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NASL Golden Era: A Conversation With Ron Newman, NASL Royalty

By Jason S Rufner

Ron Newman isn't simply a soccer coach.  He is soccer.

Now 78, his voice conveys a vivaciousness that is as strong as any younger man's.  His words come rushing out as he tries to communicate his love for the game that, like him, was born of English stock.

"Soccer is my life," he was quoted by a 1991 Los Angeles Times article.  "I live and breathe it every minute of every hour of every day.  It's all I talk about.  I guess I'm probably quite a bore."

Hardly.  As a coach in the Golden Era of the North American Soccer League, Ron Newman owns 185 wins...and at least that many memories.

"I'm very, very devoted to the NASL," Newman told me in a phone interview earlier this week, when reached at his home near Tampa, Fla.  “It's a major league, in my opinion.”

Ask Ron about his time in the NASL.  Then just listen, because he'll do all the talking.

"There were so many moments," he began, then picked one.  "Probably the thing I remember most is with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.  We were playing Toronto, and they had won the league the year before.  They had some great players.

"Not five minutes in, and we get a yellow card, which soon turned into a red.  So he got sent off.  Everything we wanted not to do, we did.  Then they scored.  It got pretty tough.  But we had a sell-out crowd, a terrific crowd.

"One of our guys who hardly ever scored a goal, he gets a header and it goes flying into the net, so we tie the game 1-1 right there.  The crowd was going crazy, you know.  Then late in the second half, one of our other players who, you know, usually doesn't know where the goal is, he shoots and we get another goal!  It was impossible.

"We won the game!  The crowd was going crazy.  The players were all over each other.  It was amazing.  So we go into the dressing room, I let them sop it up a bit, but then I said, you know what we've just done?  We beat the champions -- but you know who did it for us?  It was those fans out there.

"I said, never again will you come back into this dressing room, win or loss, without thanking the fans.  And I kept that going everwhere I played.  Now they do it everywhere."

Newman has a wealth of stories to tell.  From 1968 to 1999, he served as coach for seven teams in five leagues, from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego, winning 13 titles and 753 matches, outdoor and indoor combined.  When not directing the professional game, Ron's spare time was spent creating thousands of teams and leagues for kids to learn the game, acting like something of a Johnny Appleseed for soccer in places like Atlanta and Dallas.

"You have to bring the kids and the fans and the media into the game," he pronounced.  "That's so important.  So important."

A naturalized American citizen since 1990, he's been a U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer for nearly as long -- an honor, he said, which makes him proud of what he's done.  He's been given places of honor in the Dallas Walk of Fame, San Diego's Hall of Champions and Atlanta's Soccer Hall of Fame.  He's been handed keys to the cities of Fort Lauderdale and San Diego.

And he wouldn't have moved to the States except for McDonald's and color television.

"I was playing in South Africa and one of my mates said, 'Come with me to America.'  I said, 'They don't even play the game there!'  He said, 'Yeah, but we're going to start a new league.'

"Well, my son Guy [who played and coached several seasons under Ron] wanted to go to a team over in England.  So I told him, 'You know, they got hot dogs and hamburgers over there in America.'  He said, 'Oh, okay...well, I don't know,' so I said, 'And they got color TV too.'  England didn't have that yet.

"That did it.  So we came."

He never left.  First Atlanta, then Dallas and Los Angeles, then Fort Lauderdale and Miami and San Diego and Phoenix and Kansas City.  "Incredible things" happened everywhere he went, from the ridiculous to the sublime.  His singular goal was, and is, to see the game succeed in America.

To this day, Newman is regarded kindly American soccer fans as a coach with unrelenting sideline intensity and a flair for showmanship.

He became known for dramatic entrances onto the pitch, carried by motorcycles or accompanied by animals.  Once, during a losing streak, he was delivered to the field by a hearse, jumping out to exclaim into a microphone, "We're not dead yet!"

He mandated that his players, win, lose or draw, take a postgame lap around the stands to thank fans for their support.  He still thinks the media ought to be put in the stands so their reports reflect the true feel of the game.

Ever an innovator, Newman created new positions and novel strategies.  He is a fount of opinions and ideas.  He still has plenty he'd like to convince the modern NASL to enact, such as the 35-yard line and the tie-deciding shootout.

“I'll take the first shootout if they ever bring it back,” Ron offered.  “Even frommy wheelchair.”

His infatuation with the Beautiful Game shines through whether it is played under the sun or under a roof.  Now retired, he still keeps up with the local Tampa Bay Rowdies, still visits his old stomping grounds as an honored guest of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, still receives adulation from soccer communities across the United States.

"It's great!" he intoned about the modern NASL, the reincarnation of the league he loved so much.  "We still have Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay, and we used to play some really big matches against them.  The more soccer there is, the more I'm pleased."

In his own backyard, he still gets his coaching fix with 17-year-old grandson Chris, a high school star.  Though a professional player in England, South Africa and the U.S., Ron thinks his penchant for being a coach stems from his days as a drill sergeant in the Royal Army.

"I played lots of games for the British Army, five days a week.  Being a drill sergeant, I learned to talk to people, to get them to do what I needed them to do."

After this writer was treated to a fascinating conversation with him, it's obvious the legendary coach has not forgotten how to talk.  Especially if the subject is soccer.