Phil Woosnam, Pioneer of North American Soccer, Dies at 80
By JACK BELL
Published: July 21, 2013
Phil Woosnam, a Welsh professional soccer player who became the commissioner of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and held that post until 1983, helping to raise the sport’s profile in the United States, died on Friday in Marietta, Ga. He was 80.
The cause was advanced prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Ruth.
A physics and mathematics teacher, Woosnam played amateur soccer with a number of teams in Wales and England before turning pro in 1958. He moved to the United States in 1966, lured by the promise of a new start in soccer in a country largely lukewarm to the world’s game. He was hired as the coach of the Atlanta Chiefs of the fledgling N.A.S.L. but could not resist a chance to get back on the field; in 1967, he scored the first goal in the first soccer game in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium.
Woosnam was named the league’s coach of the year in 1968. That year, he also coached the United States national team.
He became the commissioner of the league in 1969, when it had only five teams, and presided over its growth to 24 teams across the United States and Canada in 1980.
“Phil was one of the pioneers of professional soccer in North America,” Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, said on the league’s Web site. “When we started M.L.S., Phil was always willing to share with us his time and his experiences with the N.A.S.L.”
Mixing his passion for soccer with a flair for marketing and promotion, the affable Woosnam helped to attract well-heeled owners to the N.A.S.L.: Warner Communications owned the New York Cosmos; Elton John was part owner of the Los Angeles Aztecs; and the rock stars Peter Frampton, Rick Wakeman and Paul Simon were part owners of the Philadelphia Fury.
“Phil truly believed he had a mission in life, to build the game in the U.S.A., and he never stopped working or believing,” Clive Toye, an executive with the Cosmos and other N.A.S.L. teams, said in an e-mail message.
On the field, Woosnam was the smiling face of the N.A.S.L. as it gained attention and a spell of success, attracting stars like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia.
But overexpansion and bad business decisions, from the league’s offices in Midtown Manhattan and among the clubs, led to a slow decline. In a vote of league owners, Woosnam was removed as the commissioner in 1983, replaced by Howard Samuels, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic Party. The league folded after the 1984 season.
Despite the league’s ultimate failure — caused by its top-down approach, some said — it planted the seeds of soccer’s growth in the United States, which led to the country’s hosting the 1994 World Cup and to the growth of M.L.S., which began play in 1996 and will have 20 teams spread across North America by 2015.
Phillip Abraham Woosnam was born on Dec. 22, 1932, in Caersws, Wales, a village with ruins of two Roman forts.
In November 1958, Woosnam signed a pro contract with West Ham United. In 138 matches for the Hammers, Woosnam, a striker, scored 26 goals. He moved to Aston Villa in 1962, playing 106 times and scoring 24 goals. He also appeared 17 times for the national team of Wales, scoring three times.
In addition to his wife, Woosnam, who lived in Atlanta, is survived by a daughter and son from a previous marriage, Valery Bridges and David Woosnam; a stepson, Randy; and three grandchildren.
Woosnam was inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 1997.
He once summed up soccer this way: “The rules of soccer are simple. Basically, it is this: if it moves, kick it; if it doesn’t move, kick it until it does.”