Wednesday, March 25, 2015

 Central and North America was all about NASL. Talking about hype... statistics and awards. So many of those, it is even pointless to mention most: it looked like no one should have been forgotten and given something. The end of the1970s were the the peak years of NASL, a league going fast to its doom. 24 teams participated in the 12th league season. There were some changes: two teams were relocated. In another country that would mean two clubs seized to exist, but in North America it was just moving a franchise from one place to another... Colorado Caribous, the club with the most garish kit, was no more – there was Atlanta Chiefs instead. Oakland Stompers became Edmonton Drillers – they moved to another country, not just to another city. Two franchises only changed names: Toronto Metro-Croatia became Toronto Blizzard and Cosmos returned to its original name New York Cosmos. 
 The rules of the championship were almost left untouched, but must be mentioned because they were weird and complicated.  6 points for a win, 1 point for a shootout win, 0 points for a loss, 1 point for each regulation goal scored up to three per game. Goal-scoring was a combination of goal+pass -  2 points per goal, 1 per assist. The new addition was breaking the tie in the play-offs:  if a playoff series was tied at one victory each, a full 30 minute mini-game was played. If neither team held an advantage after the 30 minutes, the teams would then move on to a shoot-out to determine a series winner. The rest was 'familiar' – the league was divided into 2 conferences, each divided itself into 3 divisions, consisting of 4 clubs each. Every team played 30 games in the first phase – a mix bag of games played against their divisional opponents and some others. 8 clubs were going to the conference play-offs and here was the first little obstacle. The top 2 of each division was understandable... plus 2 of the three 3rd-placed teams. Points determined those, so the team with least points among the 3rd-placed was out. Practically, only 4 of the 12 members of each conference were out of the race after the first stage. The play-offs proceeded with 2 regular games and a mini-game after that, if there was a tie. Direct elimination followed to the conference final. The winners of each conference played a single match league final – the Soccer Bowl. The championship was played largely in the summer, ending on September 8th. The schedule, added by the lax transfer rules, made the usual mess – players changed clubs during the season, came on loan from other clubs, or moved to NASL after there European and South American seasons finished. The league always trumpeted its 'world' status, so the biggest emphasize was on foreign players – to the point to be impossible to tell who was legitimate import. Naturalized Canadians were presented often – but not always – as Canadians; naturalized or just born overseas Americans were most often presented as foreigners. The results were even comic, for there was a Japanese player according to NASL this year – in reality, a guy with american parents and thorougly Anglo-Saxon name, who was born in Japan, having no other relation to the country. The Yugoslavians – arguably, the second biggest group of players after the British – were the most complicated case: most were Yugoslavian born, yet, listed rather frivolously as Yugoslavians, Americans, and Canadians – real citizenship seemingly was not important to the league. Since proper team-building was never practiced in NASL, the closest to it was the current coach, also a foreigner, convincing the club's brass to get a bulk of players of his own country – thus, many teams had distinct flavour: British, Yugoslavian, and in 1979 – Dutch. For in 1979 a famous coach finally arrived in NASL – Rinus Michels was hired by Los Angeles Aztecs and with him – a bunch of Dutch players. Transfers, then... or what looked like traditional transfers. Since the list was enourmous every summer, only what appeared to be the biggest ones will be mentioned. Johan Cruyff signed with Los Angeles Aztecs – wait a second: he retired from the game in 1978. Well, he came back – without mentioning retirement, as if never announced. Wim Suurbier arrived in Los Angeles too. Plus three more Dutch players, hardly known, but Dutch – Leo van Veen, Thomas Rougen, and Hubert Smeets. Thus, Los Angeles Aztecs were clearly based on Dutch skeleton. Cosmos bought their usual group of big names  - Dutch stars Johan Neeskens and Wim Rijsbergen, the Brazilian full back Francisco Marinho, the Iranian full back, so impressive at the 1978 World Cup, Andranik Eskandarian, and... almost anonymous West German goalkeeper, who played largely second division football to this moment – Hubert Birkenmeier. Neeskens and Birkenmeier were clearly not on the same level, but... Birkenmeier quickly established himself as the best NASL goalkeeper, so may be he was more important player in the history of the league than his famous teammate. 
In short time Birkenmeier became the top NASL goalkeeper – nobody remembers him in Germany, but in USA he became a legend. 
Of course, the league was full of famous names:  here is a brief sample: Horst Blankenburg, Arno Steffenhagen, Wim van Hanegem, Peter Ressel, Jorgen Kristensen, and Dick Advocaat were all with Chicago Sting. Except Advocaat, the rest won huge number of domestic and European trophies in the 1970s. Then again everybody known who Advocaat is nowadays. Bjorn Nordqvist and Willie Morgan played for Minnesota Kicks. Alex Stepney and Antonio Simoes for Dallas Tornado. Salif Keita, Artur, Alhinho, and Jordao – for New England Tea Men, which seemingly chose Portuguese skeleton. Peter Lorimer was with Toronto Blizzard. David Nish with Tulsa Roughnecks. Alan Hudson and Harry Redknapp with Seattle Sounders. Clyde Best with Portland Timbers. Miralem Fazlic, Julio Baylon, and Piero Prati with Rochester Lancers. Phil Parkes, Kevin Hector, Willie Johnston, Allan Ball, and entirely unknown yet Bruce Grobelaar with Vancouver Whitecaps. Trevor Francis with Detroit Express. So far – relatively clear, but: Joszef Horvath (Washington Diplomats) and Laszlo Harsanyi, Hugo Sanchez, Leonardo Cuellar, and Julie Veee, all of San Diego Sockers were not so. The Mexican stars Sanchez and Cuellar were loaned to the Sockers after the end of the Mexican season – or may be even before the end? The three Hungarians are difficult to figure out – were they legally allowed to play abroad or were they refugees? Looks like Hungary started exporting players after the 1978 World Cup – largely, in 1979. But the trio played abroad before that and most likely were defectors. Horvath arrived from Rot Weiss (Essen, West Germany), where he played in the 1977-78 season. Harsanyi joined San Diego in 1978. As for Julie Veee, this is not his real name, but the one he chose to use when he left Hungary – he was clearly a defector, eventually became US citizen and even played for the national team of USA. Yet, listed as Hungarian in the NASL records – but American when he played in Europe, for he moved often from one continent to another. Big names, not so bi names... who is not familiar with the names above can just Google them and find out. Perhaps the most famous new arrival this year was Gerd Muller. If not the biggest, at least the most emblematic. 
Gerd Muller displaying his new shirt – contract signed with Fort Lauderdale Strikers. On his right, the old star of the team – one George Best. Well, who can dream of more lethal strikers than Muller and Best together? Note the number Muller got – 15. Strange, for NASL heavily promoted 'brands' – and Muller's 'brand' was number 9. The other option was 13 – the number he used at the 1970 and 1974 World Cups. The new number was not one associated with Muller. Then again, George Best played with number 3 this season. Eventually these two got one more famous addition to help them from the midfield – the Peruvian star Teofilo Cubillas. Jumping ahead, he had excellent season. Muller too, but the picture above was a hint of the life in NASL:  

Soon Muller was photographed enjoying American life. Doesn't look concerned with the next game... NASL was really well paid good time for aging stars. A bit of football and back to the pool with glass in hand – George Best was the master at that. Gerd Muller was starting to enjoy his booze too... eventually becoming an alcoholic, just like Best. 
As for the less important than drinking activity – playing football – this photo shows something unthinkable: Muller vs Beckenbauer. They never played against each other before 1979. The famous teammates, fond of each other, creating fantastic moments for years together, now were opposing each other. And both using new, unfamiliar numbers. Well, this was NASL summerized in three photos – no wonder European and South American players loved it. George Best summed it once upon a time: one can spent hours everyday in the bar and nobody will ever bother him with nasty press. After all, socker players were never real stars in North America – the press covered baseball, american football, basketball, ice hockey. Golf and tennis players, boxers were more important too – and socker players enjoyed almost anonymous, but rich life to indulge in their vices. British players liked their drink, Neeskens his drugs, and so on – and nobody cared. Life was great and to hell with football.