The North American Soccer League (NASL) was the major professional league in the States between 1968 and 1984. Its popularity peaked in the mid-to-late ’70s. Many of the biggest names in world football played there. Players such as Pele, Best, Moore, Ball, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Eusebio and Muller all graced its stadia. Arguably, they were only attracted by the riches available and moved there as their careers were beginning to wane. British professionals flooded the rosters of all the teams. But look down the list of top goalscorers during this period and you won’t see the names of Best, Marsh, Francis or Ball.
Instead, you have Alan Willey, Ron Futcher, Paul Child and Laurie Abrahams.
Born in Houghton-le-Spring in County Durham, Willey began his career with Middlesbrough. A promising striker, he suffered from the competition for places at the time at Ayresome Park. David Mills (who became England’s first half-a-million-pound footballer), Alan Foggon and John Hickton were all established as the forward line. Willey found it hard to break through, often used as a substitute.
He made his debut for Boro in September 1974 in a 3-0 home win over Man City. He kept his place for the win at Tottenham a week later and then his first goal for the club came as a sub in a 2-1 win over Wolves a week after that. It was the winning goal but not enough to convince the manager, Jack Charlton, to give him a regular spot. He finished 1974-75 season with seven starts and ten sub appearances. He scored three goals during that campaign, and oddly enough whenever he started they never lost.
In the following season, Minnesota Kicks coach Freddie Goodwin made a trip to Middlesbrough to watch a couple of the players in a reserve game. Willey wasn’t one of them but scored twice in the match and Goodwin spoke to Charlton about the possibility of signing him for Minnesota. Charlton had only been giving Willey about ten minutes each game as a sub, so, figured he could do with the playing time.
Back in the ’70s, there was a growing movement which saw America as a useful breeding ground to send players off to gain experience. Gradually more and more of the world’s stars made their way to the States for the money and razzmatazz.
Willey was an immediate success with 16 goals in his first season. This was the Kicks’ first season as the franchise had moved from Denver at the end of the previous one. They reached the Soccer Bowl, the final match of the season to determine the overall champion.
In a side made up of nine Englishmen, Willey lined up to face Toronto, who had none. But they had Eusebio. He scored the first as Toronto ran out 3-0 winners.
These deals were mainly loan arrangements, so, Willey returned to Ayresome Park. At the beginning of the 1976-77 season, he was Boro’s top scorer with three goals in four starts, including two in a win over Sunderland. Then, when they travelled to Liverpool, Charlton left Willey on the bench. He preferred a more defensive lineup and it worked in a 0-0 draw. He was back to being in and out of the side with only another seven starts and seven appearances off the bench coming his way for the rest of the season.
Goodwin called again and off went Willey over to Minnesota. 14 goals in 20 games followed and he was achieving notoriety amongst the local fans. He was getting game time and found the home fans to be a little more forgiving than at Boro.
He returned to England for the following season, but his only appearance was as a sub in a 1-1 draw with Ipswich at the end of September. Boro had changed managers with John Neal taking over from Jack Charlton. Plus, with Stan Cummins now emerging as Mills’ partner up front, Willey was continually overlooked. By February he was off back to the USA but this time it was permanent.
He netted a further 21 goals in 1978, adding seven in the play-offs. It was during this play-off period he sealed his fame.
The New York Cosmos was the big-time team in NASL. That season they set a points total record during the regular season. Former Italian striker, Giorgio Chinaglia, scored 34 goals as they also set a record for most wins.
The Cosmos boasted the likes of Franz Beckenbauer (World Cup winner 1974), Carlos Alberto (World Cup winner 1970), Vladislav Bogicevic and Dennis Tueart. The Cosmos and the Kicks were the big-two in terms of attendance figures and it was a much-anticipated meeting.
Minnesota set a play-off record of their own with an incredible 9-2 win. Willey scored five. Former Arsenal double-winner, Charlie George was also on the scoresheet as early as 52 seconds. Cosmos were the defending champions, so it was a crushing win. But the vagaries of NASL rules meant they only needed to win the second leg to take the game into a tie-breaker. The scoreline mattered not a jot. The tie-breaker was a ‘mini-game’ of thirty minutes. If either side scored during the thirty minutes the game was over. If scores were level during this period, a shootout would decide things.
The Cosmos won the return match, 4-0 and then the shootout, 2-1 to progress through to their second successive Soccer Bowl (Play-off Final) where they beat Rodney Marsh’s Tampa Bay Rowdies to lift their second trophy. Although Marsh missed the game through injury.
Later Willey would go on to explain;
“It hurt the way it was. Especially the guys coming over from Europe, it’s always been total goals with away goals counted as double. But here it’s based on having to win both games. When you beat someone 9-2 and get knocked out, you think it’s not fair.”
One of his teammates at Kicks, Alan Merrick, described Willey as “head and shoulders above any of the other young English players over here. A great striker of the ball, great attitude and work rate.”
Ankle injuries slowed his progress in 1980 and 1981 and he was then sold to Montreal Manic. Sometimes the NASL clubs could be brutal. Players would be sold without knowledge or agreement, and clubs could relocate whenever it suited the owners. Willey scored 15, 13 and 15 goals in his final three NASL seasons. The last season was back at Minnesota with the Strikers who had relocated from Fort Lauderdale.
Willey lies second to Chinaglia in the all-time NASL goals tally with 129 in 238 games over nine seasons. He remains a favourite with Minnesota fans, who nicknamed him “the Artful Dodger”. In 2015 the game between Minnesota United and Fort Lauderdale was known as Alan Willey day.
Once the NASL folded, Willey went onto to feature in Major Indoor Soccer which also became a hit stateside.
Nowadays Willey is the colour-commentator for Minnesota United telecasts.
Part of the success the Kicks had when Willey was playing was down to his partnership up front with Ron Futcher. Futcher’s career goal tally is only ten behind his partner over 37 fewer matches.
Futcher’s route to Minnesota was a similar one to Willey. Goodwin came to Luton Town looking at players such as Jimmy Husband and John Aston. Futcher, then 19, was asked by manager, Harry Haslam (the man who almost signed Maradona for Sheffield United), if he wanted to go to the States to get some game time. He jumped at the chance.
Born in Chester, he began playing alongside his twin brother, Paul and another brother, Graham at Chester City. But very soon both he and Paul moved to Luton Town. Both with a shock of long blond hair they were easy to pick out. Paul at the back, Ron up front.
He’d made just one appearance off the bench at the beginning of November 1974 at Stoke. But he didn’t appear again until Haslam started him in the Boxing Day trip to Ipswich. Futcher scored the only goal of the game. Two days later he banged in a hat-trick in a 3-2 win at home to Wolves.
His seven goals in 16 games weren’t enough to save them from the drop to the Second Division.
His first season with the Kicks saw him bag 14 goals. His no-nonsense style soon caught the mood with the local fans. He was the typical old-fashioned English number nine, and made the perfect foil for Willey. The big striker creating space for the smaller, nippier goalscorer to take advantage.
Futcher was in that side, along with Willey, which lost the 1976 Soccer Bowl to Toronto. A year later they made the play-offs again but were knocked out at the first attempt when they lost both games to Seattle. Seattle went onto lose to the Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl, Pele’s final game.
Futcher put the Kicks in front in the first game but two late goals gave Seattle the advantage to take back home. A Tommy Ord penalty won the second game for Seattle and they were through.
His career back in England fared far better than Willey. During the 1976-77 season, he finished top scorer at Kenilworth Road with 13 goals in 30 appearances. He missed just three games the following season, again finishing club’s top scorer with 10 goals. But then he was off to Manchester City. Tony Book signed him and Paul up for the start of the 1978-79 season. Just like his Luton days, he bagged a hat-trick in his second start. They beat Chelsea 4-1 at Stamford Bridge, Mick Channon scored the other.
With a goal a week later against Spurs, and another at Birmingham, he had five goals in his first four games for City. His final start for the club was at Elland Road at the beginning of January. His final goal was a week later when he came off the bench to score in front of the cameras at home to Chelsea.
By this time, his NASL goal tally had reached 46. The Kicks then offered him a three-year contract at which he had no hesitation in accepting.
The demise of the Kicks saw him move to Portland Timbers where he scored 13 goals in their final season. Unsure what to do next, he was on the verge of signing for Lawrie McMenemy at Southampton when he got a call from Tulsa. Former Welsh international, Terry Hennessy offered him an 18-month deal.
At the Roughnecks he scored 33 goals in two seasons. In 1983, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Toronto in the Soccer Bowl. By 1984 he’d left the States for good, with a record of 119 goals from 201 matches.
Back in Europe, he had a brief spell with NAC Breda in the Netherlands then back to England with Barnsley then Oldham. Joe Royle, who’d been at Manchester City when Futcher began his career at Luton Town, signed him for Oldham and the 31-year-old was the top scorer with 17 goals in 1986. He then moved to Bradford City before finishing his career at Port Vale, Burnley and Crewe Alexandra.
By then he was playing in front of crowds who had no idea of his success in the USA.
“People thought the NASL was just the Cosmos, Earthquakes and Rowdies. I was in Minneapolis, a Midwest town that never got much attention. But if the league hadn’t folded I would have stayed in America.”
One player who never returned to England was Paul Child. Born in Birmingham and being a Blues fan, he signed for their rivals Aston Villa as a teenager. At 19 he snapped up the opportunity to play for Atlanta Chiefs who were coached by former Villa player, Vic Crowe. He scored eight goals in each of his first two seasons and hoped he would be able to break through at Villa Park.
Instead, the club let him go and he moved permanently to San Jose Earthquakes. 15 goals in his first season lead to 61 overall in five years.
A very physical player he was not blessed with a lot of finesse, yet would go in where it hurt. In his own community he was a hero. He would knock people over and pick them back up again. The American fans didn’t necessarily pick up on the finer points of the game, so seeing a bustling striker force his way through to score was something they could easily relate to.
The Earthquakes, keen to improve their struggling finances, sold him to the Memphis Rogues in 1980. He scored 12 goals in his first season before the owner decided he was folding the team.
He played one more season in the NASL when he scored 13 goals back at the Atlanta Chiefs. His NASL career ended with a tally of 102 goals in 241 appearances, and along with Willey and Futcher, he is one of seven players to reach a ton.
He moved onto the indoor league where he was a goalscoring success for another seven years.
He was inducted to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003 and in 2013 inducted into the San Jose Earthquakes Hall of Fame. Landon Donovan has spoken of being influenced by watching Child.
Abrahams was born in Stepney, London. After a successful season with Barking, he signed a professional contract with Charlton Athletic. He lined up against Fulham at Craven Cottage for his debut at the beginning of the 1977-78 season, scoring in a 1-1 draw. In the team that day was Mike Flanagan who was already playing in the States. George Best was still at Fulham then but had not returned in time for this match.
He only made a further 11 starts that season, scoring only once more. Former West Ham and Manchester United player, Noel Cantwell, was manager of the New England Tea Men and he signed Abrahams to play in the NASL. Flanagan and Colin Powell, his Charlton teammates, were there as well so he was made welcome.
He scored seven goals and made 10 assists before moving to the Tulsa Roughnecks. He didn’t particularly enjoy the experience, possibly due to his fiery nature. But he scored 10 goals in 13 games, nonetheless. Later that season he was sold to the California Surf. He continued to score goals wherever he went and was a handful on and off the pitch.
Cantwell said of the player;
“Laurie was a bit of a jack-the-lad. He would play well one week or two and then disappear, then come out with something exceptional. He knew the game but I don’t think he took it seriously.”
He had a second spell with Tulsa under Hennessy. 28 goals came from this spell. He was voted Most Valuable Player in 1983.#”
After the Roughnecks ran into financial trouble and Hennessy left, Abrahams moved onto the San Diego Sockers. This was NASL’s final season and it wasn’t a happy one for the player. It was a shame it ended that way. 76 goals in 162 appearances was a good return for someone who rarely seemed to be a team player.
References: Playing For Uncle Sam: The Brits’ Story of the North American Soccer League by David Tossell