Phil Woosnam: the Chief

We open our series celebrating Welsh involvement in 100 years of US soccer with probably the most influential of all. A player, coach, general manager, and eventual league commissioner in the North American Soccer League of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Caersws-born Phil Woosnam had a huge impact on the sport in the US. 

NASL Commissioner

NASL Commissioner

The famous North American Soccer League that operated from 1968 to 1984 has provided us here at Lost Boyos with a treasure trove of stories. The league’s first ever winners, the Atlanta Chiefs, were coached by a Welshman and had a strong Welsh presence throughout the team. A second Welshman, Terry Hennessey, also led his Tulsa Roughnecks to Soccer Bowl glory in 1983. Some 20 or so players from Wales appeared in the league over it’s 16-year existence, including popular players of the era like Arfon Griffiths and Ron Davies, as well as two future Wales national team managers, Mike England and Terry Yorath. However, none of them might ever have had the chance to make the move stateside without the commitment and passion of one of the first Welsh players to head across the Atlantic.

Phil Woosnam was born in Caersws in 1932 and took an unusual path to the world of professional football. Woosnam played at several clubs as an amateur, including making a single appearance for Manchester City, while he also completed a degree in physics and maths at the University of Bangor.

In 1954, inside forward Woosnam began playing with Leyton Orient and teaching at a local school, before going fully professional with a switch to West Ham United in 1958. He played more than 100 times for the Hammers and also brought up a century of appearances at Aston Villa following a 1962 switch to the midlands club.

His career as a professional also brought him full international recognition. He had already made 11 appearances for the Welsh amateur team before receiving his first full cap in a British Championship match against Scotland in 1958. He went on to win 17 caps for his country, playing in foward lines alongside greats like Cliff Jones, Ivor Allchurch and John Charles, and scoring 4 goals.

In 1966, Woosnam met representatives of a planned new US league in London and New York, before heading south to the city that was to become his home, Atlanta, Georgia. There, he met representatives of the Atlanta Chiefs and was impressed. Woosnam told David Tossell for his excellent book, Playing for Uncle Sam that “I felt confident about the success of the Chiefs. The baseball club owned them and that brought other benefits. I felt we could achieve something with their backing, using their relationship with the public and media.”

After returning from this initial meeting, Woosnam was told that an offer had been made for him by Chelsea, but with verbal agreements in place with Atlanta and several British players, he went ahead with the move to Atlanta.

The 1967 return of professional football to the US was a messy affair, with two rival leagues set up. The first, the US Soccer Association, was made up of teams from Europe and South America representing US cities. That led to teams such as the Stoke City briefly becoming Cleveland Stokers, with teams from Brazil, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Uruguay also participated.

Woosnam’s Atlanta Chiefs were in the National Professional Soccer League, a rival outlaw league, so called as it was not recognised by FIFA. Player manager Woosnam was one of five Welshmen that played for Atlanta that season, finishing the season with a record of 10 wins, 9 draws, and 12 defeats.

Woosnam in action against San Diego Toros

Woosnam (#17) in action against San Diego Toros

The following season, the two rival competitions merged to become the North American Soccer League. 17 of the 22 franchises that appeared in the two competitions of 1967 were involved in the new league and Woosnam’s Chiefs came out as the winners. They topped their Atlantic Division to book a place in the end of season play-offs, also finishing with the league’s best overall record. The Chiefs defeated Cleveland Stokers in the semi-finals, and then clinched the first NASL title by defeating the San Diego Toros. Woosnam was named NASL’s first Coach of the Season. It was the first national success for a city that already boasted NFL, MLB, and NBA franchises, and would go on to host the Olympic Games in 1996.

1968 was Woosnam’s final season with Atlanta, as he now moved on to become NASL Commissioner and also the coach of the US national team and the pleasure of on-field success was to prove short-lived. The new league was already losing money, and, in his new NASL role, Woosnam was dispatched to travel the country and try to retain as many clubs as possible for the new season. He convinced only five, but with foreign clubs again coming over to represent the US teams for part of the season, the competition went ahead. The following season was to be similarly difficult for commissioner Woosnam. Two of the five teams were again talking about walking out, but Woosnam failed to divulge this information as he continued to negotiate with potential new members. Baltimore Bays went ahead with their withdrawal, but teams in Rochester and Washington joined to make a six-team league. Woosnam had saved the competition again.

The league expanded again in 1971. Kansas City departed, but the league made its first moves into Canada with new franchises opening in Toronto and Montreal. Most importantly of all, Woosnam had used a connection with Neshui Ertegun of Warner Communications to set up a new franchise in New York, where Woosnam felt a league presence was vital in order to achieve long-term success.

The next major Woosnam-led expansion came in 1973 as the NASL headed west. Woosnam negotiated with owners in Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, and Vancouver. Eventually, they all accepted and league membership reached double figures again for the time since 1968.

More new teams joined in 1975, but going against the accepted theory that no player is bigger than a club, the most important addition to the league was a single individual. While many people have tried to take the credit for the evntual arrival of Pele at New York Cosmos, it’s certain that Phil Woosnam was among the first and most important in bringing the move about. In both Tossell’s book and the wonderful book and documentary telling of the tale of the Cosmos, Once in a Lifetime, Woosnam says it was he and Clive Toye that initiated the move that would change the game in the US. He told Tossell that, “Now no one could refuse to come and play in the NASL because it wasn’t good enough. It was good enough for Pele.”

"The many faces of Phil Woosnam"

“The many faces of Phil Woosnam”

And come they did. Over the next few seasons, the league that Woosnam had worked so tirelessly to build would feature not only Pele, but also Johan Cruyff, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, and several other of the era’s most recognisable names, as the late 1970s became the peak years of the NASL. Attendances reached an all-time high, with the Cosmos’ squad of big name players even playing in front of crowds in excess of 70,000.

The NASL was booming and Woosnam pushed ahead with his expansion plans. From 1978 to 1980, the league contained 24 teams, and even when it began to dip in 1981, there were still 21 teams at the outset of the season. It was the first major sign of a decline that several had been fearing and in 1982 only 14 teams began the season. The league was becoming a victim of its own success with teams lacking Cosmos-sized budgets or crowds overspending to fill their rosters with stars. Added to the league’s failure to secure consistent television coverage, it meant the wheels were beginning to come off the NASL wagon.

1982 was also the beginning of the end for Woosnam’s time with the NASL. Woosnam was heavily involved in the US’s bid to replace Colombia as hosts of the 1986 World Cup- a tournament that eventually was given to Mexico- and, while he retained his role as NASL Commissioner, he had now been superseded by a new CEO and President, Howard Samuels. At the end of the 1983 season, Woosnam left the organisation completely with many, including his old friend Clive Toye, blaming his continual expansions for the league’s decline and eventual collapse. Woosnam, defending his decisions, says in Tossell’s book: “Not everybody believed in expansion, but I think there are ulterior motives in those who questioned it afterwards. Our intention was good and honourable and it was not like we did it round the corner. All the owners knew exactly what was going on. They had to approve everything we did. If people say now we shouldn’t have gone to 24, well, so what? They voted for it.”

Whatever his role in the fall of the NASL, there is no doubt that Phil Woosnam was a force for good in the history of US soccer. He realised, if only briefly, his vision for a national professional league, the success of which no doubt contributed to the US qualifying for its first World Cup for 40 years in 1990 (and every World Cup since) and eventually hosting the tournament four years later. In 1997, he became the second Welsh ‘Builder, a person described as having ‘made his/her mark in soccer in a non-playing capacity and had a major, sustained and positive impact on US soccer,’ to the enter the US Soccer Federation’s Hall of Fame. Their short profile says that Woosnam ‘had played a vital role in keeping the league alive through a 1969 season in which it declined to five teams,’ as well as being ‘the face of the league in its greatest growth years of the late 1970s.’

Our brief profile only scratches the surface of the fascinating story of Phil Woosnam and his involvement with the NASL. If we’ve piqued your interest, David Tossell’s Playing for Uncle Sam tells the story of the Brits in the NASL in great detail, and you can also find year-by-year analysis in the American Soccer History Archives. The pictures used are from 

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