To imagine any team other than the Cosmos emerging from Giants Stadium in New Jersey's Meadowlands next Sept. 8 as the winner of Soccer Bowl-79 requires a feat of prodigious fancy. They won the last two NASL championships and take the field for the '79 season stronger than ever. Newcomer Defensive Back Marinho, whom the Cosmos need the way the Yankees needed Rod Carew, may be the icing on the cake. And if Steve Hunt, the perennially homesick English winger, can be persuaded to return to play alongside Dennis Tueart and the hot-shooting Giorgio Chinaglia, the Cosmos may be invincible.
But if they are stronger, they are not necessarily happier. Franz Beckenbauer is gloomy about having to play midfield again. Chinaglia, last season's record-setting scoring leader (34 goals), is reportedly unhappy with Eddie Firmani, the coach he was instrumental in bringing to the team (these are the Cosmos, remember). And it must be recalled that other teams that have amassed high-priced talent have managed not to make it all the way—e.g., the Philadelphia 76ers—and if any one of a number of clubs can mount a sustained challenge against the most expensive roster in world soccer, it could happen here.
Vancouver is a puzzlement. The Whitecaps are the antithesis of the Cosmos. They are almost entirely English and Canadian, and not a big name among them. Yet, under Player-Coach Tony Waiters, they finished last season with a record identical to that of the Cosmos, 24-6. Having the Whitecaps go all the way would be like a British trade union taking over Buckingham Palace. They play a traditional English, leather-lunged game—counter to the trend in the NASL—but they play it very well indeed. With only four new players—all of them English—the Whitecaps also defy the trend by standing on a pat hand.
Dallas, because it didn't win that way, will no longer have its appealingly American look. Among those uprooted by the international influx is Kyle Rote Jr., a longtime media darling and a genuinely able performer, who has been dealt off to Houston. Other young American players coming into the league have more talent than he. Gerd Trinklein, an experienced sweeper from Germany, is the best of the Tornado acquisitions. He will take over that position—from the only American ever to play it regularly in the NASL, Glenn Myernick.
The Minnesota Kicks have always done well at the gate, but to reward their fans with a Soccer Bowl appearance they need a top striker. Longtime Coach Freddie Goodwin has ascended to the presidency of the club, handpicking Roy McCrohan as his successor and bringing to Swedish-oriented Minnesota Bjorn Nordqvist, the so-called "Beckenbauer of Sweden." Nordqvist is a defender who has more "caps"—games for his national team (115)—than anyone. If McCrohan can work some coaching magic with the offense, Nordqvist could give the three-time divisional winners the edge again with an otherwise English-American roster.
The Diplomats' new chief executive. Sonny Werblin, commutes to Washington from New York's Madison Square Garden Corporation—Knicks, Rangers and now Diplomats—but he seems to have forgotten to take his checkbook with him. With no super-signings, and a team roster as shallow as the Washington Monument reflecting pool, the Dips will not do well despite the presence of feisty scoring artist Paul Cannell. Unless, of course, Werblin changes his mind about that checkbook, which isn't an uncommon way to resolve such difficulties in the NASL.
Los Angeles engineered one of the off-season's most interesting and innovative importations by bringing in not a player but a first-rate international coach. Rinus Michels guided Holland's 1974 World Cup side and has been the gray eminence behind the fabled Johan Cruyff. He also developed the "Whirl," the system of play that won the orange-shirted Dutch National Team the nickname "Clockwork Orange." Michels says, "Most soccer stars are not worth their salaries." But then, the Dutchman hasn't been in this country all that long. He has signed only two of his countrymen, plus a host of English and American hopefuls. The Aztecs just may be able to win their division battle.
Given the evidence that to win in the NASL you must spend money, a number of teams are bucking the odds. Portland paid a modest $100,000 to purchase English Defender Graham Day, who has played for them as a loaner the past three years. That is as high as the Timbers have ever gone. With 15 British and American players returning, they likely will find themselves out of the playoffs. NASL teams that don't make moves usually are felled.
Up the coast in Seattle, the Sounders have purchased the moody but brilliant English midfielder, Alan Hudson, in their first year of big spending. Hudson, who comes from First Division Arsenal Football Club, cost a reported $200,000. The Sounders also added Derek Smethurst, perennially among the league's top scorers, from Tampa Bay. But their goaltending is questionable in a league committed to attacking soccer, and they may do worse than last season's 15-15 mark.
Rochester as usual is running amok. In an effort to save cash, the Lancers will field loaners from the New York Arrows, the indoor-soccer-league team that Lancer Coach Dragan Popovic has been directing for the past few months. The Lancers originally supplied most of the Arrows' players. Figure that one out. Rochester scraped together $125,000 to buy Shep Messing, who is currently keeping goal for the Arrows. The Lancers are masters of the offside trap, a delicate maneuver designed to draw the opposition offside. They did it 181 times in '78, but they will have to come up with some new tricks this year.
In his first coaching job, former Cosmos player Keith Eddy, an Englishman, will depend on English loaners in Toronto, while jettisoning a host of Croatians who have been the backbone of the team for years. A change of ownership and name is involved. Old name: Metros Croatia. New one: The Blizzard.
Another Englishman, ex-player Alan Hinton, will direct the Tulsa squad. The Roughnecks' only luminary this year is a training-camp walk-on, Iranian World Cupper Iraj Danaifard, who found himself in Tulsa with no reason to go home because the soccer season there had been canceled on account of the revolution.
So awed is the management to be bringing soccer back to Atlanta after five years that the Chiefs haven't done much of anything except get together a squad that will show up on opening day, which in their case happens to be April Fools' Day. Most of the players are holdovers from last season when the franchise was in Colorado, as is Coach Dan Wood. "I read that the Rowdies offered Mike Flanagan $1.4 million," Wood says. "We could run our whole franchise for two years on that." If it's around, that is.
Considering all the money that's been spent and the caliber of players signed on, Fort Lauderdale should sweep into Soccer Bowl-79 as conference champion. Minus retired English Keeper Gordon Banks but now with Gerd Muller, Teofilo Cubillas and possibly George Best as a forward line and Arnie Mausser in goal, the Strikers will be an international street fair of styles and a joy to watch. The Brooklyn-born Mausser, who played last season with the Colorado Caribous, is one of the most talented American keepers—by themselves a group of exceptional merit, even by world standards. But Coach Ron Newman is not sanguine. "Every team looks 60% better on paper this year," he says. "The trick is to get the paper onto the field."
The biggest surprise in the league last year was provided by Chicago, which got off to a rousing 0-10 start. When the Sting's record reached 2-14, management fired its English coach and hired Willy Roy, a German. Roy unloaded a bunch of English players and brought in half a dozen German, Dutch and Danish athletes. The result, considering the circumstances, was a remarkable 12-18 season. The Sting's German-based offense was potent last season and should be again. The defense is a question mark, as are the two keepers, neither of whom has yet played an NASL game. Roy, however, is optimistic.
The New England Tea Men, an expansion club that started from scratch last year, finished an astonishingly strong 19-11, tying for first in their division on points and achieving the second-best record in the conference. A large part of their success can be laid at the feet of Mike Flanagan, an English loan player who scored 30 goals and was named the league's MVP. But Tampa Bay is trying to buy Flanagan's contract outright and New England may well have seen the last of him. Thomas J. Lipton Inc., which owns the team, has a ton of money; it recently offered to fund the entire U.S. Olympic soccer effort. The Tea Men have also gone international, acquiring Salif (King) Keita and three other Portuguese stars from Sporting Lisbon, but the loss of Flanagan would really hurt.
When Trevor Francis finally arrives in Detroit after the English season is over (whenever that will be this year), the Express will pick up steam. Last season he scored 22 goals in this country, and his transfer fee was the highest ever in England. The Express' 20-10 record in 1978 was best in the conference. They will be very good again, when the finest player in the league gets there.
Last year's Soccer Bowl loser, Tampa Bay, is rebuilding. Says Coach Gordon Jago, "We should have done it last year, but we were busy trying to win the championship." In typical NASL style, the Rowdies, who have a public relations style all their own, are on the verge of a host of signings, including that of a pair of Peruvians and a brace of Yugoslavs. Well set in the backfield, the Rowdies need to shore up their front line, where semi-official team hero Striker Rodney Marsh, now 34, is slowing down. The acquisition of Flanagan would make a decisive difference here. Without him, or someone of his caliber, the Rowdies could finish behind New England and Detroit.
Another possibility for conference honors is San Diego; German Coach Hubert Vogelsinger's Sockers tied Tampa's 18-12 record last year. With the help of two Mexican strikers, Hugo Sanchez and Leonardo Cuellar, whom they hope to sign for arrival in June, the Sockers beat Moscow Dynamo last month 5-2, no small achievement. With the best American goalie, Alan Mayer, and U.S. National squad Midfielder Julie Veee, a top homegrown player, plus two Irishmen and a German or two, San Diego could contend.
San Jose, on the other hand, probably will not. The Earthquakes—who wound up 8-22 in '78, the second-worst record in the league—got rid of their coach and a raft of aging players. The new coach is ex-Los Angeles pilot Terry Fisher, and only four members of last year's squad are still around. Having acquired four Germans and two Danes, the Quakes may bear watching—if they surface at all.
Juan Michia, an Argentinian, and Kyle Rote Jr. are the only players of note who have signed with Houston. Hurricane Coach Timo Leokoski has been busy clinching first place in the MISL with his Summit Soccer team. He may not have the time or the resources to do much in the great out-of-doors, or, for that matter, in the great indoors of the Astrodome. The Edmonton team, which was bought from Oakland by World Hockey Association Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington for $2.5 million, has a fine Dutch coach in Hans Kraay and a nucleus of so-so players who made the trek to Edmonton. Kraay will need Pocklington's storied generosity to make the Drillers a contender come spring in Alberta.
Although they came on with a bang at the beginning of last season, the Philadelphia Fury, which has rock-music ownership, soon fell into disharmony. In point of dismal fact, they failed to score in 12 of their 30 games. The major blame for this ineptitude fell on English Forward Peter Osgood, who was hyped as a superstar but wasn't. Englishmen Alan Ball and David Robb, both loaners, won't arrive for a while, which may be too late for Yugoslavian Coach Marko Valock to warble a victory song.
The California team, which is based in Anaheim, looks bad. The Surf have Steve David, the 1977 NASL scoring champ, and Coach John Sewell hopes he can sweet-talk the moody Trinidadian into improving his play; he only scored five times in 11 games last season. But even that will not be enough.
The Memphis Rogues are out to lunch. And at the local diner at that. Operating on a budget that allows a toothpick and a glass of water and depending heavily on loan players from England, they will have to warm themselves with the memory of their surprise win over the Cosmos last season. English Coach Eddie McCreadie, who thrust Chelsea into the English First Division, deserves better.