By J Hutcherson - On Tuesday, November 25 1980, three North American Soccer League franchises ceased operations. The Washington Diplomats, Houston Hurricanes, and Rochester Lancers dropped out of the league after suffering heavy losses on the field and in the balance sheets.
The next day Molson Breweries bought Philadelphia’s struggling NASL franchise, moved it to Montreal, and renamed it the Manic. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts for a team that had failed to impress in the league’s second attempt in the Philadelphia market, and one that came very close to joining the three teams that folded the day before.
Molson provided a lifeline to the ailing club, and the company had already established itself as capable of running a successful sports franchise. They owned the Montreal Canadians, one of the most storied organizations in the National Hockey League, and they used that model to setup the front office of the Manic.
They also had a good coach, perhaps the best in NASL history, who had already led two different teams to Soccer Bowl victories. Eddie Firmani won his first championship with Tampa Bay in 1975. Two years later he moved north, coaching the Cosmos to back-to-back NASL titles.
Firmani constructed his new side around 12 players he brought with him from Philadelphia, adding five young Canadians, and filling the roster with seasoned pros picked up from the dispersal draft of players from the three defunct clubs. He stressed defense, hoping to build an immediately competitive team capable of staying in games, if not winning them.
Firmani’s plan had the support of the club’s owners, and they were hopeful that the conservative style of play would keep crowds interested at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. But neither Firmani nor the ownership could have predicted the kind of support the Manic generated.
The Manic averaged 23,704 fans per game in 1981, even though they lost more games than they won. In fact, only Vancouver and the Cosmos did better at the gate that year. The move to Montreal had increased attendance by 19,000 and the sky was the limit if the Manic could put together a competitive team.
The next year they did just that, and for the first time in the history of the franchise they won more games than they lost, making it to the playoffs where they lost in the opening round to Fort Lauderdale. Though the average attendance for the 1982 season fell to 21,348 it was still the second highest in a season when the league average was just over 13,000.
On the field and in the stands, the Manic was a resounding success, but financially the club was in trouble.
Reports at the time claimed that in the two seasons the club had been in Montreal they had lost $7 million dollars. Manic president Roger Samson blamed the losses on the same general economic realties that most NASL clubs were facing. Bad stadium deals, high rents, no concessions (the Manic’s concessions were going directly to the Montreal Expos), a lack of a television deal, and the simple economic fact that even an average attendance of over 20,000 wasn’t enough to make a franchise solvent.
“We’re as far away from getting television contracts as we are to getting 35,000 fans a game who are requesting and demanding that the game be on TV. The only way to derive TV revenues is to have people interested in soccer. You have to say to them ‘if you want your team to survive, support it.’”
Samson and the Manic management’s initial answer to the mounting debts plaguing the club was expected, cutting some high player salaries and raising ticket prices for the 1983 season. But by early 1983, Molson had decided on something radically different for their struggling franchise.
With qualification for the 1986 World Cup looming, US Soccer and the NASL had decided to create a team of American players for the 1983 season. On paper, “Team America” would feature the league’s best American players, moved to an expansion franchise playing a regular NASL schedule in Washington DC. This would give the U.S. Soccer Federation the proving ground to select a national team capable of qualifying for the World Cup.
Deciding that they knew a good idea when they heard one, the Canadian Soccer Federation decided to do the same thing, converting the Montreal Manic into “Team Canada” for the 1984 season.
On February 7, 1983, Manic vice president Jacques Burelle announced that at the end of the 1983 season the Manic would release all of their non-Canadian players and become Team Canada. The team would be run by the Canadian Soccer Federation and sponsored by Molson. A Molson spokesperson stressed that the brewery was doing Canadian soccer a favor by converting the Manic, and to neglect to do so would allow the Americans to become the dominant force in CONCACAF.
In fact, Team America was an unmitigated disaster in 1983. The better American players had flatly refused to leave their current clubs, and the result was a poorly put together side that finished last in the league, averaged almost 13,000 a game at Washington’s RFK stadium, and disbanded at the end of the season.
Yet even the hapless Team America did better at the gate than the Montreal Manic. The prospect of supporting a club that would be transformed at the end of the season to “Team Canada” didn’t appeal to the Manic faithful, and they stayed away in droves. The Manic averaged a paltry 9,910 for home games and finished last in their division, yet in a lasting tribute to the ridiculous NASL playoff system, they still managed to make the playoffs.
The last gasp of the Montreal Manic came on September 13, 1983 when they eliminated the league-leading Cosmos from the playoffs. The final game in the history of the Manic organization would come in game three of the next round, where the Manic lost 3-0 to eventual champions Tulsa.
The Manic were without a doubt the most successful unsuccessful team in NASL history. After doing so much right, the owners were millions in debt and looking for a way out. Team Canada wasn’t it, and if general manager Jacques Burrelle had his way, the Manic would have taken the league with them. “I don’t believe in this league. I stopped believing in it last summer and the quicker it goes down the better. The officiating was poor and when you lose 14 franchises in three years that speaks for itself.”
The league would last one more season without the Manic, never reaching 1985, the year that original general manager Roger Samson expected the team to make the Soccer Bowl.