Posts Tagged ‘ASL 1933-1983’
During pro soccer’s 1970’s boom years (or bubble years, as it turned out) the city of Sacramento, California hosted 2nd division professional soccer for five seasons. The Sacramento Spirits/Gold appeared in three American Soccer League championship games between 1976 and 1980. Oddly, during the two seasons the Sacramentans did not play for the championship, they finished dead last.
The American Soccer League dated all the way back to 1933 and spent most of its existence confined to industrial cities of the Northeast, where teams were often defined by their ethnic affiliation. Through the postwar years clubs such as the New York Hakoah-Americans, Newark Portuguese and the Philadelphia Ukrainians competed under the ASL auspices. In the early 1970’s, the league began to professionalize, banishing the ethnic names and branching out beyond the Philadelphia-New York corridor.
In 1974, the ASL hired former NBA star Bob Cousy – who professed to know nothing whatsoever about soccer – as its Commissioner to attract national credibility. A full-fledged West Coast expansion occurred in the summer of 1976, which included the debut of the Sacramento Spirits. The Spirits played out of Sacramento State Stadium and finished in the cellar that first year with a 4-14-3 record.
The Spirits returned in 1977 and engineered a remarkable turnaround under Head Coach Bob Ridley. The Spirits won the West Division with an 18-4-4 record and flew east on to face the New Jersey Americans for the ASL Championship on September 4th, 1977. The Americans triumped 3-0. Ridley was named Coach-of-the-Year and Spirits leading scorer Mal Roche earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
After the 1977 season, a California cabinet manufacturer named John Andreotti bought the Sacramento franchise and re-branded it as the Sacramento Gold for 1978. The 1978 campaign was anything but golden as the club regressed to a 7-15-2 last place finish.
The Gold rebuilt again in 1979, importing English brothers Ian and Malcolm Filby and South African striker Neill Roberts among others. Mal Filby was expected to be the team’s key threat but suffered a season-ending injury in the home opener. Brother Ian stepped up in his stead and led the ASL in scoring with 14 goals and 17 assists. From a front office standpoint though, the best signing had to be Roberts. Midway through the season, the Gold sold Roberts’ contract to the Atlanta Chiefs of the first division North American Soccer League for $25,000, reportedly a record transfer fee between the two American leagues. (Roberts was more than worth it, scoring 14 goals in 19 matches for the Chiefs in 1979).
That $25,000 undoubtedly helped the Gold bottom line. According to Dave Litterer’s terrific American Soccer History Archives site, typical annual operating budgets for ASL franchises in the late 1970’s averaged $300,000 to $350,000 per year. By 1979, the Gold had moved to 23,000-seat Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College. During the 1979 season, the Gold drew 57,073 to Hughes for 14 matches and led the low-budget ASL with average announced attendance of 4,077 per match.
On September 17th, 1979 the Gold travelled to Ohio to face the Columbus Magic in the American Soccer League championship game. The match took place at Franklin County Stadium, a re-lined minor league baseball park. As he had all season, Ian Filby came through for the Gold and broke a scoreless tie in the 84th minute. The 1-0 margin held up to give the Gold the 1979 ASL championship.
The Gold returned for a third ASL season in 1980 (fifth if you count the Spirits years), but quickly ran out of money. In early July 1980, the Gold chose to forfeit a road match at the Miami Americans rather than pay for airfare to Florida. By late July, with the team still unwilling or unable to travel, the ASL terminated the franchise. A group of Sacramento-area boosters raised $35,000 – $40,000 and turned it over to the league office to run the team through the end of the season. “Sacramento” (the Gold moniker was dropped) finished out the season as a ward of the league and, improbably, made a return visit to the ASL championship game. Sacramento lost the title match to the Pennsylvania Stoners 2-1 in Allentown, PA on September 18th, 1980.
After the season, Sacramento folded along with the rest of the ASL’s remaining West Coast franchises.
The ASL played three more seasons from 1981 to 1983. After 1980, it never again fielded a team west of Oklahoma City. The league folded in late 1983 or early 1984.
The Gold’s young General Manager Greg “Dutch” Van Dusen became a leading figure in the successful effort to lure the NBA’s Kansas City Kings franchise to Sacramento in 1985. He also negotiated the naming rights to the city’s ARCO Arena and worked as an executive for the Kings throughout the 1980’s.
Professional soccer – of the indoor variety – returned to Sacramento in the summer of 1993 with the Knights of the Continental Indoor Soccer League. The Knights played at ARCO Arena in a succession of leagues for nine summers between 1993 and 2001.
This is FWiL’s first profile of a so-called “phantom team”. While it’s not unusual for minor league sports teams to shut down after a single campaign (see our One Year Wonders tag for an ever-growing list), there are considerably fewer instances of clubs that assemble a team only to fold before playing a single match. This is the story of one such phantom club, the Phoenix Fire of the American Soccer League.
Leonard E. Lesser formed Phoenix Professional Sports, Inc. for the purpose of attracting professional soccer to Arizona for the 1980 season. The insurance executive set his sights on the top level of the game in the United States at the time – the North American Soccer League. Lesser’s group found a motivated seller in Harry Mangurian, owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and principal investor in the NASL’s struggling Memphis Rogues, a losing club that drew poorly at Memphis’ cavernous Liberty Bowl.
Phoenix Professional Sports announced an agreement in principle to purchase the Rogues for $2.6 million on June 28th, 1979. Lesser indicated that Phoenix Professional Sports would seek to relocate the team to Arizona for the 1980 season, playing either at the 21,000-seat football stadium at Phoenix Union High School or the 70,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. The announcement effectively made the Rogues lame ducks in Memphis, with six weeks remaining in the 1979 NASL regular season.
Mangurian called off the sale a little more than a week later on July 7th, 1979, alluding to unspecified terms that Lesser’s group had failed to meet, but providing no elaboration to the press. Denied the Rogues, Lesser turned his attention to the American Soccer League, an unruly second division league with clubs spread from Albany to Sacramento. ASL clubs operated on much smaller budgets than NASL clubs. Where NASL clubs primarily shared multi-purpose NFL and Major League Baseball stadiums, ASL teams played in a hodge podge of modest venues, ranging from minor league baseball stadiums to small college football stadiums.
On September 25th, 1979 the American Soccer League awarded a 1980 expansion franchise to Phoenix Professional Sports. Lesser immediately introduced 39-year old Scotsman Jimmy Gabriel as Head Coach. Gabriel was a long-time Everton and Southampton midfielder who arrived in the United States in 1974 to play for the NASL’s Seattle Sounders. Gabriel took over head coaching duties for the Sounders in 1977 and led the team to the NASL Soccer Bowl, where they lost to the New York Cosmos. Gabriel resigned his position with the Sounders in August 1979 after a losing campaign. Lesser began talks with Phoenix College to use their Hoy Stadium for home matches.
The Phoenix Fire assembled in Arizona in late February 1980 for pre-season training. The roster included 1978 ASL Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rolland as well as English midfielder Harry Redknapp, a former teammate of Gabriel’s at the Seattle Sounders. The club played several exhibition matches in preparation for their ASL opener on March 22nd, 1980 against the Golden Gate Gales, another ASL expansion club.
The Fire players received paychecks on March 1st, 1980, but Phoenix Professional Sports missed the next payroll. On March 19th The Arizona Republic reported that the team was on the brink of folding, a charge denied by Lesser. Gabriel, meanwhile, scrambled to help his players find new teams for the 1980 season.
The ASL postponed the Fire-Gales opener on March 22nd and gave the franchise one week to put its finances in order. With their ASL debut cancelled, the Fire played a fundraising match for its unpaid players against an Arizona amateur team on March 22nd instead. The club officially folded on Thursday, March 27th, 1980 after failing to meet the ASL’s deadline to find new investors.
In January 1981, a grand jury indicted Lesser on 14 charges related to the Fire, including conducting a fraud, securities fraud, theft and falsification of corporate records. Prosecutors alleged that Lesser misrepresented the financial resources of the team to attract investors, diverted corporate funds for his own use, and then falsified the team’s balance sheets and check books to prevent his investors from learning the true state of the team’s finances. One investor claimed losses of $70,000 to Lesser, while another claimed a loss of $44,000. Investigators pegged the total scale of the fraud to be approximately $250,000. In December 1981, Lesser was sentenced to serve one-year in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix.
“Playing site only problem for Rogues”, The Associated Press, June 29, 1979
“Fire Flickers in Phoenix”, The Associated Press, March 19, 1980
“Fire given hope”, The Associated Press, March 24, 1980
“Pro soccer figure indicted for fraud” The Milwaukee Journal, January 13, 1981
Untitled Associated Press report, December 2, 1981
In January 1978, Thomas J. Lipton, Inc., better known as the Lipton Tea Company, purchased an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League. The NASL was riding a wave of expansion in 1978 – a speculative bubble as it would turn out – sparked by the spectacular three-year run of Brazilian superstar Pele at the New York Cosmos, another corporate owned club.
Lipton’s club set up shop in Foxboro, Massachusetts and adopted the nickname New England Tea Men, in a nod to the area’s revolutionary roots and, of course, its corporate overlords. Lipton Vice President of Marketing Derek Carroll took the reigns as club President with a $1.5M operating budget and $600,000 allocated to sign players from around the world.
One player signed was a little known English striker named Mike Flanagan acquired on loan from Charlton Athletic. Flanagan came out of nowhere for the Tea Men, scoring 30 goals in 28 games and earning NASL Most Valuable Player honors in 1978. The rest of the squad was also unexpectedly strong for a club put together on just four months notice. The Tea Men tied the Tampa Bay Rowdies for first place in the NASL’s American Conference Eastern Division with a 19-11 record. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers eliminated the Tea Men in the first round of the 1978 NASL playoffs. At the box office, the Tea Men drew an average crowd of just over 11,000 to Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the home of the NFL’s Patriots.
The Tea Men had a rougher go of it in 1979. Flanagan got into a contract dispute back home with Charlton Athletic and ultimately with the Tea Men themselves. The saga of Flanagan’s status dragged on for much of the 1979 season, with the Tea Men even prematurely announcing his return in June 1979. Ultimately, Flanagan never returned to the United States again after his MVP campaign in 1978. Meanwhile, the Tea Men were evicted from Schaefer Stadium by order of a judge due to a dispute with a neighboring dog racing track. Forced to play on short notice at urban Nickerson Field in Boston, attendance plummeted nearly 50% as did the team’s record. The 1979 Tea Men finished 11-13 and out of the playoff hunt.
In December 1979, the Tea Men signed on for the NASL’s first winter indoor soccer season. Only ten of the league’s twenty-four teams chose to take part. The Tea Men probably wished they had stuck with the majority. Playing at the Providence Civic Center, the indoor Tea Men found new ways to prolong the agony of the bitter 1979 campaign, staggering to 2-10 last place finish. The incomparable soccer broadcaster/blogger Kenn Tomasch has posted a terrific video clip of the indoor Tea Men from an early ESPN broadcast on Youtube:
The Tea Men gave up on New England in November, 1980 and relocated to Jacksonville, Florida’s Gator Bowl. Still owned by Lipton, the franchise retained the Boston Tea Party-inspired name, although it made little sense in Florida, which remained a Spanish territory unti 1821.
Jacksonville lured the Tea Men south with a pledge of 14,000 season tickets, but the pledge never materialized. The Associated Press reported that the Tea Men sold less than 4,500 season tickets after arriving in Florida. By the end of 1981, Lipton’s patience with the NASL was wearing thin. The league had blown its national television contract with ABC and was now shedding franchises at an alarming rate. Lipton lost a reported $7M on the club between 1978 and 1981, including $1.7M during the first ten months in Jacksonville. In September 1981, the Tea Men were on the verge of folding before Lipton posted the required $150,000 bond with the league to stay in for the indoor season.
The Tea Men averaged a relatively strong 6,375 fans for indoor soccer at the Coliseum that winter. A group of local businessmen led by attorney Earl Hadlow struck a deal to lease the club from Lipton and operate it for the 1982 outdoor season. The momentum died when the team moved outdoors, however. On the field, the Tea Men regressed from the 18-14 playoff club of 1981 to a last-place 11-21 finish in 1982. Fan support dwindled as well. The Tea Men drew only 7,160 fans on average to the 68,000-seat Gator Bowl in 1982, second worst in the 14-team NASL. Hadlow’s group ran out of money during the season and returned the Tea Men to Lipton, who immediately began looking to unload the club once and for all. Deals were announced to sell the club to investors in Milwaukee, then Detroit. Both fell through.
In early 1983, local businessman Ingo Krieg rescued the Tea Men yet again and entered them in the lower level American Soccer League. The nonsensical Tea Men name endured, despite the fact that Lipton had finally pulled out entirely. The ASL had a long and rather weird history dating back to the Great Depression. Similar to the NASL, the ASL had gone on an expansion spree in the mid-1970’s, convinced that soccer’s moment had arrived. By the time Krieg and the Tea Men arrived in 1983, the ASL was in its death throes. Rebounding from 1982’s on-field disapppointment, the Tea Men won the final ASL championship in 1983.
Dissatisfied with his partners in the league, Krieg lead an insurrection in early 1984, peeling away the Dallas and Detroit franchises to form the United Soccer League in the spring of 1984. The Tea Men regressed to an 11-13 record and missed the playoffs. After countless near death experiences, the Tea Men folded once and for all after the 1984 campaign.
The Tea Men’s Jacksonville cheerleader squad was known as the Cu-Teas. Several of their former members have created a Facebook tribute page.
Sources & Further Reading:
Associated Press, January 20th, 1978
“Tea Men’s Owners Rescue Their Team”, Associated Press, September 16th, 1981