Phil Woosnam, who did more to stretch the old North American Soccer League from a fledgling operation to a globally known property, died late last week.
Woosnam (pictured) was NASL commissioner from 1969 to 1982, overseeing the development and the league’s outrageous growth curve thanks largely to the Cosmos and giants of the game like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.
True enough that Woosnam was in charge as the league flew too close to the sun, broadening itself boldly, yet fatally in the late 70s and early 80s. Still, how very different the professional game would look in the United States today without those efforts, without the NASL to ignite to ignite so many brushfires of ideas and passion that would develop into everything we have now.
Longtime Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, uniquely positioned to write about Woosnam, does so poignantly in his piece at the magazine’s website.
He tells some great stories about the man and his manic work ethic; truly, what other pace could have served to launch the game into greater cultural relevancy against so much inertia and (sometimes) outright hostility from media and those fearful of a changing world?
Gardner also writes about how Woosnam gets an unfair share of the blame for the league’s demise:
As the NASL hurtled toward its second — and this time fatal — demise, the owners turned on Woosnam. He got the blame for expanding the league too quickly — a process that could not have happened without the agreement of those same owners. And so in 1983 he was thrown out. Woosnam, a genuine soccer man who had worked harder than anyone to grow the NASL, was replaced as Commissioner by Howard Samuel, a wealthy New York businessman, a soccer know-nothing, with a work ethic quite different from that of the workaholic Woosnam.
“Not surprisingly, in 1984 the NASL collapsed. And the saddest part was to hear Woosnam blamed for it all. But it was not his fault. Of course he wanted a bigger league … but if that was the wrong course, then it was the responsibility of the owners, all those successful businessmen, to let Woosnam know, and to rein him in. They never did that. The failure was theirs.”