Playing in the NASL as a teenage Canadian was the beginning in my long soccer journey, which has taken me to Lincoln, Neb., where I’m now an assistant coach for the women’s team at the University of Nebraska. And because of my commitment to the team (we play at Wisconsin on Oct. 20) and to our 2018 season, I won’t be able to join some of my former teammates, opponents and friends at the NASL’s 50th anniversary event in Frisco, Tex., in October. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking of those wonderful days in the league.Ian Bridge grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, watching Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps matches on television. And, of course, Pele’s debut with the New York Cosmos, beamed live from Randall’s Island in New York.
“That really captured my attention,” Bridge, a rugged, toe-headed defender, said.
Through high school, Bridge played a variety of sports and slowly realized that he might have a future as a professional soccer player. He traveled to England and trained with West Ham United and Millwall, but wound up back in Canada. The Sounders asked him to play for their reserve team in a Pacific Coast League game and offered him a contract at the tender age of 19.
“I didn’t know where the league would be going,” Bridge said. “When you’re 19 you don’t think past the next week. I was thrilled to be with a professional team close to home. I remember my first day on the training field with the Sounders. Dave Gillett [a Scottish defender] broke his leg and that opened the door for me to get in the lineup. I played next to Mike England, a legendary defender. What an education.
“In general, everyone was welcoming and helpful. In that year in England I was thrown into the deep end. There was no time on the ball, the game was faster and more physical than a kid growing up in Canada was used to. With the Sounders I was a wide-eyed kid happy to be putting boots on everyday and getting a paycheck. Sure it was a bit of us vs. them culture, the North Americans and foreigners, but it felt like I was in the middle as a Canadian, though I did feel closer to the English guys.”
From 1979 through 1983, Bridge played 100 times for the Sounders before moving to his hometown Whitecaps in 1984, the final outdoor season for the NASL. Bridge played for Canada in the 1984 Summer Olympics and the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which led to five years playing in Switzerland for FC La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Still, his memories of playing in the NASL have endured over the years.
“I remember playing my first time at Giants Stadium with about 50,000 people in the stands,” Bridge said. “I remember at some point I was in the midfield and [Johan] Neeskens goes past me and I grabbed and tore his shirt. I thought that was pretty cool. There would be some games in the Kingdom with Sounders, some big moments. I think the biggest game was against the Cosmos in 1980 with close to 50,000 there. On a dark note, I tore my ACL in that game — 30 minutes in I was chasing a through ball, trying to shield it from Giorgio Chinaglia and I got a bump, planted and my knee gave out. I struggled, but played until halftime. I was sitting in the locker room and knew my knee was not right. Our physio was working on Tommy Hutchison’s bad neck. Two minutes before it was time to go back out, I said hey my knee doesn’t feel so good. He taped me up and I played the second half. I didn’t know how bad the injury was. I had surgery four or five days later.”