No one will ever argue about the fact that a great number of players that turned out in NASL had seen their best years in football, but it was not just a league of “old boys” such as Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer.
The fact that some great talented youngsters also traveled over the pond to play is not talked that much about, and they build on that experience to form a life later in European top leagues.
Peter Beardsley was a relatively unknown youngster when he in 1982 moved to Vancouver Whitecaps and had an instant impact and did just a year later sign for Manchester United, but was never given a proper chance, and he returned to Vancouver Whitecaps for a second spell in 1983. He scored 28 goals in 73 NASL games for Whitecaps before he made his breakthrough alongside Kevin Keegan and Chris Waddle at Newcastle United.
Out there in the west of Canada, as far as you can west before you hit the Pacific Ocean was Peter Beardsley coached by Johnny Giles, playing alongside older stars such as Dave Watson, Franz Thijssen, Peter Lorimer, Alan Taylor, David Cross and a number of other great names helping the youngster along his road to fantastic days in football.
Pele was of course the main attraction at New York Cosmos, and later Franz Beckenbauer and Georgio Chinaglia, but out wide on the flank an English youngster really set his mark and became a huge favorite. Steve Hunt, only 21 years of age and on the books of Aston Villa in England made a move to Coventry City and became a favorite in English football as well, later playing again for Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion and also as Beardsley becoming an full England international long after his days in the NASL.
When Vancouver Whitecaps won the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1979, Ray Lewington had joined from Chelsea and he lifted his only major trophy in football as a 23 year old. Lewington moved back to England and played a great number of years at Fulham, and has over the years been seen in many assistant roles under the management of Roy Hodgson.
Carl Valentine who started out at Oldham Athletic, was also at Vancouver Whitecaps and played in that final, he was only 21 at the time. He never got the chance to proof himself at the highest level in Europe and when returned in 1984 he joined West Bromwich Albion who struggled a bit, and the talent of Valentine never really flourished as much as it did in the NASL were he is a legendary player.
Peter Withe who had a great period in England especially with Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa winning the English league at both clubs, also made a move to NASL and Portland Timbers in his early days in football. In 1975 he scored 16 goals in 22 games and was noticed by Birmingham City and as we all know became an England international and playing in the 1982 World Cup.
Gary Mills was a young and very promising player with Nottingham Forest, being seen as something of a phenomena when he as a teenager lifted the European Cup in 1980, but surprisingly decided to join Seattle Sounders playing there in from 1982 to 1983, and he participated for The Sounders in the 1982 Soccer Bowl final being defeated 1-0 by New York Cosmos. Nicky Reid who we all know from a long career at Manchester City also played in that final and he was also just in his early 20’s. Steve Hunt was on the opposite side that evening and in his second spell at Cosmos he won another Soccer Bowl medal.
We should not forget a young Trevor Francis, who had a glorious spell with Detroit Express, scoring goals we have never seen, and just for fun hitting 36 in 33 NASL appearances. Trevor Francis was at Birmingham City at the time and later made his debut for England and won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest, playing in Italy and also appearing in the World Cup.
A lot of young players made the move to gain experience and to play regular first team football and while luckily some of them returned to Europe, a lot of players just stayed in the NASL and was sadly totally forgotten.
Ray Hudson who is a legendary player with Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and maybe one of the biggest stars of US soccer talking all time greats, did never appear in England again after leaving Newcastle United in the mid 70’s, and despite being hailed as one of the best not really seen on the World stage and surprisingly playing only 10 games for Union Solingen in German lower tier football, but that was in 1983 and in the latter stages of his playing career. Hudson described as a player that could win games alone and played alongside Gordon Banks, George Best, Teofilo Cubillas and Gerd Muller in many of his seasons, being the consistent long term favorite of The Strikers.
Tony Whelan is another player to mention. He was a young and exciting talent at Man Utd who made a switch to Man City and after a handful of game vanished into the lower leagues with Rochdale and from there joining the NASL. Whelan was a tall and athletic forward who could also operate in midfield, and his talent was widely known, but despite being seen as massive and great in the NASL never moving back to Europe. He spent his best years in football in America, and one player that England missed. Whelan returned to England and is heavily respected in coaching circles, earning a PHD and has worked with Manchester United academy for a great number of years, but as a player he was not really seen.
The name Mike Dillon might not be the most famous in English football circles and one that got away. He was seen as a bright talent at Tottenham Hotspur in the early 70’s playing just a handfull of games while at White Hart Lane. He was 23 years of age when he joined New York Cosmos in 1975 and instead of playing alongside Steve Perryman, Glenn Hoddle and Osvaldo Ardiles, he instead played alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. Strangely he returned to England and played on loan at Cheshunt in the non-league, and then returned to NASL and finished his playing career with Washington Diplomates, and this time he had Johan Cruyff as a teammate.