Phil Woosnam, soccer player who later helped bring Pele, other stars to North America

Under Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League grew from five to 24 teams in the United States and Canada.
Associated Press/file 1975
Under Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League grew from five to 24 teams in the United States and Canada.

NEW YORK — Phil Woosnam, a Welsh professional soccer player who became the commissioner of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and held that post until 1983, helping to increase the sport’s profile in the United States, died Friday in Marietta, Ga. He was 80.

The cause was advanced prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Ruth.

A physics and mathematics teacher who played amateur soccer with teams in Wales and England before turning pro in 1958, Mr. Woosnam moved to the United States in 1966, lured by the promise of a new start in soccer in a country largely lukewarm to the world’s game.


Mr. Woosnam was hired as the coach of the Atlanta Chiefs of the fledgling NASL but could not resist a chance to get back on the field; in 1967, he scored the first goal in the first soccer game in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium.

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He was named the league’s coach of the year in 1968. That same year, he also coached the US national team.

He became the commissioner of the league in 1969, when it had only five teams, and presided over its growth to 24 teams across the United States and Canada in 1980.

“Phil was one of the pioneers of professional soccer in North America,’’ Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, said on the league’s website. “When we started MLS, Phil was always willing to share with us his time and his experiences with the NASL.’’

Mixing his passion for soccer with a flair for marketing and promotion, the affable Mr. Woosnam helped to attract well-heeled owners to the NASL: Warner Communications owned the New York Cosmos; Elton John was part owner of the Los Angeles Aztecs; and rock stars Peter Frampton, Rick Wakeman, and Paul Simon were part owners of the Philadelphia Fury.


“Phil truly believed he had a mission in life, to build the game in the USA, and he never stopped working or believing,” Clive Toye, an executive with the Cosmos and other NASL teams, said in an e-mail message.

On the field, Mr. Woosnam was the smiling face of the NASL as it gained attention and a spell of success, attracting stars like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, and Giorgio Chinaglia.

But overexpansion and bad business decisions, including the league’s offices in Midtown Manhattan, led to a slow decline.

In a vote of league owners, Mr. Woosnam was removed as the commissioner in 1983, replaced by Howard Samuels, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic Party. The league folded after the 1984 season.

Despite the league’s ultimate failure — caused by its top-down approach, some said — it planted the seeds of soccer’s growth in the United States, which led to the country’s hosting the 1994 World Cup and to the growth of MLS, which began play in 1996 and will have 20 teams spread across North America by 2015.


Phillip Abraham Woosnam was born on Dec. 22, 1932, in Caersws, Wales, a village with ruins of two Roman forts.

‘‘We are saddened by the loss of one of the most important individuals in the history of American soccer.’

In November 1958, Mr. Woosnam signed a pro contract with West Ham United. In 138 matches for the Hammers, Mr. Woosnam, a striker, scored 26 goals.

He moved to Aston Villa in 1962, playing 106 times and scoring 24 goals. He also appeared 17 times for the national team of Wales, scoring three times.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Woosnam, who lived in Atlanta, leaves a daughter and son from a previous marriage, Valery Bridges and David Woosnam; a stepson, Randy; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Woosnam, who was inducted to the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 1997, once summed up soccer, a sport that has been called the simplest game, this way:

“The rules of soccer are simple. Basically, it is this: If it moves, kick it; if it doesn’t move, kick it until it does.“