The way local sky watchers figure it, Houston is the place to be when Sky-lab falls because NASA certainly won't let it drop on headquarters. Maybe so, but as the California Surf discovered last Saturday night, Houston is not the place to be when the Hurricane is blowing. The Houston Hurricane, that is, of the North American Soccer League.
In beating the Surf 2-1 in the Astrodome, the Hurricane scored the winning goal when Defender Stewart Jump knocked a ball to the head of Finnish Midfielder Kai Haaskivi, who bounced it to Ruben Morales, who lost control of it but saw it dribble to Dale Russell, who blasted a shot past Surf Goalkeeper Dave Jokerst.
Confusing? Well, Houston has players all over the NASL scratching their heads, trying to figure out exactly how the Hurricane does it.
"What is the Hurricane?" was the plaintive question of Atlanta Director of Operations Terry Hanson when Houston beat the Chiefs 2-1 in the Astrodome two weeks ago. "They're fourth in the league, and they beat you somehow, but you don't know why. You just leave town saying, 'Who was that masked man?' "
Says a Hurricane defender, Howie Charbonneau, "We can't figure it out ourselves either."
Houston, which finished the 1978 season at 10-20, now has a 14-5 record and lurks just behind the defending champion Cosmos (15-4), Minnesota (15-5) and Tampa Bay (14-6). Undefeated at home, the Hurricane—one of the NASL's so-called disaster franchises, along with the Dallas Tornado, the Toronto Blizzard and the San Jose Earthquakes—comfortably leads the American Conference Central Division by 22 points over Chicago (10-8) and has just about clinched a playoff berth.
Houston does not play pretty soccer or even physical soccer, and the team certainly does not possess superstars of the kind that dot the Cosmos roster. The Hurricane does not display the hard-drilled technical sophistication of Minnesota or the flash and dash of Tampa Bay, but it wins. It wins because of: 1) a Finnish hockey-player-turned-soccer-coach named Timo Liekoski, 2) a successful off-season campaign in the Major Indoor Soccer League and 3) a laid-back Texan approach to the game.
After last season's miserable finish, the Hurricane loaned its coach, players and, for a time, even its name—a fact that outraged the NASL—to the MISL and surprised everyone by playing a stunning brand of indoor soccer, which features six men to a side and is contested on a hockey-sized surface surrounded by boards. Summit Soccer, as the Houston team was eventually called, finished with an 18-6 record.
"That turned us around," says the 37-year-old Liekoski. "Last year we sort of crawled on the field and hoped to lose by one goal and get out before anyone could remember who we were."
When he left Helsinki to attend Hartwick College, the tiny soccer power in upstate New York, Liekoski was a hockey player. But he quickly converted to soccer and was All-America in his junior year. He later coached Hartwick for three seasons (30-9-7) and then spent two years with the Tornado as assistant coach before taking the reins at Houston last season. Liekoski traded on his hockey experience to transform his soccer players into indoor artists.
"We used the boards like hockey, played point men and gave a lot of stick out there," he says. "And we took a tactic from basketball by using a zone defense to shut down passing lanes. It worked."
Houston Forward Kyle Rote believes the indoor experiences did more than just instill self-esteem in the Hurricane players. "Eight of our 11 outdoor starters played indoor, and we gained a lot of technical skills, particularly the Americans," he says. In its first 13 games, the Hurricane gave North American players—according to league rules, at least two must be on the field at all times—more playing time than 13 of the NASL's other 23 teams, and last Wednesday Liekoski played five Americans in Philadelphia.
"Americans don't see that much of the ball in the outdoor game," says Rote, "but indoors there's only six guys, and the ball comes to you a lot. You have to distribute it often and accurately. It's like playing half-court tennis and then moving back to the baseline when you go outdoors. You get tremendous confidence."
So close-knit are the easygoing Hurricane players that they even wait in the same gas-station line, getting out of their cars to sign autographs and kick a ball around when the going is slow.
"There's no big star here," Rote says. "Everybody scores." Indeed, nine of the Hurricane's 10 field players have gotten goals; reflecting the team's balance, leading scorer Eduardo Marasco has only eight goals, 12 fewer than league-leader Giorgio Chinaglia of the Cosmos.
When Houston loses, however, it really loses. Four of the Hurricane's five defeats have been by three or more goals. "We just press and press," says Liekoski. "When you're two goals down away from home, you're supposed to sit on it. But we don't, we keep going up. If we get a goal, we'll usually win. We're not very talented playmakers, so we try to force the opponents' less-experienced players to make mistakes by giving them room and hoping they'll panic."
Like most NASL teams, the Hurricane is a polynational lot of Americans, Canadians, Finns, Germans, Argentinians and British. "I sat down with them at the beginning of the season," says Liekoski, "and told them, 'Look, we've got British, Continental, South American and U.S. styles here. We've got to work together. How can we blend the styles?' It was amazing. They all compromised, and we sort of work it out as we go."
They worked it out again Saturday night before a small but vocal crowd of 5,945 fans. Houston scored its first goal with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. A direct shot by Jump was blocked by Jokerst, but the ball squirted from his hands and ricocheted around the penalty area for an agonizingly long time. A Surf defender unintentionally cleared it to Hurricane Midfielder Walter Schuberth, who was positioned just outside the penalty area, and he drove a hard kick over the still prone Jokerst.
The Hurricane lives up to its name in front of the goal; nevertheless, the swirl of action, confusion and erratic swoops produces goals. It's almost like watching a team of Seabees build a Quonset hut; you can't really tell what they're doing, but when they finish, it's something you can live with.
The Surf, attacking smartly, matched the Hurricane goal 22 minutes into the second half on a shot by Gerry Ingram. Finally, Russell's goal, coming only 19 minutes from the end, settled things in Houston's favor.
Afterward, Liekoski said, "I really don't know why we're any good. But we are. If you come up with the answer, let me know. Come to think of it, don't tell me. It might spoil it."