NEW YORK -- The North American Soccer League, bounced about like a vessel in rough seas for the past six months, returns for another season -- but the angriest part of the storm may be yet to come.
Buffeted by sweeping changes that will give the league an entirely new look, the NASL begins its 14th season March 28, inaugurating a schedule that will cover 672 games, three rounds of playoffs and culminate with the Soccer Bowl in Toronto on Sept. 26.
The shifting winds left three franchises out of business and four others in different cities, reducing the league from 24 to 21 clubs. The two-conference alignment was scrapped in favor of five divisions and the playoff structure was simplified. The 'mini-game' was put to death and the scoring system was given yet another twist.
Three of the biggest names abandoned the league for Europe; five new owners joined the ranks; six new coaches were installed; one television network took its equipment and ran and two cable outfits took its place.
But the most devastating change -- one which could spell the ruin of the league -- may come when the first ball is put in play the night of March 28.
At that time the NASL is in danger of being expelled from the world soccer community and becoming an 'outlaw' league.
FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, for years has been waging a long-running feud with the NASL.
An organization with 140 nation-members, FIFA has objected to several NASL rules -- in particular, use of the 35-yard line for offsides and three substitutes a game. In world soccer, offsides begins at midfield and a team can use no more than two substitutes.
In December, FIFA ordered U.S. soccer authorities to have the NASL conform to these international rules. FIFA gave the U.S. Soccer Federation -- the organization which oversees the NASL and all of soccer in this country -- 90 days to comply. That deadline has since passed and FIFA officials are fuming.
'They are taking us for fools,' FIFA spokesman Rene Courte said earlier this month at Zurich, Switzerland. 'But they can't fool around like this.'
The NASL -- through the USSF -- insists it has responded, though its reply came in the form of a suggestion that FIFA representatives come to North America to observe the game.
FIFA insists this is no answer at all and threatens to expel the NASL and the USSF from the world soccer family.
The FIFA Executive Committee is expected to rule on the issue when it meets in Madrid May 7. And if the NASL is still playing by its own rules with the opening of the season, the possibilty of expulsion will be great.
In effect, this could strangle the league: any World Cup player taking part in NASL games would risk disqualification from his national team; international matches involving NASL clubs would not be sanctioned; the league would be in danger of losing its Canadian players; referees would be subject to suspension; and teams would be unable to sell their players outside the league, creating a a vast market of free agents.
'We're not running around holding our heads in anguish,' said NASL spokesman Vince Casey. 'We'll cross this bridge when we come to it. Our lawyers are up to their necks in trying to solve this problem.'
All of which makes for a jarring introduction to the league's new look.
After last season the franchises from Washington, Houston and Rochester folded. In addition, Philadelphia became the Montreal Manic, Memphis became the Calgary Boomers, New England became the Jacksonville Tea Men and Detroit moved to the vacated nation's capital to become the Washington Diplomats.
The league was then aligned in five geographically defined divisions:
Eastern -- Montreal, New York, Toronto, Washington.
Southern -- Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay.
Central -- Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota, Tulsa.
Western -- California, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose.
Northwest -- Calgary, Edmonton, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver.
The divisions were formed with the purpose of creating regional rivalries and cutting travel costs. Each team will play the clubs in its division four times during the year.
Fifteen of the 21 clubs will qualify for the playoffs as opposed to the 16 of 24 last year. The playoffs will be conducted in three rounds leading to the Soccer Bowl, with each round a two-out-of three series. Thus, the 'mini-game', the 30-minute overtime used to settle a series tied at one game apiece is no longer part of the NASL vocabulary.
Three of the most important individuals ever to come to the NASL will not be around this season: Johan Cruyff joined the second division Levante club in Spain; Franz Beckenbauer returned to the Bundesliga with Hamburg, and Coach Rinus Michels signed with Cologne of West Germany.
In addition, Johan Neeskens and Carlos Alberto, two of the world's great players, have been suspended by the New York Cosmos for disciplinary reasons and it is questionable whether they will return.
The prize additions to the league are: Elias Figueroa of Chile and Bernd Holzenbein of West Germany (Fort Lauderdale), Steve Heighway of Ireland (Minnesota), Kevin Bond and Steve Daley of England (Seattle), Kazimierz Denya of Poland (San Diego), Chris McGrath and Duncan McKenzie of England (Tulsa) and Terry Yorath of Wales (Vancouver).
And new coaches: Al Miller (Calgary), Mike Renshaw (Dallas), Eckard Krautzun (Fort Lauderdale), Claudio Coutinho (Los Angeles), Jimmy Gabriel (San Jose) and Johnny Giles (Vancouver).
There are new owners in Montreal (Molson Breweries), Calgary (sports magnate Nelson Skalbania), Minnesota (British real estate executives), Tulsa (local oil interests) and California (Orange County businessmen).
In the only rule change of the offseason, the league reduced the number of points for a shootout victory from six to four. Teams will still receive six points for victories in regulation and overtime and one point will be awarded for each regulation goal up to a maximum of three per team. The move was made to discourage teams from playing for a shootout.
The NASL last season was televised by ABC-TV and the league considered it a measure of prestige. This year, after low ratings, ABC dropped the NASL but the league worked out a joint broadcasting venture with two cable networks, ESPN and USA. ABC and the NASL are still negotiating over televising the Soccer Bowl.
Here, by division, is a brief look at the teams: Eastern= Montreal -- Management says it's interested in French players but is unwilling to shell out the francs to get top names. Sonny Askew will be in midfield and Bob Rigby in goal.
New York -- If the Cosmos repeat as champions they may have to do it with a new sweeper. Alberto went AWOL on a preseason tour and is at odds with Coach Hennes Weisweiler. Valdislav Bogicevic is finally the main man on defense and Giorgio Chinaglia will reign as striker.
Toronto -- Will be physical and tough, as always. Two additions should help: Gungor Tekin of Turkey on defense and Tore Cervin of Sweden at forward.
Washington -- The same team as the Express, but will the city of Washington take to them? Paul Cannell of the old Dips is back and should provide some goals. Southern= Atlanta -- One of the league's problem spots. Had a good indoor season but outdoors is another matter. Keith Furphy is the big gun on offense.
Fort Lauderdale -- Last year's Soccer Bowl loser was put through an Army-like training camp under its new coach. Marinho, blond hair and all, was unloaded to Sao Paulo of Brazil. Ray Hudson was re-signed. Defense playing surprisingly well in preseason.
Jacksonville -- Stadium problems in Boston forced the Tea Men to head south. Goalie Kevin Keelan is gone and to be replaced by Arnie Mausser. Eduardo Marasco and Alan Green will take care of the scoring.
Tampa Bay -- Steady and as strong as ever. Attempts to sign Steve Zungal, the Major Indoor Soccer League scoring whiz, appear to have fallen through. Central= Chicago -- Obtained Pato Margetic from Detroit but he'll have to battle Karl-Heinz Granitza and Arno Steffenhagen for the ball. Keeper Phil Parkes still not signed.
Dallas -- Njego Pesa and Zequinha will pick up the goals. Billy Irwin figures to take over the nets with Alex Stepney gone.
Minnesota -- Once one of the great draws in the league, but attendance has been down of late. Some say it's because they cut out free parking. Ace Ntsoelengoe and Alan Willey will score plenty.
Tulsa -- Maybe the Oklahoma heat in August makes the Roughnecks tough. Some new blood on this team. Alan Woodward, Johannes Evaldsson and Bill Caskey will be back.
California -- Has yet to establish a following in Anaheim. Picked up John Craven from Vancouver. Laurie Abrahams and Steve Moyers, one of the best American forwards, will follow the ball.
Los Angeles -- 'The Boys of Brazil.' Coutinho, who coached Brazil's National Team in 1978, has added some South American talent. Forward Luis Fernando is back.
San Diego -- If the Sockers are to get to the Soccer Bowl, Manu Sanon, Leonardo Cueller and Hugo Sanchez will have to deliver the goals once more.
San Jose -- George Best, once one of the game's greats, is out of an alcoholism clinic but is he ready to play? The Quakes picked up Tony Crescitelli and Joe Horvath in dispersal draft. Northwest=Calgary -- A question mark will surely follow this team. Still, the makings of a good rivalry with Edmonton and Vancouver.
Edmonton -- The indoor champions acquired midfielder Kai Haaskivi from Houston and return with Peter Nogly at sweeper.
Portland -- The Timbers need a winner to recapture their fans. Keeper Mick Poole is back in England and job falls to Keith McRae.
Seattle -- Roger Davies scored 25 goals last year despite painful bunions. His feet are a lot better this season. Mark Peterson can be counted on at forward but keeper Jack Brand is locked in a contract squabble.
Vancouver -- New coach Johnny Giles is called the 'Irish Messiah.' The Whitecaps are not asking for miracles, just a Soccer Bowl title. Carl Valentine, Roger Kenyon and keeper Bruce Grobbelaar return. More will be expected from the young Canadians.