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Playing The Percentages

We know that our current domestic soccer league is far more American-ized than its predecessor, but by how much?

About 60% of those on the current list of MLS players are American-born. I wondered how that compared to the NASL. Taking a quick snapshot of three specific seasons in NASL history (each five years apart), I came up with the following quick chart:

Nationality 1974 1979 1984
USA 59 (20%) 102 (19%) 39 (21%)
Canada 10 (3%) 32 (6%) 25 (13%)
UK 103 (35%) 162 (30%) 49 (26%)
Other 120 (41%) 239 (45%) 76 (40%)

The percentage of American players (and I used American-born when possible – the NASL had a fairly-significant number of naturalized US citizens as well, as we’ll see in a minute) remained fairly constant in those snapshots at around 20%. But the percentage of Canadian players went from 3% in 1974 to 13% a decade later (with two teams in Canada in both of those years – Toronto and Vancouver). It may not be a coincidence that Canada qualified for its only World Cup in 1986, as 17 of the 22 players on that squad played in the NASL.

Anyone who followed the NASL knows there was significant UK (especially English) representation (basically the reason we play in the summer is because of the number of players we needed to import during Europe’s off-season just to fill out rosters). That percentage dropped a bit over the course of this quick study, from 35% in 1974 to just 26% in 1984. Meanwhile, the percentage of players from elsewhere (South America, substantially) remained fairly constant.

That was just a quick snapshot based on pure numbers of rostered players, but I wanted to go a little bit deeper. The 1982 NASL season is one for which I have minutes played stats for everybody, so I wanted to check to see if Americans were just tokens or if they were playing substantial roles (keep in mind the NASL had fluctuating requirements for how many North Americans had to be on the field at all times, but there was always a requirement of at least a handful).

Looking at it by minutes played, the 1982 NASL season broke down thusly (with teams ranked by their percentage of minutes played by US-born players):

Team # USA Min Total Min USA Pct.
Chicago 8 8,715 32,095 27.2%
Seattle 5 8,236 32,342 25.5%
Jacksonville 5 8,306 32,772 25.3%
Tulsa 6 7,192 30,494 23.6%
San Jose 7 6,675 31,615 21.1%
Cosmos 5 6,593 31,993 20.6%
Ft. Lauderdale 2 4,565 32,151 14.2%
Portland 3 3,851 31,234 12.3%
San Diego 2 2,021 32,391 6.2%
Vancouver 1 1,899 32,521 5.8%
Montreal 1 1,311 32,533 4.0%
Tampa Bay 3 1,296 32,418 4.0%
Edmonton 1 566 31,252 1.8%
Toronto 0 0 31,126 0.0%
NASL 44 61,226 446,937 13.7%

(The team totals of US-born players add to 49, but five players spent time with more than one team. There were only 44 American-born players in the NASL in 1982, though there were another 22 who were naturalized citizens.)

So, in all, about 14% of the available minutes went to American-born players.

Chicago led the way with eight American-born players, but only three were regulars (Rudy Glenn, Mark Simanton and Charlie Fajkus).

The Tulsa Roughnecks had six Yanks, including three who played substantial roles in goalkeeper Winston DuBose, forward Tim TwellmanTaylor‘s dad -and defender Don Droege. Twellman actually ended up in Chicago via a midseason trade.

And here were the top 10 American-born players in terms of minutes played:

Top 10 American-Born Players, NASL, 1982
Rk Player Pos Team Age Minutes
1 Winston DuBose G Tulsa 26 2,961
2 Mike Hunter D San Jose 23 2,817
3 Glenn Myernick D Portland 27 2,756
4 Mark Peterson F Seattle 22 2,707
5 Jeff Stock M Seattle 21 2,491
6 Rudy Glenn M Chicago 23 2,449
7 Poll Garcia F Jacksonville 24 2,391
8 Bruce Savage D Ft. Lauderdale 21 2,325
9 Dan Cantner D Ft. Lauderdale 20 2,240
10 Mark Simanton M Chicago 23 2,232

You have to remember two things – had the NASL not had a quota system (which varied from year to year, but was gradually increasing, in general) mandating a certain number of North Americans on the field at all times, the numbers would probably be lower. We didn’t have a lot of guys who could actually play. And MLS has gone the other way – limiting the number of foreign players (without green cards) who can be on a roster, which tends to boost the numbers.

Are there more quality American players now than in 1982? No question (there’d better be, after nearly 30 years of development). Is MLS too Americanized? That’s for you to decide, I guess.

2 Responses to Playing The Percentages

  1. I just talked to a guy a couple of days ago who told me his ex-girlfriend was OBSESSED WITH WINSTON DUBOSE back in the day….

    hmmm…. 1982?….. I couldn’t resist keeping the Lite Beer commercial…. lineups are at 5:06…

    My thoughts: the NASL loved American goalkeepers because it kept the teams from having to put another American in the field of play to meet the quota. My favorite American who played for Tulsa was Joe Morrone, but even he wasn’t allowed to be a leader on the field. So, most all the American players were “role players” and never really allowed to develop as much as they should have. Never mind the fact that so many NASL cities (including the Cosmos) played their games on Astroturf.

    My first MLS game was at Mile High for the Rapids vs. KC. I liked seeing the game on grass but I noticed the talent level was a lot lower– however, it was GREAT to see an American like Marcelo Balboa put his stamp on that game… non-naturalized American players actually assuming leadership roles…. been a fan ever since!


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