It is the second year of the 1980s and the sport of the '80s is in trouble.

Two years ago, the North American Soccer League was drawing national and international attention as the coming sport in the United States and Canada. Beginning a new network television contract, the league was drawing fans at a record rate.

"Soccer," NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam has often said, "is the sport of the '80s."

Today, after a tumultuous offseason during which three teams folded and four moved, the league faces declining attendance, low morale among owners, no regular season network television contract and almost certain franchise losses by attrition at season's end.

"We're at our lowest possible ebb right now," said Clive Toye, president of the Toronto Blizzard. "We've lost clubs and we're going to lose more. There are more jolts to come. Maybe now, people will admit we've done things wrong. Our numbers have been wrong, our attitudes have been wrong, almost everything has been wrong."

Virtually everyone connected with the league now expects a smaller league in 1982. Of the 21 teams, at least nine could be labeled weak right now.

In Atlanta, the Chiefs ae expected to fold after three horrid seasons at the gate and on the field. California, in its fourth disastrous season in Anaheim, is expected to fold or be sold. Toronto is for sale. Chicago, averaging 7,000 fans per game with an excellent team, may finally give up. Jacksonville's owners are already lamenting a move from New England. Los Angeles has tried moving back to the L.A. Coliseum from the Rose Bowl this season without success.

In Dallas, averaging attendance is 7,000 in the club's 15th struggling season. Portland has reduced ticket prices in midseason to try to bring fans back. The new ownership in Montreal, Molson Brewery, is already asking questions about its investment. The Washington Diplomats, the former Detroit Express, have yet to prove they can draw in this market without John Cruyff to spur attendance.

"I think we might well lose some clubs," Woosnam said. "I don't see us going down to 12 teams but I wouldn't be surprised to see us go to 18 or 16. I think we may well have reached a point where we're going to be on a plateau for two or three years. But that happens in every sport.

"If the public and the media will be patient the next few years and if we don't blow our brains out with cost increases and overspending in the meantime, we'll be fine. The future of this league is with the young players learning the game right now. As (Chicago owner) Lee Stern said, 'If 12-year-olds could drive, we wouldn 't have any problems.'

"We're still going to be the sport of the '80s. Don't forget, the '80s are just one year old. We've still got nine years to go."

However, the next five years concern both Woosnam and league executives. Attendance is down 3 percent so far this season, not an alarming figure by itself, but one that takes on added significance because teams from bad soccer markets like Philadelphia, Houston,, Rochester and New England have been eliminated. If those teams had remained, the attendance drop would probably be much larger -- even strong markets like Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Seattle and New York are down.

The Cosmos, the NASL's royalty, are averaging 34,000 per game thus far, 7,000 less than at this stage a year ago and a staggering 18,000 less than three years ago.

"The league has run out of legends and it's run out of marketing gimmicks," said Terry Hanson, Atlanta vice president. "If you look back, the Cosmos' surge centered around Pele and (Franz) Beckenbauer, the Diplomats last year on Cruyff. And a lot of cities, Tampa being a great example, marketed the product superbly.

"But now, the legends are gone and they can't be replaced. There are still very good players in this league but I guarantee you no one in Atlanta, Georgia, has ever heard of Francois Van der Elst or Rob Rensenbrink. The marketing can only do so much for so long.

"You can only bring the players in on the back of a fire truck so many times."

Some league executives have begun to refer to "The Gaping Wound." The trouble, they say, is the game itself -- too defensive, too static for the American public to appreciate. And as the league struggles to maintain a relationship with FIFA, the international governing board of soccer, significant changes in the rules are difficult to make.

"We need major changes in the structure of the game," said Bob Bell, chairman of the board of the San Diego Sockers, one of the few teams whose attendance has gone up this season. "But we can't make them because of FIFA. It's the same thing as Pete Rozelle getting a call from Barcelona and being told, 'You can't use tight ends any more.'

"Every sport makes changes to improve its product. We can't do it and that's a serious problem."

The problems, as a majority of the league's executives see it, date back to 1977, when the Cosmos, playing their first season in the Meadowlands, drew crowds of over 70,000 during the playoffs. Tampa, Minnesota, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Washington were making solid progress.

"We had 18 teams and 12 of them were either successful or approaching success," Toye said. "Then we made a crucial and tragic mistake: we expanded before we were ready. We brought in six new teams into six new markets, generally lousy markets.

"We also brought in new owners who didn't understand what it had taken to get to 1977. Now, we had 12 weak teams -- half the league -- and they all were hurting the strong teams."

Pushed by Woosnam, the expansion was approved by the owners. The league's planning committee, which included Toye and Steve Danzansky, former president of the Diplomats, had urgently advised against expansion, a recommendation also made by the league's executive committee.

Now, with none of the six expansion teams playing in the city it was born in, Woosnam is willing to admit a mistake -- almost.

"Certainly there were negatives involved with the expansion," Woosnam said. "But nothing is black and white, it wasn't all bad. I think we were caught in the middle of an image building problem. We were looking for credibility in numbers. The NFL had 26 teams, baseball had 26. We went to 24. Maybe we went a little too fast. But it helped us get a network TV contract."

But that contract, with ABC, was a disaster. Even with Jim McKay as the play-by-play man, ratings were horrid. Now, ABC will televise no more than two playoff games this season.

"Our problem is simple: the game sells locally, but not nationally yet. People in Cleveland just aren't going to be interested in the game when there's no professional team," Woosnam said. "We're not yet at the point where the media in nonleague cities cover us at all.

In short, the league went too fast. It got giddy with its first smell of success and stopped doing the things that had brought that success about. In 1977, the San Jose Earthquakes had 14,000 season ticket holders. This year, they have fewer than 5,000.

"There are a lot of guys in this league who make themselves very visible when it comes time to take bows," said San Jose General Manager John Carbray. "But they're noticeably absent when it's time to talk about what has gone wrong.

"I think a lot of people in this league began thinking, 'Well, we've made it,' a couple of years back. They stopped knocking on doors, they stopped making sure players got out into the community. They began to take things for granted. And, they went too fast."

Andy Dolich, the general manager of the Diplomats last season, put it more succinctly: "it's as if they tried to build the 20th story of a skyscrape without putting in a foundation. This league became a legend in its own mind. Now, all the battles have brought it to a crisis situation."

One of the more significant losses the league has suffered was the decision last november by madison square garden corp. to pull out after the old Diplomats had made great strides during the Garden's two years of ownership.

The reason was economics: heavy operating losses. But Jack Krumpe, executive vice president of MSG, says that was just part of it.

"Even with operating losses you might hang on to a commodity if you saw capital appreciation," he said. "If the franchise had been worth more money after the two years we owned it, it might have been worth holding on to. But when 10 or 12 teams in a league are available, your product doesn't appreciate in value. Supply and demand. The supply of available soccer teams is great; the demand isn't."

The old Diplomats might still be in Washington if the league had approved a hiatus plan last October that would have allowed certain clubs to drop out of the league for a period of time. Under that plan, New England (Jacksonville) would have become part of Washington.

"Another tragic mistake," Toye said. "What a hell of a franchise we would have had in Washington. They wouldn't cut back by design, so now they're going to end up doing it by accident."

Toye has been associated with the league since its inception. He played a key role in the rise of the Cosmos, then moved on to Chicago and Toronto. He has become something of a radical in these troubled times. He was the only league executive to vote against the move of the Express to vote against the move of the Express to Washington, the only one to vote against the move of New England to Jacksonville and one of three to vote against Memphis moving to Calgary.

"I am sick and tired of our franchises chasing around the bloody country looking for stadiums in which to alight," Toye said. "There aren't many cities left for us to befoul. I think the league would have been strengthened by the demise of New England, the demise of Memphis and by keeping some foreign team out of Washington that would go back to square one. I'm concerned about the league, not a bunch of frantic owners looking to save themselves."

Naturally, Duncan Hill, the Washington general manager to spear-headed Detroit's move to Washington, sees it differently. "We know from the past that given a quality product this is a good soccer city," he said. "We're committed to being here and to producing a quality product. We don't think of ourselves as fly-by-night."

The Diplomats have averaged less than 10,000 fans per home game thus far, about half of what last year's Dips drew with Cruyff. They have been hurt, though, by bad weather.

"Sooner or later you run out of excuses," Hanson said, speaking about the league in general, the Dips specifically. "You reach a point where you find all sorts of excuses: bad media coverage, bad weather, a wrong marketing approach. Basically, though, you're fabricating reasons for failure."

"The next breakthrough has got to come from the U.S. national team," said Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Tornado. "When the national team reaches the point where it is competitive in world soccer, a lot more people are going to notice the sport."

Will that happen soon enough for Hunt, now in his 15th year of losing money in Dallas? "I don't know. This is a business. We're not going to sit here forever and lose money. I think any owner in any sport feels that way."

"Let's face it," said Woosnam "Sports come down to nationalism and the star system is what sports is about. When the young players in the U.S. and Canada make those teams powers in world soccer, there will be a tremendous increase in attention for soccer.

"The future of the sport rests with the young people who are playing it right now, the players who will create interest, the fans who will come out having grown up with the sport. We've just got to be patient. People forget that we've gone from triple A to major league in terms of talent the last fews years and that's cost a lot of money.

"I've seen this league go from 17 to five teams (in 1969) and come back. If we have setbacks again, fine, it happens, but we'll come back."

"We can't just assume that kids playing translates to tickets being bought," Carbray said. "We have to work to make sure that happens. We've gotten ourselves into trouble by assuming we had it made in the past. That's why we've got problems now. We have to be certain we don't do that in the future."

Hunt agreed. "We've always made our plans by looking at things in their best light," he said. "You can't do that. There's no one cure-all for this but we have to start cutting costs and making right decisions quickly. We've all been dreamers in the past. That has to stop. Immediately."