By Ken Pendleton
USSoccerPlayers (January 11, 2007) — In retrospect, perhaps the North American Soccer League should have chosen its battles more carefully.
The league founders had so little faith in the entertainment value of the sport that they constantly implemented changes to encourage more attacking and goals. They introduced extra time and a form of penalty shootouts, awarded teams additional points for scoring up to three goals, and moved the offside line back to the 35-yard-line. All of this experimentation made the NASL look carnival-like and heretical, but this was not the first time that the offside rule had been changed.
During the first part of the 20th Century, three defenders had to be behind the most advanced attacking player when the ball was played to be onside. Defenders could effectively have their cake and eat it, too. One of the two fullbacks could try to trap the attacker while the other remained behind in case he failed. These cynical tactics were said to have reduced opponents to "gibbering frustration." Games were marred by frequent stoppages, play became concentrated in midfield, and goals dropped to 2.54 per match by the 1924-25 season.
Change did not come quickly.
In 1901, one league official acknowledged that part of soccer’s appeal was "an element of the spectacular," and that "those who pay have a right be considered," but quickly reminded critics that the priority, quite justifiably, was to get a result.
In 1913, the Scottish FA wanted to reduce the number of defenders from three to two, but faced determined opposition from those who felt that this change would give forwards an unfair advantage and "penalize good back play."
In 1923, the English FA proposed that the offside line be moved to 40 yards away from the goal-line, as "it would largely reduce the number of stoppages and permit of the game being carried on more consecutively and with more satisfaction to spectators." The proposal failed narrowly the first two times, but the shortage of goals in the 24-25 season convinced FA officials, club directors, managers and players that matters had reached a crisis point.
After a few experimental matches, the proposal to reduce the number of defenders from three to two was adopted. Goals shot up to 3.44 per game the next season, but teams started to play with three defenders (the center half joined the two fullbacks) and the average declined to 2.94 per game by the 1937-38 season. What’s more, some critics claimed that speed had become more important than skill, but one of the officials who advocated the change still defended it on the grounds that it had "given us more attractive football than ever, and saved us 20 or 30 useless stoppages that always happened under the old rule."
By the time the NASL began to experiment, the goals-per-game average had fallen back to the levels that caused the FA to concede there was a crisis in the ’20s. This is certainly how NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam saw matters:
"From what I can see of football in Britain it is time for drastic changes to be made if the game is to stay alive. The back lines were all squeezing up to the halfway line and taking all the space for the creative players … Another reason for bringing in a new rule was because so many of our fields were very narrow. Good players can’t play unless they have space and they were getting squeezed both ways."
Many of the players thought that this rule change accomplished what was Woosnam had hoped. Former Arsenal midfielder John Samuels thought the additional space "showed who could play" and that it greatly handicapped physical players. "Give a bad player a lot of space and he will look bad." Midfielder Terry Garbett, who had played in the English Football League before joining the Cosmos, could not believe how much space he had.
"After years of players pounding on top of you, to turn around and have seven or eight yards of space was a strange experience."
Another Englishman, Keith Eddy, felt the fact that Strikers only had to retreat to the 35 or 40-yard-line could prolong careers because games were less draining. "I could have played two games at a time in the NASL."
There were critics, however.
Charlie Cooke, the Scotsman who was known as the Wizard of the Dribble, thought there was too much tampering and that the offside change did not make nay difference. Bob McNab, who earned caps for England, thought the rule was like communism — "a great idea, but it did not work." The problems, in his view, was that defenders would just drop back and mark strikers even more tightly because there was so little space to play balls behind them. Steve Earle also thought that it hurt attackers, especially those with speed. There was just too little space to exploit. "If you played alongside a big man, all his flick-ons went straight to the keeper."
The experiment ended in 1982 at FIFA’s request, but I’m not at all convinced that it was a failure. It did handicap players who relied on pace, but it put an emphasis on skill, timing and guile.
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers played Gerd Mueller, whose pace had all but abandoned him, up front, yet he still managed to poach lots of goals because he understood the craft of the game. The man who scored the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup could not have compensated for his increasing waistline if he would have had to work back to midfield, but the 35-yard offside line prolonged the 33-year-old’s career for three more seasons. He not only scored 19 goals in 1979, but the one-twos he worked with the Peruvian Teofilo Cubillas were absolutely sublime. A speedier but less adroit player simply could not have worked that kind of magic.
This raises an important point. The rules selected, and the manner in which they are applied, does not just impact how the game is played, they actually go a long way towards determining who will prosper or who will fail.
Do we want a sport that places an emphasis on pace, stamina, and physical play, or do we want one that places a premium on being skillful and creative? Since 1982, goals have come harder to come by, in large part because the rule makers have not kept pace with the evolution of the game, with the fact that players now run twice as much as they did 35 years ago.
In a sense, the NASL, and Woosnam, were ahead of their time. They recognized that the lack of attacking was cause for grave concern.