By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 17, 2018) US Soccer Players – The post-NASL years are often referred to as the dark ages of American soccer. The indoor game was king and the lack of a strong national league didn’t help. The game struggled to gain traction and was still largely considered a niche sport. That low period, however, did produce some bright spots. One of them was the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks.
The team came into existence in 1989 and within just three years was competing regionally at the highest level. The team’s meteoric rise could be the stuff of a Disney movie. Like so many other teams in this country’s history, the Blackhawks would disappear but its legacy lives on in the Bay Area. There has also been lots of talk since MLS began in 1996 of “super clubs.” DC United, the league’s first dynasty, is one. The LA Galaxy of a decade ago was another. More recently, the moniker may already apply to recent MLS Cup winners Atlanta United.
Are the Blackhawks the best American club team you never heard of? It’s possible given the media landscape of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The Blackhawks were the super club of its time. These were the pre-Internet years, and media mentions were largely controlled by newspaper editors and network TV executives skeptical about soccer’s mass appeal. The sport was too marginal for most Americans used to a diet of football and baseball limited to just four national TV networks. As a result, crowds were small and coverage sparse.
The Blackhawks had a deep-pocketed and passionate owner in Dan Van Voohris. The real estate tycoon was unafraid to take a risk on a team in the Bay Area after the Western Soccer Alliance awarded him a franchise. The WSA started in 1985 to give semi-pro teams a chance to compete outside of their local areas. The WSA gained wider importance after the original North American Soccer League's demise and the San Jose Earthquakes joined the league as a charter member. Three years later, Quakes owner Bill Lunghi withdrew the team from the league. That allowed the WSA to offer Van Voohris a franchise in the area and that’s how the club was born.
The team name came from Van Voohris’s Blackhawk Ranch housing development. Asked in a 1989 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle why he risked $1 million on the team, Van Voorhis said, “I’m the kind of person that will probably never retire. I like working with creative people, and I like challenges. Soccer and the Blackhawks certainly present all those to me. I also think it's kind of fun, for a change, to give my time, energy and money to something where making money is not the priority.”
In its first season, the Blackhawks finished with a 11–5 record, second only to the San Diego Nomads. In the playoffs, the Blackhawks defeated the Los Angeles Heat on penalty kicks, before losing 1–0 to the Nomads in the championship game. In 1990, the WSL merged with the American Soccer League, forming the American Professional Soccer League. It marked the first outdoor national soccer league in this country since the NASL. The leagues would compete as different conferences, with the best two teams from each league competing in the final. The Blackhawks finished with the best record in the WSL and defeated the Colorado Foxes and the Los Angeles Heat in the postseason. In the APSL championship game, the Maryland Bays beat the Blackhawks in a shootout.
The 1991 season saw a total Blackhawks domination under coach Laurie Calloway. The APSL contracted from 11 teams to nine and lost a third (Salt Lake Sting) before the season ended. Travel and low attendance had financially crippled teams, although the Blackhawks were thriving. The team went 17-4 – the second best in the regular season – and featured US defenders Marcelo Balboa and Troy Dayak. Balboa had just come off the 1990 World Cup in Italy and would become a National Team mainstay for over a decade. Dayak would play for the US at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Townsend Qin, a Chinese international, led the team with six goals and six assists that season. The roster also featured a then-budding Eric Wynalda and Dominic Kinnear. Both would go on to play for the US and in MLS. Paul Bravo, another future MLSer, who would go on to earn Rookie of the Year honors that season. It's a heady list of USMNT talent, featuring some of the greatest American players of the last 30 years.
In the semifinals, San Francisco overcame the Ft Lauderdale Strikers in consecutive 1-0 victories. Goals by Kinnear and Wynalda in each game helped San Francisco advance. In the final, the Albany Capitals took the first game 3-1, but the Blackhawks came back to earn a 2-0 victory (on goals from Quin and Balboa) in the return leg at home in Spartan Stadium. It was a 4-3 win on penalty kicks with striker Chance Fry netting the decisive attempt that helped the Blackhawks lift the Commissioner’s Cup.
The Blackhawks qualified for the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup – the precursor to the present-day Concacaf Champions League – and went on a shocking run for a US club at the time. They routed Eurokickers of Panama 10-0 and 1-0 over the two legs in the first round, then defeated La Victoria of Belize, 3-2 and 2-0 in the second round. Although opponents got more difficult, the Blackhawks seemed to be getting better. In the third round, they got past Real Espana of Honduras following back-to-back 3-0 wins. After the Vancouver 86ers withdrew from the tournament, the Blackhawks earned a bye and found themselves in the fifth round taking on Mexican powerhouse Club America. The winner would advance to the semifinals.
The Blackhawks run would come to an end after losing 4-3 on aggregate. The sides played an emotional 180 minutes over two legs with San Francisco pushing Club America to the brink of elimination. Tied 1-1 at Estadio Azteca, Dayak saw red after hitting Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez in the face. Down a player, Sanchez scored two goals down the stretch for Club America. The exhausted Blackhawks, done in by the Mexico City altitude and the loud Azteca crowd, lost 3-1. The return leg at Spartan Stadium produced another thrilling match. A 2-1 Blackhawks win was a goal short of pushing the game to overtime. In the end, Sanchez’s goal on a penalty kick in the first-half proved decisive.
Success in the region didn’t translate into wins domestically. In 1992, with the APSL down to five teams from eight, the Blackhawks seemed to fade under the weight of so many games. They still made the playoffs with an 8–8 record. A loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the first round ended the team’s title defense and Van Voorhis decided to play in the United States Interregional Soccer League, the forerunner to the current USL.
“Owners of the other APSL teams are not willing to make the financial commitment to bring professional soccer in this country to a Division I level,” Van Voorhis said during a news conference. “I have informed Alan Rothenberg that the Blackhawks are leaving the APSL and have petitioned US Soccer to allow us to play an independent schedule until a full Division I league is in place.”
After failing to join the Mexican Primera Division, in 1993 the Blackhawks changed their name to the San Jose Hawks. Despite the rebrand, the team continued its winning ways. It amassed a 14-2 record, but ultimately failed to make the championship game. The team folded at the end of that year. Van Voorhis accepted a buyout, including all existing Hawks player contracts and the right to play at Spartan Stadium. Three years later, the San Jose Clash would play at Spartan Stadium in the first season of MLS. The team, coached by Calloway, would feature several Blackhawk players including Wynalda, Dayak, and Bravo.
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.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- MLS 2018 season in review
- Henry, Gerrard, and Lampard on the sidelines in Europe
- What to watch as the USMNT moves forward
- Soccer History: USMNT vs Italy
Logo courtesy of SF Bay Blackhawks