WFC 2012

WFC: Ex-NASL star, coach Hinton marvels at MLS' growth

Alan Hinton

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RENTON, Wash. – Alan Hinton played more than 300 games in the English top flight in the 1960s and ‘70s. He went up against the likes of Bobby Charlton and George Best. He represented the Three Lions internationally. He played for the great Brian Clough.

Hinton, who went on to play for the Dallas Tornado and Vancouver Whitecaps in the old NASL, can talk about Ferenc Puskas in one breath and Wayne Rooney in the next. He can talk about the virtues of this formation or that, how to properly run a practice session, and why he’s become fond of Italian soccer once again.

But these days, as the Herbalife World Football Challenge is about to kick off with the Sounders hosting Chelsea FC on Wednesday night (9:30 pm ET; ESPN2), his primary focus is on the culture of soccer in North America and just how far it’s come in the past 35 years.

“Frank Lampard said that, last time they were here a couple of years ago, in Seattle, it was the first time in all of his travels around the world that he’d seen more home fans than Chelsea fans,” Hinton explained on Monday. “Chelsea’s got a huge following worldwide, and everywhere we go, we have more Chelsea fans than any other. But not in Seattle.”

It’s a media explosion any time one of the giant European teams embark upon a preseason tour. But Hinton takes pride in the fact that MLS fans both show their respect for the world’s best while keeping their loyalty to the local side – wherever that may be.

“I’m seeing great things in Major League Soccer,” Hinton offered. “My style is, I’m a retired guy, I do some work for the Sounders – television and radio – but I call it the way I see it, and I really, really, like what I’m seeing. Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, of course. Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Montreal  – I like what they’re doing there.

“With the soccer-specific stadiums now … it’s a great situation. I just think the future for Major League Soccer is wonderful.”

It wasn’t always so for the game in North America, of course. Hinton played for the Whitecaps in the old NASL, then coached the Sounders and watched helplessly as the league folded.

“In my day, we had big crowds in the North American Soccer League – but some clubs didn’t,” Hinton explained. “When we were doing well in Seattle and Vancouver in the early ‘80s we didn’t tend to notice the teams doing badly, like California Surf and one or two other teams doing really badly, getting 1,000 to 2,000 a game.

“But today, everything looks wonderful for the league, and I’m very pleased that I’m a part of it.”