Rock ‘N’ Roll Soccer: The Short Times and Fast Life of the North American Soccer League. By Ian Plenderleith, London: Icon Books Ltd., 2014.
In his new book, Ian Plenderleith, a veteran soccer journalist, chronicles the North American Soccer League’s (NASL) history. Plenderleith’s monograph begins with the NASL’s origins. During the 1966 World Cup, American businessmen saw the tournament’s success and a year later formed the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League. Because of financial losses, these leagues merged to form the NASL in 1968 and began to pursue new ways to expand soccer’s appeal for North American audiences in the hope that the sport might transition from a sideshow and become part of the “big tent” of American sports (alongside gridiron football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey).
This involved Americanizing the game in order to make it more marketable to the United States viewers by adding cheerleaders and concert performances. The league pioneered the practice of offering multi-million dollar contracts to international players—such as Brazilian superstar Pelé, whose signing sparked a major popularity rise. Prior to the NASL, players rarely competed in leagues outside of their birth nation. In each chapter, Plenderleith discusses some aspect of the league’s gimmicks to increase its popularity. Plenderleith argues that the league “introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points” (6). His evidence bolsters his claim that despite the NASL’s demise in 1984, the enterprise evolved into the world’s first international league because of its multiethnic players and coaches. Although the original NASL could not weather financial losses, the current NASL, established in 2009, learned from its predecessor’s mistakes and operates with humble success. Its only connection to the original league remains the New York Cosmos, re-formed in 2010.
With the documentation available, Plenderleith successfully argued his thesis. Of more importance, though, is the primary research he conducted in order to write his monograph, though some of it is hard to discern because Rock N’ Roll Soccer contains limited endnotes and no bibliography. He did, however, rely upon news publications and interviews, plus personal collections of administrators, players, and fans. In his acknowledgements, he enumerates people he interviewed for the book. He also accessed publications such as Soccer America, Soccer Digest, Kick, Sports Illustrated, the Atlanta Constitution, and the New York Times, as well as several monographs, notably Dave Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World and Chuck Cascio’s Soccer USA.
Although the narrative is often difficult to follow–especially for those who are not avid fans–Plenderleith includes helpful tools, including inset photos and drawings that help identify notable figures within the NASL and thus enhance the sport’s visual element. In addition, he splits the narrative with a “Halftime” piece, which offers trivia and a song list he suggested for a NASL Soundtrack (206-9), to give his audience a break. To explain the changes within the teams, he wrote two appendices. The first lists all of the cities with a NASL team, the years they played, and other names given to them. The second shows the championship matches from 1967 to 1984, with both the winners and losers and the final score. At the end of most chapters, he also provides a short season-by-season overview. He also refers readers, who wanted to learn more about the players, games, and statistics, to Colin Jose’s A Complete Record of the North American Soccer League.
Written for the general public, Rock ‘N’ Roll Soccer remains suitable for readers with limited interest in or prior knowledge of the sport. Soccer fans, naturally, will find it particularly intriguing, while the information offers scholars of various backgrounds the ability to use it in their studies. Sport management specialists and economists, along with social and cultural historians, can find attributes of the NASL related to their work, such as why it failed, its attempt to become a major American league, and its effect on society. As one of only a few monographs on NASL, Plenderleith’s work represents important scholarship on American soccer and to history and other academic fields.
Patrick H. Salkeld
University of Central Oklahoma