By J Hutcherson (May 12, 2020) US Soccer Players - In 1984 the North American Soccer League barely had the cash in hand to try to buy time. The league's survival was the overarching issue. A last gasp gambit to revitalize the league by having the United States host the 1986 World Cup failed the previous summer. With no answer for the flagging interest in the league except to spend money they didn't have, the NASL went on a hiatus prior to the 1985 season. It ended up being permanent. That final season in 1984 featured the last great NASL team. The Toronto Blizzard was creating a dynasty, building off of a modified template borrowed from the Cosmos.
Seattle, Team America, and Montreal joined the lengthy list of former NASL clubs following the 1983 season. Team America spent one regrettable season as the de facto USMNT playing at RFK Stadium. The Canadian Soccer Association confused a bad idea with a good one, with the Montreal Manic attempting to become Team Canada for 1984. Instead, Montreal was left without a team. Fort Lauderdale moved to Minnesota to complete another disaster of an offseason. The NASL was now a nine-team league with four teams in the Eastern Division and five in the West playing a 24-game regular season. They kept the same points system with 6 points for a win, 4 for winning the shootout, and a point per goal capped at three per game.
Clive Toye was one of the primary movers for creating the version of the Cosmos that everybody remembers. He left the league's marquee club for the Chicago Sting in 1978, joining the Blizzard in 1980. Variations of Toye's model worked in New York, Chicago, and now Toronto. A willingness to spend relative to the rest of the league was part of his process, but it didn't necessarily mean assembling a collection of world all-stars. Starting from the front, forward David Byrne would be good for 12 goals and 13 assists in 1984. Roberto Bettega would score 8 goals with 13 assists. John Paskin would add 9 goals with Ace Ntsoelengoe putting in 8 goals with 8 assists.
The balance to the attack and a steady defense in front of goalkeeper Paul Hammond created the best goal difference in the league at +13. Unfortunately for the Blizzard, goal difference was irrelevant in a league where scoring three points in every game carried more reward. Chicago had 44 bonus points to the Blizzard's 35 with Toronto the only team to make the playoffs with less than 40 bonus points. San Diego and Minnesota matched Toronto's best overall record with 14 wins, but the Strikers missed out on the playoffs entirely due to bonus points. Bonus points determined the playoff positions in the West as well. San Diego at 118, Vancouver at 117, and Minnesota at 115. How screwy was the bonus point system in 1984? The Golden Bay Earthquakes led the league with 49 bonus points and had the top two leading scorers. They ended up bottom of the Western Division with the worst record in the NASL. Take out the bonus points and Toronto wins the East with the Sting and Cosmos running through tiebreakers to decide who joins them. 1984 was the only season where the table was this tight. The bonus points for offense meant that the league would ride into the sunset insisting that points should count more than wins, but '84 highlighted the gimmicky nature of the table.
Late in the Eastern Division
All three of Clive Toye's current and former teams were in contention in the Eastern Division. Chicago beat the Cosmos 1-0 at home on the final day of the season with those seven points the difference between 1st and 3rd. Toronto had beaten the Sting 2-1 on August 22 with Byrne and Ntsoelengoe scoring. From there, the playoff chase got rocky. They beat Golden Bay in a shutout three days later, taking six points with the 2-2 regulation finish. A 5-0 loss at Tulsa on August 30 meant no points. They took eight at home in a 2-0 shutout of Minnesota on September 3. A 1-1 shutout loss to the Cosmos in front of an announced crowd of under 9,000 at Giants Stadium tilted the playoff picture against the Blizzard. They recovered by winning their regular season finale 1-0 at home against Tampa, but again failed to take the maximum of 9 points. With 54 points on offer over their final six games, Toronto got 30. Chicago played five times over that same stretch, taking 26 of the available 45 points. The Cosmos played seven times with 23 points from a maximum of 63. While Toronto may have squandered an opportunity to shut the door on Chicago, it was the Cosmos playing themselves into trouble. No points from their final three games sunk their season.
Two out of three in '84
Four teams advancing meant the 1984 NASL playoffs started in the semifinal round. Toronto took care of San Diego 2-1 on the road and 1-0 at home to win the best of three series without needing a third game. Chicago ran into trouble with Vancouver, losing the opener 1-0 in overtime before recovering with a 3-1 win in game two and a 4-3 win in the series decider. The last neutral site Soccer Bowl had happened the previous season. Now, home-field advantage was in play over a three-game series with Chicago hosting games one and three. As was the norm with the Sting, they had switched baseball stadiums for the postseason moving to Comiskey Park from Wrigley Field. The switch in venue didn't hurt Chicago. On October 1, the series opened with Bruce Wilson putting Toronto up in the 16th minute. Patricio Margetic equalized for the Sting in the 71st with Manny Rojas scoring in the 73rd. Advantage Chicago, with game two at Varsity Field on October 3. The quick turnaround didn't favor the home side. This time it was Chicago taking the early lead. Mark Simanton scored in the 17th minute with Margetic making it 2-0 in the 68th. Toronto fought back with goals from John Paskin in the 71st and Bettega in the 73rd. Rojas would pick up the assist on Margetic's winner in the 82nd minute. Chicago won the Eastern Division and Soccer Bowl Series '84, shutting the door on the NASL in the process. That final series drew announced attendances of 8,352 in Chicago and 16,842 in Toronto. To put that into a perhaps unnecessary perspective, 74,901 people attended SoccerBowl '78 at Giants Stadium. The combined attendance for all seven playoff games in 1984 was less than that.
So how good was the '84 Blizzard?
Or, why aren't we talking about the '84 Sting? With all fairness to the champions, Toronto was the only team in the NASL pointing towards a salvageable future. Toye himself had questioned that future earlier in the season, asking why he and others put in the effort in the face of an unmistakable lack of interest from media and fans. Just making it through the 1984 season was an economic struggle for some clubs. After the season, the Sting and the Cosmos joined two other NASL teams in leaving for the Major Indoor Soccer League. With the 1985 season in the balance, it was the Blizzard attempting to keep the NASL in business. With Toye now acting commissioner, it was the Blizzard model trying to keep topflight North American outdoor soccer afloat. What Toye built with the Blizzard was a team in need of a better league. The NASL never favored balance, a basic route to success in pretty much any other league in the world. Even then, Toronto lost championships in 1983 and '84 playing their game their way. Instead of playing for the bounty of bonus points, they insisted on a style that wouldn't have looked out of place in other leagues. That's a separation from what the NASL offered as the league's numbers declined in the 80s. If you want a clear picture of what the NASL might have become had it survived, Toronto was that model.
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 '81 Chicago Sting?
- How good was the '98 Chicago Fire?
- How good were the '83 Tulsa Roughnecks?
- How good was Aston Villa in 1981-82?
Logo courtesy of the Toronto Blizzard