“When I do television work today for Major League Soccer and go into these buildings it’s just absolutely mind boggling. Nobody even in a passing conversation back in the 1980’s would have ever thought of or mentioned the idea of a stadium built specifically for soccer.”—Houston Dynamo announcer Glenn Davis quoted in an interesting piece on Houston soccer back in the 1980s.
“When you walk into Azteca, it’s a surreal experience not just because of the aura of it. The altitude. The smog. The size. And the buzzing literally vibrates. It’s very hard to see the sky because it’s so steep and so high that you’re almost in this silo.”—Alexi Lalas, from a really good piece at The Classical on the Mexico-U.S. rivalry.
The statistical analysis of MLS is gathering steam; this is a good piece backed-up by OPTA stats on Sporting KC’s remarkable start to the 2012 season, “mostly because they’re making holding onto the ball exceedingly difficult for their opponents.”
Today marks the launch of the second season of the North American Soccer League (NASL). Its predecessor with the same name famously ran from 1968-1984, but few remember that the league that made Pelé famous (or was it the other way round?) had its own namesake predecessor.
In 1946, Fred Weiszmann, owner of the Chicago Maroons (fellow University of Chicago alumnus should note this was not related to the Hyde Park college) set up a new professional league based out of the Midwest, and it was the largest national soccer league to date in North America in terms of geographical coverage, according to soccer historian Roger Allaway (the 1920s ASL, for all its promise and brief success, was based out of a small part of the northeastern U.S., as was its successor with the same name that ran from 1933-1983).
Five clubs took part: the Detroit Wolverines, the Toronto Greenbacks, the Chicago Maroons, the Pittsburgh Strassers and the Chicago Vikings.
The league, with two professional teams in Chicago, attracted decent press coverage. The Maroons’ first ever game in Chicago was against - of all teams - Liverpool FC, over on a North American tour. The Reds, whose lineup included their future manager Joe Fagan, won 9-3. Only 7,000 “shivering” fans attended the game at an apparently chilly Soldier Field in early June 1946, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Maroons’ NASL home would be Wrigley Field, rather than Soldier Field.
The first NASL game in Chicago took place at the home of the White Sox, Comiskey Park, 4,300 present for a 4-4 tie between the Vikings and the Wolverines on June 8th 1946. Scorer of the tying goal for the Wolverines was one Gil Heron, a Jamaican immigrant who went on to become the top scorer in the league. The father of Gil Scott-Heron, the league helped establish Heron as a professional player, and he later became the first black player to turn out for Glasgow Celtic in 1951 (Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, his father now playing for the Maroons). Heron led the Wolverines to the regular season title, but the very first NASL crown was claimed by Toronto, who beat Detroit in a playoff final.
The first NASL lasted only one more season, even though it was granted direct affiliation with the sport’s governing body (the United States Soccer Football Association) in July 1947 and a new team was added in soccer hotbed St. Louis. Unfortunately, financial difficulties doomed the league. Crowds were not terrible - typically in the 1,500-3,000 range - but not enough to sustain professional play. The Pittsburgh Indians were its final champions, but only through default, as the season was abandoned before completion.
The Maroons and Vikings still remain active in Chicago, as do the St Louis Raiders, now amateurs known as St. Luis Kutis S.C. (who are another story in themselves - that storied club essentially played as the United States in 1958 World Cup qualifying).
As Allaway puts it, “Thus was the quick end to the first professional league in the US that made a true attempt to cover a large geographic region of the country. A noble effort, but perhaps a couple decades ahead of its time.”
Historical Note: Though often referred to now as the “North American Soccer Football League”, contemporary news reports in both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune regularly called the 1946-47 league discussed here the “North American Soccer League”.