By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 15, 2018) US Soccer Players – Though the New York Cosmos defined the NASL era for many, there was another club that put together multiple championship runs. Some 800 miles west of the bright lights of New York, the Chicago Sting made their case as the team of the early 80s. Besides the Cosmos, the Chicago Sting is the only NASL franchise to win multiple Soccer Bowls during that era.
Chicago played in the NASL from 1975 to 1984 and the MISL during in the 1982–83 season and from 1984 to 1988. Founded by businessman and commodities trader Lee Stern, the franchise became official on Halloween Day 1974. “We’re not in this to make a fast buck and realize it may take three years to break even,” Stern told reporters.
With one benefactor taking a risk on pro soccer in a large city with a proud sports history, the team featured former Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes as its first coach. As a result, the team was comprised mostly of British players, ten during that inaugural 1975 season. The Sting suffered through a tough expansion year. Only 4,500 fans turned out for the team’s first game against the Denver Dynamos, a 2-0 loss at Soldier Field. The team would go on to miss the playoffs by a single point.
Chicago tapped into the region’s Polish immigrants, much like the Chicago Fire did decades later, and signed striker Janusz Kowalik. The Sting played Poland in a friendly during its expansion season before 14,000 fans, one of the largest to see them that year. Kowalik played for the Chicago Mustangs, a team that had operated for just one NASL season in 1968. Kowalik was named league MVP in ’68 after scoring 30 goals in 28 games.
In 1976, Chicago famously drafted Marilyn Lange, Playboy’s 1975 Playmate of the Year, as a publicity stunt. The 1976 season saw the team achieve real success. They beat the Cosmos twice, including a 4-1 home win en route to taking the Northern Division title. Chicago exited the playoffs to Toronto in the opening round.
By 77, the team was in transition. Foulkes left midway through the season, with the Sting moving to his assistant, former US international Willy Roy as interim coach. A 10-16 record that season did not help attendance. The addition of Scotland international Willie Morgan, on loan from Bolton, did not pay off either. The striker scored only three goals in 20 games and eventually went on to have a successful time with the Minnesota Kicks.
It didn't get better in 1978. The Sting made a move for one of the architects of the Cosmos, naming Clive Toye as team president. With former West Ham striker Malcolm Musgrove as coach, the team began a transition that would eventually earn it the nickname of Der Sting. The club signed German players like Karl-Heinz Granitza, Arno Steffenhagen, Horst Blankenburg, and Jorgen Kristensen gave the team its distinct Bavarian flavor. Musgrove couldn't get past a ten-game losing streak to start the season. Once again Roy stepped in. Once again, the German-American took over the coaching duties.
Under Roy, the team became an offensive powerhouse and ended the season 12-18 and clinch a spot in the playoffs. The team won 10 of its last 14 games to record a remarkable turnaround. Granitza’s 19 goals and nine assists, however, weren’t enough to avoid a 3-1 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the conference quarterfinals.
In 1979, Roy officially took the coaching job as the Sting emerged as one of the league’s best teams. The signing of several new players, like Dutch midfielder Willem van Hanegem, lifted the team to a 16-14 record. Once again, the team faltered in the playoffs, losing a two-legged conference semifinal to the San Diego Sockers 3-0 on aggregate. The Sting’s newfound success brought with it more fans. Attendance started to grow over the next two years.
By 1981, the Sting tied for the best record in the NASL at 23-9. They played the other 23-9 team for the Soccer Bowl title, the New York Cosmos. On September 26, 1981, at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto the two clubs stayed scoreless through overtime. Granitza and midfielder Rudy Glenn scored the last two penalties to give the Sting its first Soccer Bowl title.
The 1982 season proved disastrous as the Sting failed to defend its title, becoming the first team in NASL history to win the championship one year and fail to make the postseason the next. A 13-19 record doomed the team to last place in the Eastern Division. The Sting did achieve some success that summer, winning the Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup following a 4–3 win against the Cosmos.
Financial problems began to emerge across the league and NASL franchises began to fold at a fast rate. At the same time, an arrangement between the league and the MISL in 1982 was reached to allow three teams, San Diego Sockers, San Jose Earthquakes and Chicago Sting to join the MISL for the 1982–83 indoor season. Chicago would lose to the Cleveland Force in the Division Semifinals, ensuring another disappointing end to an indoor season.
The 1984 season was it for the NASL, and it was the Sting closing the book on the league by winning the final title. Stern had already told the league the team would be leaving the NASL for the MISL. Featuring the attacking duo of Steve Zungul and Patricio Margetic, the team amassed a league-best 13-11 season. The Sting defeated the Toronto Blizzard 2-1 and 3-2 in the best-of-three championship series. Margetic was the finals MVP after scoring three goals in two games. For Roy, it marked a second championship in four seasons.
The Sting would go on to play the next three seasons in the MISL, never making the playoffs. In July 1988, the same week when FIFA awarded the United States the hosting rights to the 1994 World Cup, Stern announced the Sting would fold. Failure to find a new majority owner and a potential move to Denver never materialized. The MISL was also suffering under the weight of financial problems at the time.
While FIFA’s decision marked the start of a new era, the Sting’s demise was the end of another. “Soccer will be back. With the World Cup coming to this country in 1994, interest will be high,” Stern told The Chicago Tribune. “The Sting will be involved somehow, some way.” Soldier Field would host the opening match of the 1994 World Cup to much fanfare, but the Sting would never again play an official game.
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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