Fifteen years after the North American Soccer League began importing aging European, African and South American stars to play alongside three or four marginally talented Americans, Duncan Hill, general manager of the Washington Diplomats, says the NASL should approach its goal of full "Americanization" in the next five to 10 years.
The league, five years ago, comprised players "who had passed their primes in Europe -- finished in their countries -- but were signed to play with several inexperienced Americans or Canadians," said Hill, whose team recently signed world-reknowned star Johan Cruyff, a 34-year-old Dutchman.
"I don't feel that signing Cruyff is hypocritical in light of my prediction for the future of soccer," Hill said. "The future still lies with the American youth. But we had a chance to pick up perhaps the greatest soccer player in the world and we did it.
"But with the Cosmos spreading light through the league, most teams in the NASL age going with young players that they can get a number of years out of. Those players are Americans," he continued. "The overall philosophy now is to build a team instead of importing aging, international stars in the twilight of their careers.
"The trend," says Hill, "is already in progress."
Hill, also one of the Diplomats' owners, says the league will be able to concentrate on developing young personnel because professional soccer will not be plagued by the player-management problems that have beset baseball.
"We have a collective bargaining agreement with the players -- unlike baseball -- for the next three years," Hill says. "So we can contain our costs. We know we will have three years of tranquility." Hill and his father Jimmy, the team's principal owner, have a five-year agreement with RFK Stadium, "So we know our costs will be relatively stable for the next five seasons, at least."
The salaries of soccer players are low, compared to leading American sports. "There's not a lot of stupid buying by the NASL owners, nor will there be," says Hill. "We can't afford it."
One way to keep those salaries down over the next five years is to build around young Americans who don't yet damand top dollars. Next year each NASL team must have four Americans (instead of the current three) in its lineup at all times.
"I don't think Americans are going to have a problem identifying with soccer in six, seven, or eight years," Hill says. "The 12-year-olds in America are as good as the 12-year-olds anywhere in the world. But not the 17-year-olds.
"More American lads will be entering the professional ranks after high school. It's essential," says Hill. "The level of coaching is not yet excellent in the United States. The young Americans have learned too many bad habits by the time they're 22.We need them by the time they're 18. Americans just have to be patient.
"I've been in favor of a rule that would limit teams to bringing in no more than two or three foreign players per year," Hill says. "The proposal was narrowly voted down by the other league owners. But there may come a time in the next five or so years, maybe sooner, when that measure is adopted. The Americanization process would move faster."
That process would be aided immensely by the league's increased exposure. The NASL had a short-lived contract with ABC, but has no network affiliation this season. Professional soccer's future in the United States may depend largely on the growth and availability of cable television in those cities where franchises exist.
"We are a perfect outlet for professional soccer," says Rosa Gatti, communications director for ESPN, the 24-hour sports network. ESPN will televise at least 20 NASL games this season and plans to increase that number each season over the next five. The Diplomats appeared on an ESPN game of the week in April.
"Cable television is growing in this area by 30 percent per year," Hill says. "Cable is the way of the future, especially for soccer where we don't have a network contract. Kids can watch soccer on television and be inspired to play or come out and watch.
"A few cable companies approached me before this season but there was little we could do," said Hill, who noted the District and much of Maryland are not yet wired for cable. Only suburban Virginians could pick up Diplomat games this season on cable. The District will not be wired for cable television for at least two or three more years, Gatti estimated.
During that time, the Dips could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in television revenue and gate receipts. "People used to be worried about being saturated by sports on television," Gatti says. "But the exposure tends to get more people interested in coming out to games. We have a weekly highlight package of NASL games and special informative features on our Sports Center show. Those are informative-type programs about soccer that the networks aren't interested in."
It is no coincidence that the NASL cities with the largest number of cable television homes are the cities where attendance is highest: New York, Seattle, San Diego, Tulsa, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale, all of which have cable in more than 100,000 homes.
The Washington area, however, has only 41,000 homes receiving cable, most of those in suburban Virginia. Also, ESPN cannot negotiate with teams in Canada, and there are five Canadian franchises in the NASL.
Gatti says that by 1985, ESPN expects to be in 30 to 35 million households (about 10 million now) and a key part of its programming will be soccer. ESPN is impatient for Washington to be wired because the Washington area is a soccer hotbed in terms of youth participation. But for now young players have limited exposure to professional soccer.
"I've seen quite a lot of youth soccer, especially in Virginia," Hill says. "And the youth games are improving steadily, the girls at a tremendous rate."
Besides the Americanization process, Hill says he expects the league to approve several changes that would improve the game and make it stable and more attractive to Americans.
"I'm interested in a rule that would prevent defenders from passing the ball back to the goal keeper," the general manager says. "People are bored with such time-wasting.
"And for pure stability, the league would be smart to contemplate a rule where you can't fire a coach in the middle of a season. The owners have been too impulsive and impatient. After having a 30-percent turnover in coaches in the First Division for a couple of years, England adopted such a rule.
"All these things will help the NASL achieve credibility and stability over the next five to 10 years, sooner if we can do it. I think we're past the turmoil stage. It's time to move ahead -- smoothly."