|Sport imitating art: Subbuteo-style, the NASL|
experimented with a 35-yard line to spread
play and decrease offside calls.
Not all of its ideas worked, or were necessarily beneficial to the game as a spectacle, but at least this was a league prepared to instigate a discussion and then take action at a time when FIFA took (and still takes) years to even contemplate the possibility of change. And it happened in a decade, the 1970s, when football was at its nadir of negativity in terms of tactics and goalscoring. In this excerpt from Chapter 7, The NASL vs FIFA and the world, we look at the changes that the NASL, with FIFA’s eventual (but reluctant) approval, made to the field of play. By adding a 35-yard offside line (think Subbuteo), the league attempted to stretch the play, minimize offside, and avoid the tight and frenzied midfield stalemates so prevalent in Europe at the time:
One of the rumours that did the rounds in the 70s was that ‘the Yanks want to abolish the offside law’. This was another supposed example of how the Americans wanted to mutilate and destroy our game, and although it was mooted by a couple of teams at the League’s inception, it was voted down by those who had a vague clue about soccer and its place in the world. However, anyone who recalls the offside trap of the 1970s and 1980s in European soccer might grant the idea of even discussing a change to the offside law a little sympathy. For the benefit of those who weren’t there, or who have shut out the memory, lines of defenders would step forward at the apposite moment with their arms simultaneously raised in appeal, usually catching an opponent clear through on goal, but yards offside. This could happen time and time again, and would prompt much agonizing among television pundits about what to do. The answer, as always from the European game, was nothing. On the other hand, it was of course a wonderful sight when one or more of the defenders got his timing wrong, the linesman kept his flag down, and all of a sudden the forward was through on goal with only the keeper to beat. If the forward scored, the defenders would jaw at the linesman as if he had personally advised them to step up like line dancers and ignore the ball in favour of a negative, under- handed tactic which had never been envisioned when a more Corinthian generation had devised the law as a way of avoiding goal-hangers.
For the unique case of the NASL, though, a modification was in order. In the middle of the 1972 season FIFA allowed the NASL to experiment with an offside line in line with the penalty area, but it was a fiasco – defenders played so deep that play became entrenched in the penalty area and goals per game actually decreased. It was brought upfield to become a 35-yard line for the 1973 season. Long-serving NASL coach Ron Newman explains that one of the reasons the offside line was introduced ‘was mainly down to the fact that we kept playing in high school arenas and they were so long and narrow. You were fitting a soccer field inside a running track, and it was hard in this country, because the running track was a different shape here – more narrow, and you’d get things like a long jump pit down the edge of the field and you had to cover it up.’ With the game already constricted by narrow pitches, having the offside line on halfway squeezed play still further. Despite its introduction being designed to fit the unique case of US soccer, Newman believes ‘without question’ that a 35-yard offside line would have worked for the rest of the world.
Phil Woosnam explained the rationale when FIFA, after a year of deliberation, finally gave the League the go-ahead to try the experiment. ‘By opening up the play with this change in the offside law, we feel that spectators will be treated to a more exciting and enjoyable brand of soccer,’ he said. ‘The entire world of soccer recognizes that changes in the laws that produce greater goal-scoring opportunities must be considered. It is our belief, shared by many European officials, that the ultimate answer is to make a change in the offside rule and the size of the goal.’ Some years later, he explained to Observer journalist Hugh McIlvanney another reason for the offside line: ‘An increasing influence of coaches and players from England in North America was resulting in an increase in the use of offside tactics, congestion of players in midfield and tight marking of skilful players by extremely physical defenders.’