The Diplomats. The Cosmos.
The first day of June 1980. More than 53,000 fans crowd into RFK Stadium. This is it: Soccer, world-class soccer, has arrived in Washington. Near the end of the game, it's Diplomats 1, Cosmos 1, and one Diplomats goal already has been disallowed. Washington's Alan Green dribbles to the right, slips past a defender and shoots. Goalie Hubert Birkenmeier leaps out, gets his left hand on the ball. But the ball glances off his fingers and settles into the net. Diplomats 2, Cosmos 1! No? No! This goal, too, is disallowed. The Diplomats charge the official. A fan throws a blunt object that catches the official on the head. In the melee, Johan Cruyff, the Diplomats' star midfielder, is ejected.
In the end, the Diplomats lose, 2-1, in a shootout. But this was soccer. World-class soccer in the U.S. capital.
That was then. This is now. This is 1985, and professional outdoor soccer, the sport of the 1980s, is dead in this country. The North American Soccer League, which had shrunk from 24 teams in 1980 to two, suspended operations in March. The Cosmos, once the paragon of U.S. soccer, abandoned a 15-game schedule against international competition and disconnected the office phone June 21. On June 25, the four-team United Soccer League gave up the fight.
The U.S. soccer boom began in 1975, when Clive Toye of the New York Cosmos lured Edson Arantes do Nascimento -- known to the world and American Express as Pele -- out of retirement. Then Toye added Franz Beckenbauer, captain of the 1974 West German World Cup championship team, and Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil's 1970 World Cup champions, and the Cosmos created a virtual World Cup all-star team playing the world's most popular game in the world's most cosmopolitan city. At the end of the 1977 season, as Pele played the last games of his career, crowds of more than 75,000 poured into Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Even after he retired, the big crowds kept coming. The leaders of the U.S. soccer community reasoned that as the millions playing youth soccer came of professional-playing and ticket-buying age, the boom could only get bigger.
But the boom went bust.
And although the sport now appears to have been in its zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Toye says it was at that very time that the supports of outdoor soccer were undermined.
In 1978, the NASL expanded from 18 to 24 teams.
"The problems began with the expansion," said Toye, who was acting president of the NASL when it folded. "Within a short time, six of the existing clubs changed hands. So, very quickly, in 1978, we had 50 percent new ownership and 50 percent new management.
"It was not expansion per se that was damaging, but the nature of the people we added. We went from a league that knew its direction to adding people who were attracted by the wrong reasons -- the large crowds."
Toye and others find fault with the expansion because it was too much, too soon. The Cosmos, drawing on the New York area's culturally mixed population, could draw huge crowds. But could it be done in Tulsa? People involved in the game in this country from its beginnings say the NASL, particularly the expansion group, failed to realize that the success of the late 1970s was a false one created by imported players, that owners got giddy from the crowds.
"In '77, everyone thought we had made it," said Gordon Bradley, who coached both the Cosmos and the Diplomats and now is coaching at George Mason University. "I thought we had made it. Everybody thought we had made it. But what we really did was we started at the top of the pyramid. There was no base to it."
Bradley uses this analogy to a pyramid often, saying the NASL failed to realize that the top of the pyramid -- high-priced foreign players -- was a false creation. The original idea was to sign World Cup stars to big contracts to sustain the sport's growth until the broad base -- the youngsters who were growing up here playing soccer -- matured into quality players.
Americanization, it was called. Prime the pump with imported players, and in 15 years when the demographics catch up, bingo! American stars.
It did not work.
If expensive foreign players drew crowds, owners reasoned, even more would bring greater crowds.
Although he began the importing, Toye blames it largely for the financial troubles of the game.
"The bringing of Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff was a positive because they sold tickets because of their mystique and majesty," said Toye. "But the problem was they (owners) spent the same money on average players.
"They cost people bloody fortunes. My wish at the time was that Beckenbauer would be the last foreign player. The other owners didn't understand that if Pele was worth $2.8 million, that Gerd Mueller (Fort Lauderdale) wasn't worth $1.5 million or even $100,000. In the later days, rosters were full of overpaid, overweight nonsuperstars."
What resulted was a failure to Americanize.
"Somewhere in the late '70s, the time came for having a lot more American players," Toye said. "But there was too much of an emphasis on a continuum of foreign players. Many clubs gave lip service to really developing players. It was easier to pick up the phone and buy a 30-year-old European who you knew was good than to scout high schools and colleges and take a chance on someone's judgment."
Toye and Bradley point to the expansion as the catalyst for overspending and thus the eventual downfall of the league. But Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the NASL at the time of its expansion, said the decision was not a mistake.
He said expansion was designed to attract television. It did -- ABC began broadcasting a game once a week -- but the broadcasts failed to attract viewers and they were discontinued. Woosnam, instead, points to the failure of the broad base of that pyramid to mature as the deciding factor.
That failure has mystified many people in soccer. Organized amateur soccer is thriving in this country, but it never has translated into box-office success or the anticipated home-grown stars. On an international level, U.S. teams have suffered dismal failures in the last year, first failing to advance in the Olympics and more recently being eliminated from World Cup qualifying, losing, 1-0, to Costa Rica in a game in which even a tie would have meant advancing.
Some people say the losses are not indicative of the quality of U.S. players, that these setbacks are simply unfortunate failings. The United States Socccer Federation was so unable to make sense of them that recently it fired both the national team coach, Alkis Panagoulias, and the director of coaching, Karl-Heinz Heddergott.
Others say the demographics have not quite caught up, and that U.S. soccer hopes should rest on the 16-and-under team that will play in a World Cup competition this summer in Peking. Still others say the United States lacks an effective development program, suggesting either a minor-league system or closer professional ties to colleges.
Whatever the structural failings of outdoor soccer in this country were, they were magnified by the introduction of the indoor game. The Major Indoor Soccer League, founded by Earl Foreman in 1978, was hailed by many as the form soccer would adopt in this country. The indoor game is faster, as players shuttle in and out frequently; it is more exciting, with the ball careening off the wall creating multiple rebound shots; it is higher-scoring. In short, many say it is what U.S. fans expect.
Within the NASL, owners squabbled about whether to play the indoor game. In 1979-80, the NASL played its first indoor season. In some NASL cities, such as San Diego, Chicago and San Francisco, it caught on. But in others -- Vancouver, Tampa, New York -- the indoor game was played in near-empty arenas. Teams were playing year-round soccer, but only half of the year was successful. But outdoor teams needed indoor teams to play, and indoor teams needed outdoor teams. In 1982-83, the NASL decided not to play an indoor season and San Diego jumped to the MISL and won the championship. In 1983-84, the NASL again played indoors. Meanwhile, amidst the pressures of year-round soccer, the NASL dropped from 24 teams in 1980 to 21 in 1981 to 14 in 1982.
"It was like saying, 'Let me take my marbles to do this and you take your marbles and do that over there,' " Toye said. "We finally got to the point last August when everyone was prepared to recognize that we were in the wrong league together and that we had not been bound together, and there wasn't a snowball in hell's chance that we would be in the same room together.
"We all wanted different things. So finally we said, 'You want to go indoor? Fine, go indoor. Just leave us alone to build our own outdoor league.' We were left behind to restructure a league that had been battered privately and publicly."
Things only got worse.
"Everything associated with the NASL smelled of doom, negativism and defeat," said Ray Klivecka, who coached the Cosmos through their final season.
The Cosmos, NASL champions in 1972, '77, '78, '80 and '82, failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1975. They jumped to the MISL, but the poor outdoor team was even worse indoors, and the club dropped out of the league in February.
With a mediocre team and few marketing funds, the Cosmos' attendance dwindled. Meanwhile, the NASL was trying to recruit teams, and the question on the minds of investors was always: Will the Cosmos be in the league? The NASL couldn't say because the Cosmos had not posted a letter of credit. Finally, in March, the NASL was forced to expel the Cosmos, who then announced their 15-game international schedule.
Without the Cosmos, the NASL didn't have much of a chance. Without a league or the financial resources to market the international schedule sufficiently, neither did the Cosmos.
Was the game the problem? Is indoor soccer, which some purists wince even to call soccer, destined to be the version of the game played in the United States?
Foreman, surely one of the indoor game's chief advocates, maintains the outdoor game has a much larger potential in this country.
"The bulk of interest in this country in outdoor soccer is in participation. As a spectator sport, it's always laid a big fat egg," said Foreman, whose MISL operates 13 teams.
"The outdoor game has always been handled wrong in this country. It should be bigger than the indoor," he said. "But what I did with the MISL is almost exactly opposite of what the NASL did. We've expanded slowly. We only go in when the market is there. For three, four, or five years, it was going so good they couldn't louse it up. In the end, they did."
Toye, Bradley, Klivecka, Foreman and others say there is room in this country for professional outdoor soccer. Toye is involved in seeking to form a new league. And there are teams playing shoestring budget soccer while they wait for a league to arise.
Tampa Bay, San Jose, Football Club Los Angeles, Football Club Seattle, Tulsa, Houston, Dallas and South Florida are playing games against each other, against international teams, whomever they can find. But nearly every day there is a rumor of another failed franchise, another "total reorganization," another office phone that goes unanswered.
"What we've got to do now," Bradley said, "is start again, because before we started at the wrong end."