By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 20, 2018) US Soccer Players – Soccer experienced a boom in popularity in North America starting in the late 1960s. Following widespread interest as a spectator sport in the 1920s, the collapse of the original ASL saw the game take on a minor, even regional role, for much of the 20th century.
The creation of the National Professional Soccer League in 1967, and the NASL soon after that, saw the start of a national pro circuit at a time when television had increasingly become a major way fans enjoyed sports. The NPSL and United Soccer Association merged to form the NASL, a league that catapulted the game to new heights before going bust in the mid-1980s.
The Atlanta Chiefs were the first team to win the NASL title. Coached by Phil Woosnam, who would later become NASL commissioner, the Chiefs lasted until 1981. They started life as a power in a new league. The team would go on to win the title in 1968, its only NASL championship, and were runners-up in 1969 and ‘71.
The team was brought to life by then-Atlanta Braves Vice-President Dick Cecil. The goal was to capitalize on the 1966 World Cup’s popularity along with adding more dates to the newly-built Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Chiefs signed two notable Welshmen in manager Phil Woosnam and striker Vic Crowe.
Atlanta would go on to win the first-ever NASL title. With an 18-6-7 regular-season record, the Chiefs had made history in only their second year of existence. The team, who had competed in the NPSL in 1967, won it all after beating the San Diego Toros in the championship game. After the first leg ended scoreless on September 21, Atlanta blanked the Toros in the return match a week later at home. Before 14,994 fans, the Chiefs posted a 3-0 victory thanks to goals from Peter McParland, Delroy Scott, and Kaizer Motaung.
The Chiefs may not have had the big names the NASL would later become famous for, but McParland and Motaung were notable in those early years. McParland had earned 34 caps for Northern Ireland, most famously being one of the star players at the 1958 World Cup. His five goals at that tournament helped Northern Ireland reach the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Motaung, a native of South Africa, returned home to start his own team in 1970, naming them the Kaizer Chiefs after himself and the Atlanta club. The Kaizer Chiefs, based in Johannesburg, exist to this day and have become one of the best supported and winningest teams in African club soccer history.
That same year, the Chiefs also brought some respect to the league in the middle of the NASL season, twice defeating English champions Manchester City in two heavily-promoted friendlies played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The team even went as far as to use a woman on horseback around the city’s streets declaring, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Both the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, the city’s two major newspapers at the time, covered the publicity stunt. Soccer had gained unprecedented coverage in the sports pages and would continue to do so that year as the Chiefs dominated the NASL.
Woosnam told the Atlanta Constitution on the eve of the match that he felt the Chiefs had a real shot at winning the game.
“We’re all keyed up for Manchester City. The whole team is really quite anxious,” he told the newspaper. “We feel like we've got something to prove and we feel that we can win.”
On May 28, the Chiefs won 3-2 before 21,000 fans. Manchester City assistant coach Malcolm Allison was not magnanimous in defeat, saying afterward: “They couldn’t play in the fourth division in England.”
Manchester City immediately tried to schedule a rematch. Cecil, in an interview with The Associated Press, said Manchester City “were somewhat chagrined when they left here.”
On June 15, the Chiefs defeated Manchester City for a second time by a score of 2-1 before a crowd of about 25,000 as the NASL team dominated for much of the game. Manchester City’s players later blamed that defeat on the heat.
Atlanta’s early success allowed Woosnam, a marketing master, to have a lot of influence regarding the league’s growth, and ultimate demise, after his move to the helm of the NASL. That overshadows what he did on the sidelines for Atlanta, named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1968 and coaching the USMNT that year. He became NASL commissioner in 1969, a position he would hold until 1983. While he played a key role in helping the league gain exposure through TV contracts, over-expansion didn’t help the NASL sustain any long-term sustainability.
“I happen to be something of a skeptic concerning Phil Woosnam. He did do great things for the NASL during its crisis year of 1969 when the 12 of the league's 17 teams folded and the league was on life-support for a year or more,” said soccer historian Roger Allaway. “The three people who worked incredibly hard to keep it going through that crisis were Woosnam, Clive Toye, and Lamar Hunt…. The corner was turned when those three convinced the owners of the Washington (Darts) and Rochester (Lancers) ASL teams to join the NASL in 1970.”
Woosnam oversaw the league's rapid expansion and the rise of the Cosmos.
“In 1978 alone, there were seven expansion teams," Allaway said. "By 1981, every one of those seven expansion teams had either folded for moved and the NASL was beginning to circle the drain,” he added. “Toye believes that expanding too much and too fast was the main cause of the NASL’s demise.”
The Chiefs would have three different owners during its ten seasons of existence spread out over 14 years. Ownership switched to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, renaming the franchise the Atlanta Apollos, playing at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and folding at the end of the season. The Chiefs name was brought back with Ted Turner and Cecil as owners when the Colorado Caribous moved to Atlanta after playing the 1978 season in Denver. After three NASL seasons back at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and two indoor ones playing at the Omni, the team folded again in 1981.
Atlanta United FC, an MLS expansion team just last year, could very well replicate what the Chiefs did and win a championship in just its second year of existence. Atlanta could very well be celebrating another title this fall, seeds that were sowed 50 years ago by Woosnam and his underdog Chiefs.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Chiefs