In Atlanta, spreading soccer contagion at parade rest

Ron Newman

Newman

“These balls were coming down with snow on them,” Newman remembers. “My head was sore.” A quick changing-room consultation sorted out the problem. Immediately, the multicultural realities of the new league were on display. Max Wozniak, a polyglot from Israel, translated for his Los Angeles side, which had a strong contingent of players from the former Yugoslavia. Legendary Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher took time out from early-season Braves action to comment on the peculiarities of the new sport. The two teams’ warm-up routines, he wrote, were “almost terpsichorean in aspect, jigging, knee-bending, tippy-toeing and general ballet.”

Another watershed moment for bringing soccer to the masses occurred the following month when Chiefs players rode on a Memorial Day float through downtown Atlanta. They looked somewhat misplaced in generic red kit, without numbers on their shirts. Newman decided to take action and jumped off the float to kick a ball to spectators.

Everybody was looking at us thinking, “Who in the hell are they? What do they do?” We didn’t have much information on the float, and I said, well, this is a bit silly going down here and nobody knows who we are. So I got a ball, I found a ball on the float and I jumped off the float—something we weren’t supposed to do—and I started playing passes … and juggling with the kids sitting on the pavement alongside. We ended up being the highlight of the whole show, getting all sorts of cheers. That was our first introduction into promoting soccer in this country.

Former NASL president Clive Toye in A Kick in the Grass: The Slow Rise and Quick Demise of the NASL (St. Johann, 2006) lists Newman among the most determined of the soccer builders. “They’ll be closing the lid on Ron,” Toye writes, “and he’ll be talking soccer to the pall bearers and trying to get a quick game of 3-a-side.”

Whether apocryphal or not, Newman elsewhere recalls, when he was coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, confronting a caretaker who had lined over a school soccer pitch with baseball markings. Baseball, Newman informed him, would soon be obsolete. As coach of Dallas Tornado, Newman remembers children showing up for practice in American football jerseys, the oversized garments, styled for shoulder padding, hanging down and interfering with soccer’s contrasting aesthetic: “ ‘You know,’ I said, ‘soccer has its own identity.’ ” Newman still refers to an American football as “that elongated thing.”

In fact, Newman says he encountered little antipathy toward soccer until the sport, especially with the popularity of the Cosmos, began to encroach on baseball’s summertime allure. He mentions the tell-tale aerial views from a 1977 UK documentary, Star Spangled Soccer, showing Giants Stadium packed for the Cosmos and, simultaneously in Queens, a few thousand diehards who had turned out for the failure-prone Mets.

Mainstream media has been complicit, Newman argues, in keeping the game from receiving its full due. “Soccer in this country from the word ‘go,’ ” he says, “has never taken a step back. It’s always grown.”

Newman would see some of the most extraordinary moments in the development of American soccer—including coaching Dallas against Cosmos in Pelé‘s first NASL match in 1975, with Tornado star Kyle Rote Jr. notoriously presenting the Brazil flag upside down during a pre-match ceremony—but it all began humbly. After getting off the plane in Atlanta in 1967, Newman and family were amazed by the size of buildings and the width of new highways. Atlanta Stadium developers, failing to foresee future overdevelopment and the resulting gridlock, had boasted that one could drive to the facility without encountering traffic lights.

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