By J Hutcherson (May 5, 2020) US Soccer Players - The 1981 season was pivotal in the story of the original North American Soccer League. After rampant expansion in the back half of the 1970s, the league began to shed teams. The new normal for the upstart NASL was trying to preserve what it had rather than adding more. The 1980 season was the last at 24 teams. They would start 1981 with 21 teams and lose seven more after the season concluded. There's a way of looking at 1981 as the last season of what the league's architects envisioned. Amid this disruption, the Chicago Sting would emerge as champions. They got there by navigating a changing league where stability was an accomplishment. Does that mean that they were any good?
Creating a national footprint is an issue for any North American sports league. By name and design, the NASL wanted teams in the United States and Canada, the better to create a marketplace for broadcast rights and sponsorship on top of their live audiences. Searching for markets that worked was a significant part of the story for this league. By 1981, it was part of a survival strategy. With the global economy falling into recession, it was a tough time across the board much less for what was still a fledgling pro sports league. The NASL grew to 24 teams in 1978, expanding by six teams that season while not addressing the issue with teams moving every season from 1976 until 1980. The league stayed at 24 teams through 1980, but the relocations of clubs predicted what was to come. Prior to the 1981 season, the NASL lost Washington, Houston, and Rochester. That brief period of teams staying in place also ended. Philadelphia moved to Montreal, New England to Jacksonville, Detroit to Washington, and Memphis to Calgary. The NASL was now a 21-team league divided into five divisions.
Karl-Heinz Granitza is the player usually associated with the Sting. He was a classic 70's maverick moving into the 80s. Granitza earned his money by scoring the goal that mattered. That got him the spotlight, but that wasn't the full story in Chicago in 1981. Under coach Willy Roy, the Sting had what would eventually look like a loaded lineup. Arno Steffenhagen and Pato Margetic were the other parts of the Chicago attack. Granitza was good for 19 goals and 17 assists. Steffenhagen has 17 goals with 10 assists while Margetic scored eight with 17 assists. Frantz Mathieu put together an All-Star season in defense. Dave Huson was a utility player who ended up making 31 appearances that season with four goals and four assists. Where things got interesting was in goal. Phil Parkes played 10 times, Paul Coffee in 12, and Dieter Ferner in 13 with home games in the not as friendly for soccer confines of Wrigley Field.
Playing for more points in the NASL
The NASL's incentivized points system was in place in 1981. A win was worth 6 points, 4 points for winning the shootout, and a point per goal capped at three per game. By design, this was an offensive league and Chicago set itself up to take full advantage. They started the season with a 3-2 home win over Tulsa, taking the maximum 9 points. They would do the same against Tampa on May 3, the start of a six-game winning streak where they took the maximum 9 points from five of those games. That helped offset a slump in June. The Sting lost four out of five games from the 10 through the 23. The one game they won during that losing streak, at home against Portland on the 20, they took maximum points. The losing streak ended in the game of the season for the Sting, a 5-5 shutout win at home over the Cosmos. Chicago midfielder Ingo Peter scored two of his eight goals that season in that game, drawing an announced crowd of over 35k to Wrigley Field.
12 out of 14
That 10-goal thriller against the Cosmos on June 28 started an eight-game winning streak to see out July. Losing two out of three to begin their August schedule, the Sting ran the table winning their final three games. That included dropping seven goals on Minnesota in a 7-2 home win on August 15. Steffenhagen had a hat-trick in that game with Granitza scoring twice. In the two shutout wins over that run, the Sting picked up two bonus points per goals at Washington on August 5 and all three in their 4-4 home draw at Tulsa to end the regular season. Chicago won the Central Division by 32 points, figuring out early to take full advantage of the goals bonus. Their 195 points were second to the Cosmos at an even 200. Chicago had the lead over the Cosmos in goals scored, 84 to 80.
With the Cosmos getting the bye for winning the regular season, Chicago entered as the top seed in the first round. That meant a meeting with the Sounders, 4th-place in the Northwest Division. The playoffs that year were best of three series with the NASL giving up on the mini-game. Baseball complicated things for both teams. In theory, the higher seed hosted games two and three. In practice, Chicago won game one 3-2 at home. Baseball interfered again, with the Sting moving to Comiskey Park for that game. Seattle took game two 2-0 at home. The Sting won the decider 3-2 at Wrigley Field on August 30, one of the four higher seeds to advance. Montreal was one of those teams to knockout a higher seed, beating the LA Aztecs and setting up a Sting vs Manic quarterfinal. That series also went three games, with Montreal winning 3-2 at home to open the series. Chicago responded with a 4-2 win at Comiskey Park and another 4-2 win at Wrigley Field. Western Division champions and 4th-seed San Diego knocked out Portland and Jacksonville to set up a semifinal with Chicago. San Diego took game one 2-1 at home. Playing both of their games at Comiskey Park, Chicago won 2-1 to even the series. The decider ended scoreless in regulation with Chicago advancing 3-2 on a shutout in front of almost 40,000 fans. That was more than the Cosmos got during their playoff run and more than the announced attendance for the final. It was also well above the Sting's average of just under 13k that season.
Soccer Bowl '81
The Sting's high powered offense slowed in the playoffs, and it stalled in the Soccer Bowl. Fortunately, so did the equally potent Cosmos. The two played out a 0-0 draw to what we can only assume was the delight of the 36,971 in attendance at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. Chicago took the title 2-1 in the shootout with Granitza and Rudy Glenn scoring. League MVP Giorgio Chinaglia failed to convert for the Cosmos. Chicago's Dieter Ferner made three saves in regulation and overtime with his Cosmos counterpart Hubert Birkenmeier making four. Sting defender Frantz Mathieu got the nod for Soccer Bowl MVP. Granitza kept right on going, scoring 35 goals in the 1981-82 indoor season with the Sting finishing with the best record before losing in the opening round of the playoffs to Tulsa.
So how good was the '81 Sting?
In a season where the NASL looked shakier than it had since before the expansion era, the Sting figured out its league. If the table overvalues goals by giving them bonus points, make sure you're picking up those points. If it's goalkeeper by committee, make sure the defender in front of him is a first team All-Star. Chicago checked the boxes and put together a squad that beat the Cosmos. Swap the final for that 5-5 game on June 28, and it's the best of the Soccer Bowls. There's no reason for that to make any difference. The '81 Sting easily slots in behind a couple of versions of the Cosmos at the top of the list of greatest teams in NASL history.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- How good was the '98 Chicago Fire?
- How good were the '83 Tulsa Roughnecks?
- How good was Aston Villa in 1981-82?
- How good was the '96 Mutiny?
Logo courtesy of the Chicago Sting