Phil Woosnam’s hire fifty years ago today changed the trajectory of soccer in Atlanta forever. He was 33-years-old when he came to Atlanta as a player-coach, leaving a First Division career that saw him suit up for West Ham and Aston Villa for a new adventure in the United States.
Phil Woosnam of West Ham pic.twitter.com/rwWquscLVG— The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag) June 21, 2014
Woosnam was a rarity in professional soccer in the 1960’s. He received his university degree and began a teaching career prior to turning professional as a player. He was known as an intelligent player, quicker of mind than of foot. He was very skillful and always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else.
When Woosnam came to Atlanta in 1966, soccer barely existed in the state of Georgia. The Georgia High School Association recognized soccer as an official sport one year earlier and a handful of schools competed for the first sanctioned state championship, won by Westminster. Organized youth soccer did not exist. The Georgia State Soccer Association did not exist. Atlanta had announced that a professional team was coming, and everything was starting from scratch.
Upon his hire, Phil Woosnam told the Atlanta Constitution:
“This is a chance for me to put something back into the game. Professional soccer players tend to take everything out of it without putting anything back. I consider it a challenge. We really are spreading the gospel.”
His estimated initial salary of $16,500 per year was money well spent. Woosnam’s commitment to outreach and giving back planted all of the important seeds that have Atlanta’s soccer scene flourishing today.
Woosnam committed himself to educating the city about the sport, even writing a column in the Atlanta Constitution for a period of time. He told the United Press International:
“If we are to be a success in this country, we must sell the game to the public.”
On top of his duties as a manager and a part-time player, Woosnam took outreach extremely seriously. In their first year, the Atlanta Chiefs conducted 390 clinics and served over 20,000 kids and coaches all over the region. For most, it was their first time playing soccer.
The efforts of the Chiefs, led by Woosnam, directly resulted in the start of the first organized youth soccer league at the Decatur YMCA, the Atlanta District Amateur Soccer League for adults, and the Georgia State University soccer program. All of these organizations, which still operate today, had their beginnings in 1967 as the Chiefs were finishing their first season. His constant advocacy for the sport has left countless legacies across Atlanta.
Woosnam told the Atlanta Constitution on the eve of the Chiefs’ first training camp in 1967:
“I have no doubts that the game will be accepted here in Atlanta, the South and the nation. I just wonder how long it will take for the people to respond to the game.”
I just wish Phil Woosnam could have been here to see it. #MLSAtlanta— Wendy Parker (@wparker) April 16, 2014
After leading the Chiefs to the NASL championship in 1968, he was asked to help the U.S. national team as manager for World Cup qualifiers. He coached the U.S. to a win over Canada in a World Cup qualifier at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in October 1968. Then, things started to fall apart for the NASL, and Woosnam saved the day.
He became the commissioner of the North American Soccer League at 36-years-old in 1969 and set about saving the league from an office in the visitors locker room at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He solidified the crumbling league, working with Dallas owner Lamar Hunt and building a platform that the Cosmos and other teams used to bring Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and more world class players to American stadiums. The league eventually grew too big, too fast and Woosnam was voted out as commissioner in 1983. The league folded after the 1984 season.
Dick Cecil, former president of the Chiefs, told Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“He was the pied piper of the game. He really brought players and people out to spread it into the suburbs. He took it to a whole new level.”
Even after that disappointment, Woosnam was there to grow to the game around the United States. He was a large part of the successful bid for the 1994 World Cup and worked on the soccer component of the 1996 Olympics. MLS commissioner Don Garber said that Woosnam was “always willing to share with us his time and experiences.”
Woosnam passed away in 2013. Clive Toye, an executive with the Cosmos and other NASL teams, told the New York Times:
“Phil truly believed he had a mission in life, to build the game in the U.S.A., and he never stopped working or believing.”
The Guardian described Phil Woosnam as a “football missionary” upon his passing, largely due to his immense work in the NASL. Let’s all be thankful that his first mission was in Atlanta.