Last Wednesday night at the Meadowlands, Mike Flanagan was elated. With the NASL playoffs looming, he was the main reason the New England Tea Men were leading the Eastern Division of the American Conference. A week before he had scored the game's only goal as his expansion club beat the Cosmos in overtime at Foxboro, Mass. Four days later, at home against California, he had scored five times, equaling the NASL record for a single game. And now at the Meadowlands, barely two minutes into a match against the defending league champions, Flanagan had put in the first goal of a 3-1 win, the Cosmos' first home defeat in 24 games. The goal was Flanagan's 28th of the season, tops in the league.
In gaining successive wins over the Cosmos, the NASL's most glamorous adornment, the first-year Tea Men seemed rather audacious. Yet Flanagan did not think there was anything fluky about the victories. New to the NASL this season himself, after having played seven years with Charlton Athletic, a not-altogether-fashionable London club, the 25-year-old center forward takes a hard, professional view of the game. "They booed us when we ran out on the field," he said following the win at the Meadowlands. "That's what I call a sign of respect. You know, you get teams you sort of favor playing against. The Cosmos, they've got a lot of skilled players and they like to knock the ball around slowly. That suits us because we've got players who can break very quickly. We are very direct. Too many teams go to the Cosmos and get overawed by them." And Flanagan insisted that in a third confrontation with the Cosmos—like, say, in Soccer Bowl 78—the Tea Men will prevail once again.
Certainly Flanagan had not seemed overawed by the Cosmos when he scored the first goal on Wednesday. Standing on the 35-yard line, he eluded Werner Roth and ran in toward the goal. "I tried to play a wall pass to Lawrie Abrahams," he said. "A little bit of ricocheting went on, then the ball came back to me. As the goalie came out, I faked to shoot, then went to one side and gave myself an open goal."
Flanagan is not the only English player on a scoring rampage in the NASL. There is also Trevor Francis, center forward of England's national team, who is on loan to the Detroit Express from Birmingham City. Or Birminum, as native sons put it. He had joined the Express, also an expansion club, in late May, arriving without fuss. Since then he had scored eight goals in 12 games as Detroit took over first place in the Central Division of the American Conference. Thanks to Flanagan and Francis, it is proving to be a good year for NASL expansion teams.
Francis' deeds in the U.S. would not surprise the fans at St. Andrews Stadium in Birmingham, where they like to sing, "Ay, ay, ay, ay, Trevor is better than Pelè." Francis is more dangerous in front of the goal, faster, stronger and more inventive than the aging Pelè was when he joined the Cosmos. In fact, almost unnoticed, for the first time in the NASL a player had arrived who was not only in the front rank of world soccer but was also in his prime. Or maybe had not quite reached it, which is a bit of a statement since Francis has already played for England many times, most recently in a 4-1 thrashing of Hungary a few weeks before the World Cup.
For the San Jose game last Wednesday, Francis had attracted two rather special fans. There was Ken, neat, small and intense. And Dick, neat, tall and more intense. They kept a tight grip on their British Airways flight bags as they looked around with some awe at the Pontiac Silverdome. Ken explained what they were doing so far from home. "Promised Trevor, din' we, Dick? When we saw him off at Heathrow? Said we'd come over and see 'm, din' we? We got the Birminum papers for 'im an' a poster.... I'm a Birminum supporter, see?"
"An' I'm a England supporter, see?" Dick added, eschewing this provincialism. The visitors were still jet-lagged and only just over the trauma of discovering that 29,000 Shriners had filled every hotel room in Detroit. But they had finagled someone into putting them up on couches one night, and then the Detroit club had found them a precious room so they could single-mindedly carry out their promise to Trevor.
The man who had moved these two slightly bewildered fans to fly the Atlantic is deceptively frail-looking. Yet the Chaplinesque splay of Francis' feet, his eellike body swerves and his elfin features could become, by 1982, when they play the World Cup in Spain, as familiar as Pelè's wide grin was in the 1960s.
Against San Jose Francis showed what he can do. With the ball on the touch line and Francis apparently trapped by three defenders, his back to the field, he would suddenly wriggle clear like Houdini—and you couldn't figure out how he had done it. Center forwards who are shooting machines and not much else are common enough. Those who can shoot and can also tackle aggressively and pass, like Trevor Francis, are the rarest thing in soccer.
Less than three minutes into the game Francis started to justify Ken's and Dick's air fares by stabbing in a goal. Twenty minutes later he scored again. Detroit led 3-0 at half time and then came the deluge. The San Jose defense, confused by Francis' roamings from wing to wing, split apart. He centered for David Bradford, who headed in a goal, and then came Francis' own hat-trick goal. It soon was 8-0 Detroit and reporters began thumbing through the NASL record book. Nine goals, it seemed, was the record for club scoring in one game. With two minutes to go, Francis got his fourth goal and then, just as time ran out, a Detroit attacker was hacked down in the penalty box. Francis took the penalty shot, which was good, making the final score 10-0. Detroit's 10 goals was a record, and the five put in by Francis tied the individual record shared by four others, including Flanagan.
Records aside, the week did little to settle divisional races. Despite their two losses to New England, the Cosmos had the National Conference East all but locked up. In the American Conference, San Diego and Detroit seemed solid bets to win their divisions. The Central Division of the National Conference, though, was still a dogfight between Minnesota and Tulsa.
Tulsa enhanced its chances at home Thursday night against Portland. The Timbers had achieved four consecutive shutouts behind Mick Poole, their 23-year-old goalie. And Tulsa was without Billy Caskey, its best striker, and two starting defenders. Stojan Nikolic and Radoslav Barasic.
But the dripping Oklahoma humidity took its toll on Portland. Foward Clyde Best was slow and easily dispossessed of the ball. Meanwhile, Tulsa's Bill Sautter, a 22-year-old from Abington, Penn., ran strongly in attack and teamed well with the veteran Jimmy Redfern. On one of Sautter's forays into the Portland penalty area, he was brought down. Minoslav Zee scored from the resulting kick and Tulsa won 1-0. The loss dropped Portland to second in the Western Division of the American Conference behind Vancouver, which had defeated Dallas 6-1 the night before.
For Tulsa, the week's rewards were not quite over. Moving to Minnesota Saturday night, the Roughnecks met the Kicks in a game whose pace compellingly recalled croquet on the bishop's lawn. There were times when Charlie George, the gifted player Minnesota recruited from Derby County in the English First Division, broke free of the careful attention of the Roughnecks' Jim McKeown, but the first shot of any real meaning didn't come until 20 minutes into the game, when Tulsa's Redfern was close with a low, hard drive. So it went, for the first half. It was the kind of game that appeared destined to be scoreless right to the end of regulation time.
It didn't work out that way, but only because of a disastrous attempt by Alan Merrick, Minnesota's captain, to clear under pressure. What happened was scarcely believable, but scarcely unprecedented, either. Merrick ballooned the ball over his own goal. It didn't balloon high enough. Gracefully it dropped over the goalie's head and into the net. Embarrassingly, it was the third time this season that a Minnesota player had scored against his own club.
It ended that way, 1-0 Tulsa, giving the Roughnecks a two-point lead in the Central Division of the National Conference, and dismaying 35,000 Kick fans, whose uncritical commitment to their team is wondrous to behold. The game's dawdling pace could be explained partly by the fact that Tulsa had played just 48 hours earlier and Minnesota just 72 hours before—far from unusual in the NASL. Those games, moreover, had been played in sweltering summer temperatures; in Tulsa's case, its home game against Portland had started in 100-plus weather. First-class soccer players in Europe or South America would go on strike over such conditions. Except in the U.S., soccer is a fall and winter game, as its 90 minutes of continuous running would seem to demand. It is easy to see why U.S. soccer often tends to be played at a noticeably slower pace than elsewhere.
In the case of pro soccer, there is a clear reason for both the jam-packed scheduling and for the summer season. At this stage of its development, the NASL depends heavily on loan players from European teams, particularly from England, where the season starts in late August and finishes virtually at the end of April. Until this dependency on available foreigners ends, no solution to this barely acceptable hardship on NASL players seems at all likely.
The demanding schedule also caught up with Mike Flanagan's Tea Men. With Tampa Bay breathing down their necks in their division, the Tea Men figured to romp over Rochester, even though they were playing in the Lancers' tiny, cramped Holleder Stadium on uneven grass, which is poorly suited to the New England style. But in less than two minutes Rochester went ahead on an extraordinary goal by Julio Baylon, who played for Peru in the '74 World Cup. With his back to the goal, he bicycle-kicked over his head and into the net. Thereupon a fan shouted. "Don't let them play." Which is exactly the strategy Rochester followed. Its defenders resorted to an offside trap, an old trick in which the defense moves forward, suddenly putting the opposing forwards in offside positions. Even so, just before halftime, Flanagan broke free and got off a shot that Goalie Ratka Svilar parried feebly, enabling Lawrie Abrahams to tie it, 1-1.
The game was physical, with 26 fouls called on Rochester alone. Gerry Daly scored on a penalty kick, putting New England ahead 2-1, but the Tea Men were visibly tiring. A minute later Rochester's Ibraim Silva tied it up. And then, with 10 minutes left to play and Rochester applying intense pressure, defender Hugo Nicolini, who had come up into the attack, scored to win the game for Rochester, 3-2.
In the locker room, Mike Flanagan was not as elated as lie had been at the Meadowlands. On the contrary he groaned and said, "I was pathetic." A letdown was probably excusable, considering all the games he had been playing. As Noel Cantwell, New England's coach, said, "We couldn't have had a worse match after Wednesday. We had no life. We had tired bodies trying to push themselves forward. We went from a best performance to a worst." Such, perforce, is life in the NASL.