Former MetroStars and Red Bulls GM and president Alexi Lalas (right), pictured by former head coach Mo Johnston, was drafted by the same NPSL team in consecutive seasons and did not sign with them both times.
This week FrontRowSoccer.com kicks off a special series before Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft. The first part is about a remembrance of a league that helped laid the groundwork for today’s MLS — the North American Soccer League.
By Michael Lewis
The last North American Soccer League draft took place more than three decades ago, which is more than generation in the past.
Due to the process of Americanization of the league, in which teams originally were required to have at least one U.S. player — native or naturalized — in the lineup at all times, it certainly made for some, ahem, interesting drafts.
Here are some of the more tasty morsels of one of the more colorful periods in American soccer history.
The first man
Defender Alain Maca, son of Joe Maca, who played for the U.S. in its 1-0 upset of England in the 1950 World Cup, was the NASL’s first draft choice ever — on Feb. 9, 1972 — by the Miami Gatos, the forerunners of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. His NASL career was an undistinguished one, scoring one goal in 41 games over three seasons. Maca, a Brockport State graduate, also played two seasons in the American Soccer League. The Gatos, incidentally, took Maca over Kyle Rote and Shep Messing.
“It was flattering being drafted first,” Maca said years later. “It was a nice feeling at the time. I didn’t get rich from it. But I guess being No. 1 was my reward.”
In 1979, Maca had some advice for players: “If you seriously consider being a soccer player, forget college. You lose four years. When you’re 21 or 22, you should be ready to play. It took some players nearly five years to develop. Others never did.”
The first woman
The Chicago Sting selected Marilyn Lange, Playboy’s 1975 Playmate of the Year, in the fourth and final round of the 1976 draft. Lange, who played soccer in her native Hawaii, never played a minute for the Sting.
“I wouldn’t want to play against the guys the Sting play,” she said. “They’re too rough.”
Lost in the publicity for Lange was the fact the Tampa Bay Rowdies also selected a woman — B.J. Woodward of North Carolina in the fourth round.
On Jan. 14, 1976, the Rochester Lancers (NASL) drafted Jim Pollihan, Dale Rothe, Terry Lippman and Steve Cacciatore in that order. A week later, the Los Angeles Skyhawks picked these players in the same order in the American Soccer League draft: Pollihan, Rothe, Lippman and Cacciatore. Hmmm, coincidence or a plot by then Skyhawks coach Ron Newman?
“That’s a compliment to the Lancers,” he said. “I always draft good ones . . . Let’s face it. They have a better chance to play here.”
The Lancers signed Pollihan, who enjoyed a long career in pro soccer (he wound up as the general manager of the Harrisburg Heat) and Lippman, while the fate of Rothe and Cacciatore was not known.
How much is a draft pick worth? Well, to the 1974 NASL champion Los Angeles Aztecs, it was worth seven players. That’s right, the Aztecs dealt away seven players from their championship team to the expansion San Antonio Thunder for the team’s first pick — second overall — in the 1975 draft and two future first-round draft choices. Aztecs coach Alex Perolli moved to the Thunder after that championship season.
Was it worth it?
UCLA forward Sergio Velasquez, the pick, had a rather disappointing career, scoring two goals and setting up four others over 21 games in three seasons with the Aztecs and Seattle Sounders. The Thunder finished at 6-16, and Perolli was eventually fired. Five players wound up on the Thunder roster. For the record, the seven players for which he was traded: goalkeeper Blas Sanchez, midfielders Luis Marotte and Pedro Martinez and forwards Peter Filotis and Yeprem Nersepian.
Cloak and dagger
The hottest player at the 1980 draft could have been forward Darryl Gee of Oakland Mills High School in Baltimore, who scored 52 goals in 31 games over his final two high school seasons. The University of Tampa brought Gee into town (ironically, the site of the draft) for a visit and hid him from the press. The New York Cosmos were so sure that no one would know about Gee and were ready to draft him early. But the Minnesota Kicks threw the Cosmos a curve and drafted Gee.
Before Project 40
Almost a generation before Project 40, NASL clubs were allowed to draft high school players, although only a handful of them ever made an impact. A total of 21 high school players were selected among the first 95 picks. In fact, the youngest player taken in the 1980 draft was David James, a defender from Richardson High School in suburban Dallas. He was 16 years and four months old on draft day in December 1979.
Some things never change
With all that wheeling and dealing of draft picks for the MLS SuperDraft, well, the league is following a tradition leftover from NASL days. For the 1980 draft, 13 of the 24 first-round picks were either dealt or sold before the draft. Fort Lauderdale originally owned the 18th selection in the first round. The team dealt it to the Aztecs, who traded it to the Tulsa Roughnecks, who sent it to the California Surf, which dealt it to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
OK, OK, it’s not the NASL, but rather the National Professional Soccer League. Yet, this item was too good to ignore. Former U.S. international and MLS defender and ex-MetroStars/Red Bulls president and general manager Alexi Lalas was drafted by the same NPSL team in consecutive seasons. The Detroit Rockers selected the Birmingham, Michigan, native in the 1992 amateur territorial draft. He didn’t sign, so the Rockers again drafted Lalas in the territorial round of the 1993 draft. He didn’t sign that time, either.