The North American Soccer League opens its 15th season Friday. There will be a franchise in Washington.
That is the good news. Period.
Now for the bad news. Pull up a chair, this will take a while.
The league, to put it mildly, has problems. Since the Cosmos beat Fort Lauderdale, 3-0, to win the Soccer Bowl before 50,000 fans in RFK Stadium Sept. 21, the NASL has suffered more setbacks than the 1962 Mets.
Three of the 24 teams in the league didn't make it to New Year's. The Rochester Lancers and the Houston Hurricane, given their attendance and their financial situations, were cases of euthanasia. But the demise of the third team was a bombshell: the Washington Diplomats.
The Dips were the league's true success story in 1980. They increased their attendance to 19,205 a game, including a crowd of 53,000 for the Cosmos, and were accepted as major league by the city.
That was not good enough for Sonny Werblin, Madison Square Garden chairman. The team was still losing money steadily and Werblin and NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam were at odds over the way the league was being run.
Werblin was willing to lose money if he thought the future would be different. But, when the league would not follow his suggestions on scheduling, consolidation of teams and realignment, he took his ball and went home. He folded the franchise. A desperate search for buyers, led by Steve Danzansky, team president, turned up nothing and suddenly it was a 21-team league without its No. 2 franchise.
That wasn't all. Players were lost, too.
Most notably, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. This is a league that has had four legitimate superstars: Pele, who retired in 1977; Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia. Beckenbauer decided to return to Germany to finish his career and his last NASL game was the Soccer Bowl. Cruyff might have returned to the Dips, but there were no Dips to which to return. He signed a contract in Europe. Now, only Chinaglia remains.
Cities were also lost.
Philadelphia, a league bright spot when the Atoms came into existence in 1973, was abandoned after the Fury had been mismanaged for three years. The team was sold and moved to Montreal. There, it was renamed -- no joke -- the Manic.
Memphis, where the Rogues had shown progress, is also without a team. The Rogues were sold to Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania and he moved the club to Calgary, hardly one of the glamor cities of North America.
Boston is gone. The New England Tea Men never could get along in surburban Foxboro with the people next door at the race track, never could get the stadium times they wanted. They moved to Jacksonville.
Finally, Detroit. One week the Express was about to fold, was selling its best player to solve cash flow problems. The next its owners were in Washington declaring themselves solvent, inundated with potential investors and ready to reap the gains made by the old Diplomats a year ago.
Bye-bye Detroit, hello Washington.
What remains is a 21-team league without a network television contract, with shaky franchises galore, with four teams trying to start over in new cities, with great hope, great dreams and great problems.
"I think during the past offseason we've begun to come to grips with our problems," asaid Woosnam, a man who would find a bright side to Apocalypse.
Others are not so sure. They think the league is still in over its head and could end up back near its condition of 1969, when only five teams remained and NASL almost folded.
Indoor soccer has come on strong, with the Major Indoor Soccer League enjoying success in competition with the indoor NASL season. The new-found strength of the players union will be another headache for the owners. The offseason has been difficult and tumultuous and, barring some surprise success stories during the next six months, next offseason will be at least as difficult.
One byproduct of Werblin's demands is that teams will play division rivals four times each this season instead of twice. That means the Cosmos will play in RFK Stadium twice, May 23 and June 17. The rest of the 32-game schedule will be divided up against opponents from the other four divisions.
The new five-division, no-conference alignment has the Cosmos, new Diplomats, Toronto and Montreal in the East. The Cosmos are the power, with the other three battling for a playoff spot.
The Southern Division has Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The Tea Men, after moving south, picked up several ex-Diplomats, including leading scorer Alan Green, and should be much improved. Tampa's Rowdies are always solid.
The Central Division has Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota and Tulsa. All are sound clubs, but the Sting may be the one team capable of challenging the Cosmos this season.
The Northwest Division has Portland, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Seattle, last year's wonder club with a 25-7 record. Vancouver's Whitecaps are a very different team from the one that won Soccer Bowl '79. Seattle's Sounders should be the team to beat.
In the Wet, there is no power, California, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose all have weaknesses even though San Diego's Sockers did make it to the American Conference final last year. This division is a tossup.
The Cosmos have to be the favorites to win a fourth Soccer Bowl in five years when the 1981 game is played in Toronto, but Chicago or Seattle could upset them. One way or the other, once that game is over, the league will turn again to its continuing struggle to survive.