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Phil Woosnam, 'father of pro soccer,' dies

Phil Woosnam, then-commissioner of the North American Soccer

Phil Woosnam, then-commissioner of the North American Soccer League stands in front of NASL's team flags. Credit: AP, 1977

Phil Woosnam, considered by many to be the father of U.S. professional soccer as the first commissioner of the original North American Soccer League, has died. He was 80.

Woosnam, who battled Alzheimer's disease, died Friday night in Dunwoody, Ga., near Atlanta, according to his longtime friend and colleague former New York Cosmos president Clive Toye.

It was during Woosnam's 15-year tenure (1968-82) as commissioner that soccer planted its roots in the United States, helping fuel a movement that is still being felt by Major League Soccer today. Superstars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia played in the league.

"To me, he's the father of professional soccer in this country," said Ted Howard, deputy general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. Howard worked under Woosnam as NASL executive director and deputy commissioner. "When [the league] went to five and six teams, he picked it up and made it whatever it became. I don't think anybody would ever deny that.

"You can't do it all by yourself. But clearly he was just that dynamic. He led that charge."

During an online interview conducted through instant messages Saturday, Toye remembered how he and Woosnam started the NASL in the late 1960s. They ran the league from the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

"Then we shared the visitors' locker room in Atlanta when we were the league's only two employees," Toye said. "And we talked and talked and talked . . . about Pele about the World Cup coming here, about American players and so on and so forth.

"We decided that if/when they found the owners for a New York club, one of us would run the league and one of us would run New York."

Before coming to the United States to play for the Atlanta Chiefs in the fledgling National Professional Soccer League in 1967, Woosnam enjoyed a 16-year career in English soccer, playing for Manchester City, Leyton Orient, West Ham United and Aston Villa. Woosnam also played 17 games for the Welsh national team.

A member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, Woosnam was named NASL coach of the year in 1968 (with the Atlanta Chiefs) and also directed the U.S. national team to a 4-4-1 record that year.

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