I had fun times in the NASL playing against some of the greatest players in the world and I’d love to join so many of them at the NASL’s 50th anniversary event in Frisco, Tex., in October. I am, however, the long-time coach [30 years!] of the men’s team at the University of Victoria in Canada and we have two games on our schedule over that weekend.
Bruce Wilson was a defender. Period. Over 11 seasons, four teams and 276 games, he scored a mere seven goals.
“I knew what my strength was,” Wilson said. “Some of my coaches told me, that in terms of advancing the ball up field, I was the best they’d ever seen. My game was about starting plays from the keeper, taking the ball out to our left, playing it a striker from midfield. I had no problem with it. I would normally be matched up against some of best players in the league … like George Best.”
Which brings us to the game, in either 1976 or 1977 (Wilson isn’t sure which one), when Wilson, the captain of the Vancouver Whitecaps, exchanged pleasantries with Best at midfield before the start of a match against the Los Angeles Aztecs.
“I had to pick him up in that game,” Wilson said. “He was such a great player, a great dribbler and a great head for the game. But I’m captain of the Whitecaps he’s the captain of LA. We’re doing the coin toss. He didn’t know who the hell I was. So he says, ‘Wilson, I own a pub here, so after the game bring your group by, I’ll buy the beers.’ We went, absolutely, I think it was called Besties and it was in Hermosa Beach. I told the guys after the game, and off we went to his pub. It was neat. We got there had a few beers. We had a lot of Canadian players on the team and they were absolutely thrilled to be in Best’s place.”
After four seasons with his hometown Whitecaps, Wilson, who had been studying to become a teacher, was traded to the Chicago Sting for two seasons, then on to the New York Cosmos — where he was part of the star-studded squad that won Soccer Bowl in 1980 over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
“I went to New York,” he said. “It was the pinnacle of my career. I played with Franz [Beckenbauer] and Pelé was still around. That preseason we went to Brazil and all went to see him at his house. It was a incredible year.”
After that season, Wilson joined up again with Clive Toye, who had moved from Chicago to Toronto. Wilson played four seasons in Ontario and then the league folded in 1984. But the experience gained by Canadians in the NASL (all of whom were considered on an equal footing with United States citizens in roster rules) helped Canada qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Bear in mind that that was the last time Canada played in the global tournament. Two years before the World Cup, Wilson was part of the Canadian team that went to the quarterfinals of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“The North American rule was hugely beneficial for the Canadians in the league” Wilson said. “After 11 years in the NASL we had some damn good experience playing against international players.”
Along with one of his long-time friends and teammates, Bob Lenarduzzi, Wilson holds the distinction of being a member of both the U.S. and Canadian Soccer halls of fame.
“What stands out for me is that I rarely got injured,” Wilson said. “I played every minute of every game when I was with Vancouver. I missed very few games the rest of my careers. What stands out most is that, for me is that I had very, very good experiences with every team I played for.”