When Phil Woosnam became commissioner of the North American Soccer League in 1969, the league was down to five teams and on the verge of folding. Eleven years later, the league comprises 24 teams and Woosnam has dreams of bringing the World Cup to this country as soon as 1986. In a recent interview with Washington Post staff writers John Feinstein and Donald Huff, Woosnam discussed the state of the league as it finishes its 14th season.
Q: After the 1977 season the league voted to expand from 18 to 24 teams.
The expansion teams have struggled and there are several other weak franchises in the league. Did you overexpand? Should the league retrench to 12 or 14 teams?
A: We may have made a mistake expanding when we did. But we had several reasons for doing it when we did. Basically, we wanted to influence you people, the media. We wanted to be sure we would be taken seriously. Having a 24-team coast-to-coast league was one way of doing that.
But we also covered ourselves that way by making it harder for another league to start up. It may be costing the league money to have a number of franchises doing poorly, but it would cost more if a second league started. Our labor costs would go way up. In fact, our overall costs could be doubled.
Q: With the exception of the Cosmos, a number of the league's success stories have come in smaller markets like Tulsa, Fort Lauderdale, Vancouver, even Tampa Bay. Does this mean that the league can't compete in major markets unless those clubs buy superstars?
A: First of all, any success, no matter where it is, is important to the league. We need more Tulsas, more Edmontons. Certainly superstars like Pele or (Johan) Cruyff are important, especially in cities where there is competition for the public's attention.
But you can survive without them, I think.The most important thing for any franchise to succeed in this league is the chemistry within the franchise itself. That means strong leadership on the field that will produce a winner and a good front office that knows how to go out and sell the team. I think you're seeing that in Washington now. Certainly Cruyff has helped a great deal but I think the key thing has been the chemistry in the organization.
Obviously, succeeding in major markets is important, too, especially in terms of television. But that will come. If you can succeed in New York with a sport, that means you can succeed anywhere.
Q: Speaking of television, the sport has bombed on national television in the ratings the last two years. How can you correct that?
A: The problem is that the people in nonsoccer cities don't understand the sport and they aren't going to watch, especially for two hours on a beautiful spring Saturday. We've tried to convince ABC that what we need to do is have some kind of highlights show. Let people see the best and most exciting things in soccer in a package.
Locally, our ratings are way up in the cities that have soccer teams. The problem is to do well in the national ratings you have to do well in the cities that don't have soccer. We aren't able to do that yet.
What we have to sell to people is that soccer is entertainment. That's why we've structured the game the way we have here. We can't just sell the American fan on soccer. The soccer purists in other countries can't seem to grasp that. It would be nice to say that the game itself is enough but it isn't. They're going to have to change the game in Europe sooner or later, too. Attendance is down there because everyone's playing defensive soccer. The games are getting boring. Soccer purist or not, there isn't much exciting about a 0-0 tie.
Q: One of the most commonly heard complaints around the league concerns officiating. The general consensus is that it is terrible. How do you respond to that?
A: First of all, this is the most difficult and complicated league in the world in which to officiate because you have so many different nationalities involved. There are more players in this league who try to be referees than any league in the world.
Q: What is your feeling about the development of the game among youth in this country?
A: I think that Canada has made a lot more progress than the United States in youth development. Here, the sport has really only made headway in the suburbs and among the middle class and the affluent. I think we have to get the city kids involved too.
The other problem is the way the kids are being coached. In some ways I think the system is too structured. The kids are being asked to learn too much, too fast. Often when you teach kids structured skills they don't have a chance to develop their natural skills. If Cruyff or Pele had learned the game over here they never would have developed their skills the way they did. They learned just by practicing hours and hours and hours on their own.
Q: How important is it to you to have an NASL team in Washington in the future?
A: Very important. I think there are three key cities for the league in the future: New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Washington is especially important to us internationally. I think the city has proven that it is an excellent soccer city. I can't ever imagine us not having a team in Washington.
Q: What do you see as the most important priorities for the NASL the next five years?
A: Television and stabilizing the franchises, certainly. I think the stronger clubs have to be more patient with the weaker clubs and try and be helpful instead of wanting to take the easy way out and just say, "Get rid of the weak clubs."
I think the television thing will work itself out eventually. As the popularity of the sport continues to spread, our TV ratings will go up. But I think the really crucial thing is the World Cup. If we could get it here that would get us over the final hump. We've come so far, I think by 1986 this country would be ready to host a World Cup. The World Cup would make nationalism a part of the sport in this country for the first time.