Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Of course, it was NASL, not Mexico, the big news in North America. NASL continued to be controversial league – and in more than one sense. On the surface, it was very successful: the number of clubs increased. The number of famous players increased. Attendance was good. The main goal of NASL was to become major North-American league – which meant central TV spot and coverage. For that reason money were spent without much concern for returns. Tickets were cheap, especially the family packages, salaries were huge. Huge stadiums were used without thinking were they fit for the sport, or were they to be sold to full capacity. Expenses were considered investments: to lure the public, to capture the American minds, and to elevate football to the holly status of baseball, American football, basketball, and ice hockey. And for that reason NASL operated like any other major American league: rules were changed, international organizations were ignored, international competitions were ignored. NASL maintained the strange rules introduced earlier: the 35-yard offside line, the penalty shoot-out to break ties, and bonus points given for goals scored. 2/3 of the venues used had artificial turfs and were not designed for soccer. NASL did not follow the international transfer rules too. FIFA was outraged and NASL was on the verge of becoming outlaw league – if FIFA did not make the last step, it was not because NASL cooperated, but because FIFA too wanted soccer to become major American sport. NASL went its own way, transforming the sport into something else in an effort of selling it to the American public. For that, the game had to be lively, the scores – high, and no ties. Real football had no appeal to Americans, but the turfs contributed to the transformation as well: the ball bounced unpredictably on the hard artificial surface. Gridiron and baseball lines, never erased from the surface, constantly reminded the public of familiar sports and rules, thus, demanding the new sport to be made familiar. At the end, the biggest attraction to the average American was the cheap tickets – one was able to take the whole family to some show on Saturday. Then Sunday come – and real sports with it. American soccer was no longer soccer, yet, the battle for capturing American minds was lost. Most people saw soccer as some freak show and never bothered to understand the rules. (Even today watching soccer with North Americans is irritating – no matter what you say, to the end of the game you will be asked to explain what is an offside and why the corner kick. And when the match ends you will be told that the rules are impossible to understand. And why something is not done to make scoring easier? What is this 0-0 tie...) Anyhow, back in 1978, the signs of trouble were getting more and more: lucrative TV contracts were absent. The novelty value of the sport did not build loyal followers: after few packed initial games, attendance steadily declined. Only New York Cosmos and Vancouver Whitecaps were solidly attended. The press avoided football stubbornly, giving it little space. Clubs – or franchises, as they were called – folded or relocated. Market mentality was defeated by the market, yet, so far NASL brass did not see that the end of the operation was coming quickly. Instead, the crazy race set by Cosmos continued: signing of more foreign players for more money. It did not make sense at all – especially did not make business sense. As for the players coming to NASL, most of them enjoyed the league: it was easy living. Money were great, demands – few. It was fun. It was impossible to figure out the status of the players – particularly the British players. They not only moved frequently from franchise to franchise, but often had contracts just for few matches. To which club the Brits belonged was a mystery: some were loaned, others moved to NASL permanently. Some came only for the summer – between British seasons. Just a taste: to which club belonged Trevor Francis in 1978? He ended among the top scorers of NASL, representing Detroit Express. Back in Europe few people were even aware of the American exploits of the English star – he was Birmingham City player.

Nationality was another mystery: NASL greatly preferred foreign stars – as if the best of the world was playing in America. Thus, the newcomers Laszlo Harsanyi and Joszef Horvath, who defected in 1975, when Ujpesti Dosza played an European cup game in Switzerland, were listed as Hungarians. So was another Hungarian defector – Juli Veee (real name: Gyula Visnyei), who was already US citizen and played for the US national team. But another refugee, Igor Bachner, who played once upon a time for Skoda (Plzen)in his native Czechoslovakia, was not listed as Canadian. What criteria was used to determine who was Yugoslav and who was already American or Canadian? Perhaps nobody knew. And the lack of comprehensive transfer rules on top of everything: 8 players played for Cosmos this year, but only 'exhibition matches' . Were they any real part of Cosmos? Were they just visiting stars? Or prospective players on trial? Look at the names: the already mentioned Hungarian defectors Harsanyi and Horvath (both signed and played with other NASL clubs this season), Rivelino (never came to play regular football in USA), Arsene Auguste, who played for Haiti at the 1974 World Cup (played for Tampa Bay in 1978), 2 unknown British players – Willey and Jump, perhaps the most impressive Iranian player at the 1978 World Cup, Andranik Eskandarian (who most likely was a refugee, because the Iranian revolution happened – and many went into exile), and Johann Cruyff. Only Eskandarian became real Cosmos player of the bunch... The group was strangely arranged anyway: some world class stars; some fairly well known guys; and some nobodies. Reason? Any reason? It was not the same trying to sell Cruyff and trying to sell some Jump. But never mind. Cosmos set the tempo of buying frenzy – and every other club tried to follow. The spending spree was suicidal.

6 points for win, 1 point for penalty shoot-out win, breaking a tie, a point for every goal scored – limited to maximum of 3. 1-0 win gives 7 points. 3-4 loss – 3 points. A 0-0 tie, followed by penalty shoot-out win – 1 point. Got it? Your team may lose constantly and still be above a team winning only by shoot-outs. Of course high scoring was the objective, yet, even with such rules, unpredictable turfs, ball bouncing every each way and defenses pretty much meaningless, and the abundance of highly skilled strikers the results were not all that impressive: only Cosmos came close to 3 goals on average. Four clubs achieved 2 goals per game average.

Four teams'relocated' – that is, folded and moved to another places under new names. Or were sold and the new owners named them as they wished. No more St. Louis Stars – but California Surf; Team Hawaii became Tulsa Roughnecks; Las Vegas Quicksilvers - San Diego Sockers; and Connecticut Bicentennials - Oakland Stompers.

The league expanded by 6 teams as well – the new franchises were Colorado Caribous, Detroit Express, Houston Hurricane, Memphis Rogues, New England Tea Men, Philadelphia Fury. Thus NASL rounded to 20 teams – seemingly optymistic sign, as far as more teams meant 'growth'. With the new teams came perhaps the lowest point of NASL's 'concept' of football: the glory belongs to Colorado Caribous and their kit.
Home jersey

Away jersey.

Dave Clement dressed as Caribou... a far cry from the sober kit he weared when playing for Queens Park Rangers (London).

As a rule of tumb, US teams choose terrible colours and designs to this very day, but this kit beats everything else. What were they thinking in Colorado? Clearly, a circus. So the kit may be a great symbolic summary of NASL.

24 teams divided in 6 sub-groups – or divisions. Every team played 30 regular matches – as ever, North American leagues play unusual and hardly making sense regular season. Hoe they came to the number of 30? Except that is a round number, it means teams played more games with some opponents and fewer with others. Impossible to say why... but North American sports use such formulas all the time.

Top two teams of two Division and three from the other two advance to Conference play-offs, and the the winners – to the grand final. Cup format, nothing fancy.

Cosmos was best in everything during the reular season: they finished first with 212 points – a new league record. They won 24 matches – the most in the league; scored most goals – 88; and their defense was third – behind Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. The next strongest club was Vancouver Whitecaps, finishing with 199 points and also winning 24 matches. The point difference depended on goals scored. Rochester Lancers were the unlucky members of the Eastern Division. Minnesota Kicks and Tulsa Roughnecks qualified in the Central Division. Los Angeles Aztecs was the only team in the Western Division not advancing. They were one of the weakest teams this year anyway – only the great Colorado Caribous was worse. Fancy kit did not help a bit. Ten clubs going to compete for the 'title' of the National Conference. Geography – an obvious reason for dividing a league into sub-groups in a vast country – seemingly played no role at all: teams from the East coast and the West coast are here.

Similar was the American Conference... Eastern, Central, and Western divisions. Tampa Bay Rowdies, New England Tea Men, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers advanced from Eastern; Detroit Express and Chicago Sting from Central; and San Diego Sockers and California Surf – from the Western Division. Something wrong? Seven teams? No – they were eight. Philadelphia Fury, dead last in the Eastern Division also advanced... and don't ask why. The answer is obvious... the top two teams of every Division and the last two – by points. Whoever got more among the remaining teams – Philadelphia was last, but with more points than any other lowly placed club in the American Conference. Sometimes it pays to be last...

The next stage was 1/8 finals – but really 1/4 finals: the teams were still playing between their original divisions for the the title of the coresponding Conference. Thus, the next stage was not 1/4 finals, but Conference Semifinals, followed by the Conference finals. Cosmos confidently won the National Conference, beating Portland Timbers twice – 1-0 and 5-0 in New York. The American Conference was tougher contest: Fort Lauderdale Strikers won at home 3-2, but lost the away match in Tampa 1-3. Tampa Bay qualifies? Not at all.. or not yet: goal-difference was nothing, so penalty shoot-out decided the winner. Tampa Bay Rowdies clinched the victory by amasing reasult: 1-0. In a shoot-out... and not even normal shoot-out, but 35-yards free attack. Anyway, Tampa Bay won.

And only after that – the real title. Or the only title, for who remembers Division and Conference 'champions'? Big final, played at the Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford, New York. Any need to say the famous stadium is not designed for football? On August 27 Cosmos and Tampa Bay came out. To a point, home advantage for Cosmos. But who knows? Well, Cosmos was classier by far and although Tampa Bay fought back bravely it was 3-1 for Cosmos at the end. A second consecuitve title for Cosmos.

No matter what, Tampa Bays Rowdies did very well.

'Doctored' pictures were made years before Photoshop – here Farrukh Quraishi was added at later time and apparently they had only black-and-white photo of him. But this is nothing – Tampa Bay, when compared to other teams and especially to Cosmos, had modest squad. It is this lack of big names which makes them significant: fairly unknown players went to the final and had a chance to win. A few players who played at the 1974 World Cup here: Adrian Alston played for Australia; Arsene Auguste – for Haiti; and Mirandinha for Brazil. None made big waves in 1974 and Mirandinha never played for Brazil after 1974. He was 26 years old in 1978, but his career seemingly was going downhill. At least he came from famous club – Sao Paulo. He was the newly acquired star this year, but the big name was Rodney Marsh. The controvercial former English national team player seemingly found greenr pasture in USA – similarly to George Best, his troubles in England were largely related to drinking. And similarly to Best, Marsh was going steadily downhill, not able to keep his place in any club and no longer even wanted by the clubs. But he was the big guy in Tampa Bay. The rest of the team, South Africans, Haitians, Englishmen, Scottish, the odd Argentinian, the ever present Yugoslav – or may be no longer Yugoslav, were unknown players. But the combination worked well enough.

Cosmos, of course, was nothing like Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay used small 22-strong roster – Cosmos used 34 players! 8 of them were accidental, but the rest weighted a lot. Starting with Beckenbauer. Newly acquired were Vladislav Bogicevic, Yugoslavian national player, coming from Crvena zvezda (Belgrade); Guiseppe 'Pino' Wilson, former Italian national player, coming from Lazio (Rome); Dennis Tueart, ocasionally called to play for England, arriving from Manchester City; and Angola-born occasional Portuguese national team player Seninho, coming from FC Porto. Not superstars like Pele and Beckenbauer, but still famous players. Bogicevic and Wilson played at the 1974 World Cup. Tueart had strong seasons, eventually moving him from Sunderland to Manchester City and the national team of England. Perhaps every newcomer was over his prime, but for NASL they were strong recruits. Wilson perhaps was directly invited by his former teammate and friend Chinaglia, who had big influence in Cosmos. Already strong team only got stronger, but Cosmos still had plenty of money and spent freely.

Champions again: top from left: ? , Ricky Davis(?), Fred Grgurev, Gary Etherington, Robert Iarusci, Ron Atanasio, Seninho(?), ?

Middle row: Jack Brand, David Brcic, Terry Garbett, Nelsi Morais (?), Bobby Smith, Santiago Formoso, Tony Donlic, Erol Yasin

Sitting: Steve Hunt, Vladislav Bogicevic, Giorgio Chinaglia, Eddie Firmani – coach, Werner Roth, Ray Klivecka – assistant coach, Franz Beckenbauer, Dennis Tueart, Carlos Alberto.

Not a bad squad – two world champions, various (former) national team players, whole bunch of solid professionals, and additional young talent, mostly American. But tensions were simmering and not only simmering as well – Chinaglia was the real mover and shaker and only on the pitch. The clash between the English flock and the rest was ongoing; the US players grumbled that foreigners were preffered; and new conflict was brewing between Chinaglia and coach Firmani. Firmani lost. Yet, it was formidable team – at least in North America. Competent enough to keep on winning even when in constant dressing room turmoil. Giorgio Chinaglia was the top goalscorer of the league with 34 goals and 11 assists in 30 matches played. Erol Yasin finished as second best goalkeeper in the league. Gary Etherington was voted rookie of the year. Carlos Alberto, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia were voted in the NASL All-star team. If there was a North American team capable of competing in real championship – European or South American – it was Cosmos.

And may be Vancouver Whitecaps, the pleasant surprize in 1978. Competent, well rounded team, having the best coach of the year – Tony Waiters, and the best North American player of the year – Bobby Lenarduzzi. Whitecaps emplyed simple concept: hey used mostly English players, coached by Englishman. Lenarduzzi played in England few years back. Kevin Hector and Alan Hinton, although not great stars, provided enough class and influence. It was British team, playing British football – nobody had to change and adapt. It worked much better than the rag-tag teams combined of many nationalities, playing different styles and having trouble in understanding each other. But sanity was something rare in NASL – the league was already showing signs of decline and no reforms were planned. It was still full ahead, spend like crazy, hire everybody under the sun, and hope for a big break through.