Where Clint Dempsey, MLS and the defunct NASL all gather uncomfortably

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In having a conversation about how some of today’s Major League Soccer choices are keeping uncomfortable company with the old North American Soccer League’s fatal mistakes, let’s start it here, in a very clear-headed and logical place:

The old North American Soccer League and today’s Major League Soccer exist in completely different worlds. Whereas soccer stars are now aligned for potential success, you couldn’t even see the stars in the previous darkness of a far-less accommodating night in the domestic sports culture.

And we should probably also begin with a super-fast primer on what, exactly, the NASL was in its original incarnation. Where’s today’s “NASL” is the second tier of domestic soccer, in the 1970s it was domestic soccer, a wildly premature effort at establishing the professional game here. It “took” for a while with a starburst of brilliant success … but turned out to be the great and powerful Oz, a mirage of smoke and mirrors without a financial backbone, eventually collapsing beneath the weight of its own ambition.

So Major League Soccer wants to get up into 24-team territory, even at the risk of getting there too quickly? Hmmm. Interesting, because the old NASL reached 24 teams, which was pretty much its zenith and its nadir all at once.

(MORE: The changing identity of Major League Soccer)

So, Major League Soccer is at the point where it may take $9 million transfer fees and $8 million salaries to compete? Clint Dempsey’s arrival seems to push things in that direction.

No … of course that’s not true. It will not take Sounders-level mad money to collect the Ws. The chance to grab someone like Dempsey, a performance and a marketing tour du force, all wrapped patriotically in a U.S. flag, is an outlier.

But stare at this thing a little longer and we will notice some uncomfortable similarities in last week’s highest-of-profile signings. When the old Cosmos spent (over-spent, in retrospect) lavishly on Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and others, the swells of NASL had to spend to keep up. Not to over-simplify it all, but the arms race drove everyone over the financial cliff. Keeping up with the Cosmos, the one team with enough revenue to cover such princely costs, was simply impossible for everyone else.

Again, Major League Soccer is not careening head-long for imminent demise. That’s not the point here.

It’s just a little history lesson. And a bit of a warning. These things do deserve to be monitored going forward – especially as we digest what all of this means.

Ambition is wonderful. In many ways, this is what Major League Soccer is all about. But let’s not pretend that ambition unchecked cannot be a dangerous thing.

Let’s just all be careful out there, eh?