If the North American Soccer League (NASL) expands or any of its teams relocate, Washington would be a primary candidate for yet another franchise, according to Commissioner Phil Woosnam.
As the league opens its 1982 season this weekend with 14 teams--21 played last year--Woosnam also says he is not discouraged by the 33 percent rate of attrition. "The attitude in the league now is smaller is better," said Woosnam. "We believe that by going to 14 teams the league will be stronger."
Woosnam said he now believes it was a mistake to increase the league to 24 teams in the 1978 and 1979 seasons, and that for the time being the owners have decided against any major expansion.
"The decision we made at the last meeting was not to expand, but there is some variation within the league," Woosnam said. "Some say 12 teams is better. The decision has been made for me to investigate a number of markets in case there is a need for relocation.
"Washington, Minnesota and Los Angeles are markets where, in our view, we could have success stories with the right ownership. Between May and July we should have a pretty good idea of how many teams, if any, will be looking for relocation."
Washington, Minnesota and Los Angeles are among the NASL teams that folded last year, along with Atlanta, Calgary, California and Dallas. In Washington, it was the second consecutive year a NASL team folded.
The original Washington Diplomats folded following the 1980 season, despite an average game attendance of 19,205 that included a turnout of 53,000 for the Cosmos game. Last season, the Detroit Express moved to Washington and took the name of the Diplomats, but that team folded, too, at the end of the season.
In both cases the teams cited financial losses, although Sonny Werblin, chairman of Madison Square Garden Corp., which owned the original Diplomats, also disagreed with Woosnam over scheduling and consolidation of teams.
Woosnam has often said soccer is the sport of the 1980s. Now he says he meant the late '80s.
"I didn't mean 1981 or '82," he said.
Woosnam said he recently traveled with the U.S. national soccer team to Trinidad. "I saw some signs that we're really beginning to feel the benefits of the youth soccer program. In a few years, soccer will be the No. 1 sport at the youth level.
"Our World Cup team is going to be a major power in the world. That will create some North American superstars, which are critical ingredients in any professional sport."
Woosnam said he hopes the league can average 17,000 or more fans per game this season. Last year the average attendance was 14,674.
"With the reduced number of teams, we can draw a schedule where every team in the league comes in to town," Woosnam said. "I think there is a tremendous balance between the teams in terms of quality. It will be a tremendous year of competition, extremely difficult for any team to run away from the pack."
Woosnam said the league had thought it could get network television coverage for its games when it expanded to 24 teams in the late 1970s. "Our theory got blown out of there. It was not a correct decision," Woosnam said. About the only substantive television coverage of NASL games, Woosnam said, was local coverage of away games.
"You're better off with fewer teams if you don't have network coverage," he said.