Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Rock 'n' Roll Soccer (2014)

By Ian Plendelieith

The attention that the United States team received in the World Cup soccer tournament this summer caught many by surprise. Suddenly, thousands were living and dying with each play of the tournament in Brazil. Large-screen television broadcasts the games to thousands in public squares in cities throughout America. For a country that had yawned at the game for the most part for decades, it was a shock.

However, for those who remember the North American Soccer League, particularly in its glory days of the 1970s, the explosion of interest seemed a bit more credible.

The NASL at one point was selling out Giants Stadium in New Jersey to the tune of 76,000 fans, and some of the biggest names of the game - admittedly past their prime in most cases - were playing on our shores.

It's nice then to have a hard-headed, objective look at what went right and what went wrong with the NASL. Ian Plenderleith supplies exactly that in his book, "Rock 'n' Roll Soccer."

The author takes through the start of American pro soccer in the early Sixties, when we were just starting to figure out how the pro league should get going. After some starts and starts that included a league and teams folding, the NASL got going in earnest.

While you could argue that the Cosmos were the league's flagship team, complete with names like Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer, Plenderleith takes a wider approach. He talks to a variety of people from throughout the league in history. That gives a balanced approach to the NASL as a whole. Some of the names and teams mentioned ought to bring back memories. It would be easy to stick to the Cosmos, since they were the glamour team that attracted most of the publicity and are the subject of many of the books covering that time period. Plenderleith is after a wider story, one sticking to soccer as opposed to delving into drugs and parties off the pitch.

The NASL did plenty of things wrong, as the author points out. It expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money in those days, and eventually the dollars dried out. When the fad faded, the league came crashing down rather quickly in the early 1980s.

But Plenderleith points out that the NASL has had an influence on the game that still is felt today. The rest of the world was content with 0-0 or 1-0 games that left soccer with a reputation for boredom here. The NASL encouraged scoring at all costs, and thus increased the entertainment value. It also worked to teach the game to newcomers, and brought show biz to the game presentation. Teams in other countries were taking notes, and international soccer evolved to encompass those qualities.

Plenderleith serves as a good guide for all of this. He obviously knows the game, and it's interesting to read his comments after watching games on DVDs years later. The NASL's level of play seems to surprise him. Plenderleith, an Englishman who has spent many years here, does a little bashing of Washington as a representative of American society as a whole in one section. There's a little anger there, and it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the book. Otherwise, though, he's supplies knowledge and perspective.

"Rock 'n' Roll Soccer," then really fits a nice little niche in reviewing an era with American soccer in a way that appeals to fans of the sport. It's a valuable addition to the library of those who qualify, even if that number won't be overwhelmingly large.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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