Before the modest evolution of its successor, Major League Soccer, there was the bluster and bravado of the North American Soccer League (NASL) - a name that draws equal parts glory-day nostalgia and rueful dismay from those in the States old enough to remember it. Like a shooting star, it didn't last long but it sure shone brightly.

Spurred to some extent by the surprisingly high ratings of a televised broadcast of the 1966 FIFA World Cup final between England and Germany from Wembley, two major professional football leagues emerged in the USA in 1967.

By year's end the United Soccer Association (USA) and the independent National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) had merged to create the North American Soccer League.

From even before the turn of the 20th century, semi-professional football leagues had been in existence in the States but they were largely the reserve of ethnic strongholds in the northeast. Early in the history of the FIFA World Cup, a team of US players - drawn largely from these communities - finished fourth at the first finals in Uruguay in 1930 and pulled off one of the shocks of the century by beating England in Brazil in 1950. But the emergence of the NASL marked the first attempt to create a league spanning the entire country. 

Growing pains
The first few years proved tough ones for the young league, as officials - humbly headquartered in the basement of Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia - tried their hardest to persuade resistant American sports fans to give football a go. The game - which by the early sixties had become a rampant global phenomenon - was still considered largely a 'foreign' pastime in the States and the stranglehold of the 'big three' sports of gridiron, basketball and baseball proved difficult to break. Between the 1968 and 1969 seasons, 12 of the league's 17 teams folded in one of the largest breakdowns in organised American sports history.

But the gloom and doom sentiments pervading the league quickly turned to sunshine in 1975 when Brazilian legend Pele - the world's best-ever player - came out of retirement and signed with the New York Cosmos for a reported 4.5 million US dollars. After some initial growing pains the league began to grow again and even spread north, encompassing teams based in Canada. And with the world's best known player, it had instant on-field credibility.  The handful of teams that survived the early purges of the late sixties emerged as a bona fide core for the league to build around.

Though Pele stayed with the Cosmos for only two seasons (his farewell match against former club Santos at the meadowlands in which he played a half for each team drew nearly 78,000 spectators), the team became a sporting powerhouse and helped earn the league respectability and an all-important network television broadcast deal.

Simply known as the Cosmos (they brashly dropped the 'New York' portion of their name as their popularity grew) became the NASL's flagship team and some, even to this day, refer to it as the best club team in history. Owned by Warner Brothers, the Cosmos had a financial base none of its rivals could match. The star-studded side drew weekly crowds of close-to 50,000 and went on to win five league titles including back-to-back championships in '77 and '78, widely regarded as the league's high-water mark.

Foreign policy
Suddenly, football was alive and competing on the American sports landscape and scores of the world's top players were arriving on US shores by the boatload.  Pele was joined at the Meadowlands by FIFA World Cup winner Franz Beckenbaur of Germany, former Brazilian captain Carlos Alberto, Netherlands and Barcelona idol Johan Neeskins and Italy's prolific forward, Giorgio Chinaglia.

The late George Best turned up to play in the sunny confines of LA, with the Aztecs and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Johann Cruyff joined the league as well in hopes of establishing a 'second Cosmos' with the Washington Diplomats.  Portuguese legend Eusebio spent a few years alongside Bobby Moore, FIFA World Cup top scorer Gerd 'the Bomber' Muller, Poland icon Kaz Denya, Geoff Hurst - the only man to score a hat-trick in a FIFA World Cup final - Real Madrid and Mexico marksman Hugo Sanchez, Teofillo 'Nene' Cubillas of Peruvian fame and fabled Italian winger Roberto Bettega. 

Although some home-grown American players like Rick Davis and Warner Roth were pushed through the system, it was the foreign names that drew the most attention - a fact that may have contributed to the early demise of the league and was high on the list of things to be avoided when MLS emerged over a decade after the NASL's collapse.

With short-sighted business practices and a profound lack of organisation, the league, after proving for a brief period that soccer was marketable in the States, burned out and collapsed under the its own weight in 1984. In a rather telling statistic, the United States - despite having a powerhouse league - were unable to qualify for a FIFA World Cup during the NASL's existence from '67 to '84.

Lasting for 17 seasons, the NASL and its whopping 62-team roll call of clubs (including the ill-advised Team Hawaii and the rather comical-sounding Colorado Carabous) now stands as something of a cautionary tale, but for many Americans it represented an initiation to the beautiful game informed by some of its finest-ever players.

Back to the dark times of the semi-pro structure, the next try in the States for a nationwide professional league came in 1996 with Major League Soccer. Intent on learning from the mistakes of the indulgent NASL, organisation and slow movement proved the hallmarks of the new league - about to start its 11th season. 

NASL Champions:
1968 Atlanta Chiefs
1969 Kansas City Spurs
1970 Rochester Lancers
1971 Dallas Tornado
1972 New York Cosmos
1973 Philadelphia Atoms
1974 Los Angeles Aztecs
1975 Tampa Bay Rowdies
1976 Toronto Metros-Croatia
1977 New York Cosmos
1978 New York Cosmos
1979 Vancouver Whitecaps
1980 New York Cosmos
1981 Chicago Sting
1982 New York Cosmos
1983 Tulsa Roughnecks
1984 Chicago Sting