By J Hutcherson (Apr 21, 2020) US Soccer Players – In what were the dying days of the original North American Soccer League, a champion emerged that was uniquely NASL. The Tulsa Roughnecks won the 1983 Soccer Bowl, a shock result for a small market team in a free-spending league. Playing in the weakest of three divisions without the financial support necessary to make up the difference, Tulsa started every season on the back foot. Considering the circumstances, the 1983 Tulsa Roughnecks were a borderline miracle, but were they any good?
The Roughnecks had been in Tulsa since the 1978 NASL season, by that league’s standards an established franchise by 1983. They were also improving, finishing 2nd in the Southern Division the previous season. By the early 80s, the expansion era was over in the NASL. From a high of 24 teams, the league was down to 12 in 1983 including the expansion Team America. The USMNT in theory, they joined Tulsa, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa in the Southern Division. Tulsa survived the contraction years with seven teams folding before the start of the 1982 season. With the NASL’s inflated points system still in place, they finished 12 points behind Fort Lauderdale and a whopping 39 ahead of 3rd-place Tampa. Unfortunately, taking the last playoff spot meant a meeting with the New York Cosmos in the first round of the playoffs. Tulsa lost 5-1 over two legs with the Cosmos going on to win the title.
Roughnecks defender Barry Wallace was a second-team all-star in 1982 with forward Laurie Abrahams getting an honorable mention. Both returned to coach Terry Hennessey’s squad for the 1983 season. Abrahams was part of a three-forward attack that all finished with double-digit goals. Ron Futcher was top of that group with 15 goals and 10 assists from 26 games. Abrahams had 11 goals and 11 assists from 22 games with Njego Pesa scoring 11 and assisting on 2 over 24 games. Though midfielder Iraj Danaifard contributed another 10 assists, nobody else in the squad scored more than five goals and that was from their All-Star defender Barry Wallace. In goal for the Roughnecks was USMNT player Winston DuBose who played in all 30 games with a 1.55 goals-against average. Statistics don’t always tell the story, but the Roughnecks put together a squad that balanced forward production with strong goalkeeping while maintaining their reputation as “a bunch of rejects” more than willing to test the referee’s patience.
Stalled start to the season
1983 didn’t go well early on for Tulsa. They lost five of six games to open the schedule, including 4-1 at Montreal on May 11 and 5-2 at the Cosmos on the 15. They looked like a team in serious trouble, losing twice to Team America. That 1-0 loss at RFK Stadium on June 4 was a turning point. Tulsa got it together, beating Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Chicago on the road in June and showing that they could compete across the league. Their run of form against the Sting told the story. In a compact league, they played each other three times from June 18 through July 13. Tulsa won 4-0 away, took a 1-1 shutout win at home, and then another 4-0 road win. Chicago would end up making the playoffs that season as the 2nd-best team in the Eastern Division finishing with more points than Tulsa. It’s once again worth the reminder that the NASL not only inflated points for a win but that goals also counted in the standings system. A maximum of three goals added to the points, so winning a game 3-0 meant six points for the win and an additional three for a total of nine from one game. In more traditional terms, Chicago finished 15-15 to Tulsa’s 17-13. Shootout wins counted for four points in the table. The NASL gave up on the 35-yard offside rule the previous season.
The Southern Division
Tulsa lost 2-1 at the Earthquakes on August 6 and then won 1-0 at Toronto on the 13 in their last out of conference games of the season. The rest of the schedule was Southern Division teams, playing Tampa Bay and Team America twice and Fort Lauderdale once. The NASL setup the three divisions so the top two finishers automatically advanced. The final two playoff spots went to the top overall finishers, with the entire Eastern Division ultimately qualifying for the postseason. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Team America would be the only two teams in the league to finish with less than 100 points. Good news for the Roughnecks, who finished the season with six wins in a row. After Toronto, they beat Tampa and Team America at home then Fort Lauderdale away on August 27. It was Team America again on the 31 before winning their finale at Tampa on September 3. In four of those five Southern Division wins, Tulsa scored at least three points. They finished top of the division with 145 points to Fort Lauderdale’s 136. Those 145 points would’ve had Tulsa finishing 3rd in the East and the West.
In classic NASL fashion, seeding the playoffs in a three-division league wasn’t straightforward. Tulsa’s reward for winning the Southern Division was the 3rd-seed. Fort Lauderdale was the 6th-seed, meaning two Southern Division teams played each other in the opening round of the playoffs. The NASL used a best of three series, with Tulsa beat the Strikers 3-2 in overtime at home and 4-2 on the road to advance. In the other half of the bracket, the Montreal Manic shocked the Cosmos 4-2 and then won the second and deciding game in an NASL-style shootout from the 35-yard line. The shootout would come into play in the Tulsa vs Montreal series, deciding game one in Tulsa’s favor. Montreal took game two 1-0 at home, with the Roughnecks winning game three 3-0 on September 28 in front of their biggest crowd of the season. 18,090 showed up at Skelly Stadium to see their team advance to the league championship.
Soccer Bowl ’83
The NASL still put on a neutral site final for the last time in 1983. Vancouver hosted Soccer Bowl ’83 with Toronto advancing to play Tulsa. The Blizzard finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference with a 16-14 record. They beat Vancouver in the opening round and knocked out the Earthquakes in the semifinals. With Tulsa leading scorer Ron Futcher technically suspended for the Soccer Bowl due to card accumulation, the commissioner decided that cards reset for the final “for the sake of the sport,” delighting Tulsa and angering Toronto. It’s certainly worth asking now why the NASL didn’t have clear rules about card accumulation, but lots of things about American pro soccer in that era weren’t exactly clear. In front of an announced crowd of 53,326 that the league went ahead and declared a sellout, the Roughnecks played their game with their usual lineup in a 2-0 Soccer Bowl win. Njego Pesa scored in the 56th minute with Futcher doubling the lead in the 62nd. Barry Wallace assisted on both goals with Winston DuBose keeping the clean sheet. No member of the Roughnecks won any end of season awards and only Wallace made the All-Star team, this time as a first choice selection.
So how good were the ’83 Roughnecks?
Good enough to win a championship in a league still dominated by a discount version of the Cosmos. The NASL played to its last remaining strength that season, but New York was out of the playoffs at the earliest opportunity to a team that would go under later that year. The Roughnecks sent a mixed message about the state of the North American Soccer League in what would prove to be a pivotal season. They weren’t a glamorous major market team. They didn’t play an attractive style of soccer. Winning late in the season highlighted the weaknesses of two of the three divisions in a league that was no longer capable of retaining and replacing its biggest names. That was as true for teams as it was for players. 1983 was the last season for Montreal and Seattle in the NASL. Team America debuted and folded. Fort Lauderdale moved to Minnesota in the offseason. Then there was Tulsa, the league champions that two months later needed a radio phone-in fundraiser to make payroll. The ten teams that made it to the 1984 season averaged just under 11,000 fans with no clear path to a return to the glory days of the late 1970s. It would be the last season for the original NASL, with Tulsa missing the playoffs.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of the NASL