The story of Alain Maca, the first draft pick in U.S. professional soccer history

He turned down the NASL once, but Maca became the first player called when the legendary league went to one of U.S. sports' tried-and-true features.

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Some 45 years ago next month, Alain Maca made history as the very first draft choice in U.S. pro soccer history. His path to that distinction, however, was hardly a straight line.

Maca was forced to sign with his North American Soccer League team not once but twice, and he was forced to give up a promising career due to a hip injury at the age of 28.

Soccer, believe it or not, actually led to his real career, as Maca helped make an impact in the airline industry.

Let's start from the beginning. In the days before NCAA soccer was split into three divisions, Maca forged a reputation as a top-flight All-American defender at Brockport State in upstate New York.

He was so good that Rochester Lancers coach Sal DeRosa had tried to coax the 19-year-old to sign with the North American Soccer League club when he was a sophomore.

Maca wisely turned down the offer.

"My scholarship was probably worth more than what they paid me," he said of low NASL salaries for Americans in the early 1970s.

"This is my old man who was a soccer player: 'Don't be stupid. get your education. If there is a chance for you to play some ball when you graduate, then do it. Go get your college degree.'"

Which he did. After his senior season, Maca eventually signed with a DeRosa's team, the expansion Miami Gatos in December 1971.

"There wasn't a draft yet," Maca said. "We didn't know there was going to be a draft. You can imagine after spending all those winters in Rochester, I was pretty excited about going to Miami after graduating from college."

But then came a roadblock. The NASL decided it was going to hold a draft, its first one, in February 1972 and voided Maca's contract. That forced the Gatos to scramble and trade forward Miranda (Flash) Oliveira to the Montreal Olympique to acquire the first pick of the draft.

"Sal DeRosa was worried that Rochester would have drafted me and they would've," Maca said. "Rochester wanted me to stay as the local guy."

Of course, the genie was already out of the bottle, so to speak.

"The funny thing is the big football magazine from England had a picture of me signing my contract with Sal DeRosa," Maca said with a chuckle. "The picture was way before the draft. You can't make it up. It was organized chaos, so to speak."

The NASL flew Maca down to New York for a publicity shot and media interviews, but the impact of being the first draft choice did not seep in.

"It was the first draft ever. It was not something that you dreamt about, you thought about," he said. “It was not like being the No. 1 draft pick of baseball or football or basketball because there was no history there.

"It actually took on more meaning as I got older."

Ah yes, before we go further. If Alain Maca's name has a familiar ring to it, well, it should be. He is the son of former U.S. national team midfielder Joe Maca, the same Joe Maca who played on the 1950 national team that produced one of the most stunning results in World Cup history at the World Cup in Brazil. As it turned out, Maca also had the distinction of being the last American to score in a World Cup until Paul Caligiuri found the net in the 5-1 drubbing by Czechoslovakia at Italia '90.

It would be nice to say that Alain Maca enjoyed a nice long career, but that was not in the cards. He was good enough to wear the red, white and blue of the U.S. national team five times, but the early days of professional soccer in the United States were not always kind to American players.

Maca's Miami memories were not very memorable. He played in 11 out of a 14 games but the Gatos compiled a league-worst 3-8-3 record.

"It was a disaster, man," he said. "Halfway through the season Sal got fired. Remember, back in those days each club had to sign two American players. So there was only a handful of us that were getting on rosters. We weren't a very good team, but I was playing."

In 1972, Maca refused to return to Miami. He was earning more money in the German-American Soccer League (now Cosmopolitan Soccer League) in the New York City area.

He wound up playing in a series of exhibition matches for the Baltimore Bays (American Soccer League) and with the Washington Diplomats from 1974-76, seeing action in 31 games. By 1976, Maca had become a regular and was supposed to join Preston North End, which played in the old Second Division in England, but was diagnosed with a degenerative left hip.

"This was one of these injuries you could not fix," he said. "It would lead to a hip replacement. So when I was 25, in the middle of that season, it was kind of over."

He sat out a year before playing two years with the New York Apollo (ASL), retiring at 28.

"When you were rested, you felt great. I was ready to go," he said. "I played one and it was great, the next game was worse. It was stupid that I did, it was really stupid.

"At 28 I was shot. I was finished ... It wasn't easy walking away from something you love."

Maca remembered what his father endured after he ended his career.

"When he was 50, my father had his knee rebuilt and had his hip replaced," he said. "When I was 17 or 18, he couldn't even come out and kick a ball with me. He was completely shot. I saw him suffer. When I got diagnosed with the hip, they said it was probably a hereditary thing."

But there was one silver lining. "I still have my same hip," Maca said. "I had stopped soccer. I stopped everything. The only thing I do today is cycle and play a little golf."

While Maca's soccer career may have been cut short, it paved the way for a successful one in the airline and airport industries.

While playing for the New York Hota/Bavarians in the GASL, Maca was offered an opportunity to work for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines -- he eventually became general manager -- and play for its soccer team.

Roy Daniels, a head honcho at KLM who watched Maca's father play, approached Alain after practice.

"He comes up to me and says, 'Listen, we are taking a team to Amsterdam. We would like you to come over and be one of our players,' " Maca said. "You're 22 years old and a trip to Amsterdam. That sounds good. I got invited. I played for KLM and they liked me. They said if you ever need a job or something, we've got jobs, too. One thing led to another and I built a 25-year career there."

That KLM soccer team was comprised of professional and top amateur soccer players from the United States who were flown around the world to participate in tournaments and exhibition matches against club and international sides. The team included Cosmos captain and National Soccer Hall of Famer Werner Roth and Cosmos head coach Gordon Bradley, among others.

"It was a pretty special group of guys," said Maca, now 67 and retired in Del Ray, Florida.

Maca's impact went beyond making soccer history.

If you have ever flown out of JFK Airport, you might have used Terminal Four. Maca was one of the key figures in the modernization of that terminal, what he termed a "billion-dollar privatization."

"They asked me if I would leave KLM and come work for them and if I would design, operate and finance the terminal," Maca said. "I did that for 15 years. That was the capstone of my career. We did really well with that project."

Yet, despite those accomplishments, Alain Maca always will be remembered as the very first pro soccer draft choice.