '80s."

I hope they'll tell them about Pele and Cruyff. And about Gordon Bradley. If you are a soccer-ite, they deserve to be remembered.

If the U.S. does ever win a World Cup and if the sport is ever really embraced in this country, it can and should be said that it started with them. If you love soccer, they deserve a place in your heart.

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